FORT WORTH - Drilling began to take off in the Barnett Shale around 2002, which was when there were nearly 2,000 gas wells.

Since then, that number has grown to more than 12,000.?So, many might wonder which government agency has been testing the air at each of those sites to check for any potentially harmful elements in the air. The answer is no one.

Now, for the first time, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality is conducting a Barnett Shale air quality study. The results have surprised the highest levels of the commission.

News 8 learned the TCEQ found something potentially hazardous in the air near some natural gas facilities during testing conducted around the Barnett Shale. Benzene, a cancer-causing, dangerous toxin, was discovered to be in the air.

"Long-term exposures to a high enough level of benzene can lead to cancers, leukemia specifically," said Dr. Michael Honeycutt.

Honeycutt heads TCEQ's toxicology department and is involved in overseeing the testing.

"Short term, we are seeing some high levels that probably will exceed the short term ESL," he said.

That means they may exceed the commission's benchmark for concern. Because of the find, long term testing will be done.

TCEQ is still working to determine who runs the facilities associated with the Benzene results and where they're located. But, the commission isn't waiting to act. They plan to hand over the results to the Environmental Protection Agency.

"Right now, as we are speaking,?EPA is looking at regulations for those facilities," Honeycutt said. "They need the data as soon as we can generate it."

Dr. Al Armendariz, a Southern Methodist University?researcher and environmental engineer, has researched emissions in the Barnett Shale.? He is not surprised by TCEQ's findings.

"What I don't think anybody really knows yet is are the levels of these compounds in?Fort Worth high enough and have they been in the air long enough to be a potential cancer risk?" he said.

Tarrant County goat farmer Deborah Rogers was so upset about the lack of testing around natural gas facilities in the Barnett Shale that she began to raise money for a private air quality study to be conducted by Armendariz.

"No one has a clue what's coming out of them," she said.

TCEQ said the turning point for the study currently under way came with the purchase of infrared cameras that can pinpoint emissions. In August, the agency began its first Barnett Shale air quality study, testing air samples near natural gas operations in Tarrant, Wise, Denton, Parker and Johnson counties.

"It's been a progression of technology and a learning process, not only for our agency, but?the industry as a whole," Honeycutt said.

Energy companies are following the TCEQ study closely. Chesapeake Energy's vice president of regulatory affairs, Paul Hagemeier, said benzene can be found in tanks filled with liquid separated from natural gas, but said "it is so small that it really shouldn't matter."

Gas in the Barnett Shale contains different amounts of benzene and other associated chemicals when it's produced. Chesapeake said the gas it produces in parts of Johnson, Tarrant and western Dallas is very dry, meaning it doesn't have significant levels of those chemicals and virtually no benzene.?The prevalence of dry gas across the Barnett Shale is one reason TCEQ's results are so surprising, Honeycutt said.

"Because of the camera, we have found recently these emissions and then done some subsequent sampling and?realized, 'Oh, it does contain more benzene than we thought it did,'" he said.

Drillers, including Chesapeake and a Devon Energy spokesman, said they have long made emission capturing a priority by making sure pipes are ready at most wells from the beginning to capture the first emissions before they spew into the air. They also recapture emissions off of tanks when they notice a problem.

"The good part of it is we're not putting emissions into the atmosphere, but we're also selling natural gas, which we're in the business to do," said Jay Ewing, a Devon Energy spokesman.

Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, is watching the testing closely as well. He has historically advocated greater regulation of the natural gas industry, including regulation of emissions.

"We all should be concerned about the benzene levels and we all should?recognize we need to continue testing," he said. "We need to increase our monitoring."

Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief is also calling for more testing. He has expressed concern about the possible long term effects of benzene.

"Identifying the impacts of gas drilling on our neighborhoods and to the health and safety of our citizens remains a top priority," he wrote in a statement. "We are waiting to hear the final results and any further guidance from TCEQ."

TCEQ is expected to issue a report on its findings by the end of the year.


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