The thing about air pollution is it doesn't heed county lines or city limits signs. Neither did the shale gas boom, until it moved into the cities and suburbs, where gas producers found themselves navigating a loud, patchwork quilt of municipal regulations that varied from town to town.
It happened in affluent Southlake, when two major gas producers simply pulled up stakes, cut their losses and left. But as residents watched the industry retreat from the suburb, another derrick rose just beyond its city limits in neighboring Colleyville. It just so happened it would center on a well drilled on property owned by Trinity Broadcasting Network, the religious channel that is home to Pat Robertson, Jan Crouch's eyelashes, the "prosperity gospel" and some allegedly lavish, fraudulent expenditures (including a $100,000 motor home for family dogs).
As Southlake denizens like Kevin Townson saw it, a new front had opened in an ongoing war to protect themselves and their children from the potentially hazardous emissions associated with the fracking process. That month, they pooled their money together and bought some summa canisters, devices used to draw air samples for monitoring. They placed two in Southlake and the third in Colleyville, all 1,100- to 1,700-feet from the padsite leased by Titan Operating. When the results came back from the lab, they got Wilma Subra, a chemist and MacArthur Genius Grant fellow from Louisiana, to make sense of the numbers.
According to her report, the canisters found benzene, a known carcinogen, above allowable long-term exposure levels set by the state. It also identified hydrogen disulfide, a neurotoxin, and naphthalene, a suspected carcinogen, above long-term safe exposure levels.
"The citizens were supposedly informed there would be no emissions from the [Titan] fracking job," Subra tells Unfair Park. "So, they obtained certified canisters and tested themselves and determined there were these emissions that violated [Texas Commission on Environmental Quality] short-term and long-term standards."
The residents were alarmed and sent their results to the media last week, as well as to the city of Colleyville. The city, though, had reached its own conclusions by then. Its environmental consultant found some of the same toxic compounds, although his report indicated they were below harmful levels. None of them, he said, appeared to be blowing offsite into the surrounding neighborhoods. Nevertheless, in a report released Thursday, consultant Kenneth Tramm of Fort Worth-based Modern Geosciences said it was enough to prompt the city to "require additional emissions reduction efforts" from Titan going forward.
In fact, for the first time since fracking transformed the energy landscape in this country, the Obama administration last week created regulations to control the emissions from the industry, particularly during "flowback" operations, in which huge quantities of fracking fluid and deep subsurface water surge to the surface. That water is laced with natural gas that is released in into the air. Until now, it's been a regulatory loophole through which an entire industry has slipped, and one that is singular to hydraulic fracturing.
Unfair Park spoke with Tramm about the results for the Colleyville site. "This is the most monitored site I've seen in North Texas," he said. But he was quick to add that he could never begrudge the neighbors their fears.
Still, he added, the compounds could have come from any number of sources, including the diesel generators running all day at the drill site. That may be cold comfort to undiscriminating lungs, but the data doesn't match their conclusions, he said. For example, the residents' report identifies benzene detected above safe long-term exposure levels. The sampling performed, though, wasn't long term. "This is a short-term sample and a short-term emission," Tramm said. "If we set up a monitor in a backyard, similar to what TCEQ does, and those are monitored every hour throughout the year, that's the kind of sampling you'd have to do."
Simply put, Tramm believes the residents don't have enough information.
In response, Subra noted that the canister that identified the highest benzene levels was placed the furthest away, monitoring air quality there for 12 hours. "In fact, there was benzene detected in all three samples the citizens collected."
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Yet the disparity in results -- and their interpretation -- is typical of drilling in shale formations where little if any consensus exists about whether fracking contaminates air or water. One regulator's unacceptable risk is within another's safe exposure limits.
That doesn't mean there was nothing coming from the Titan site. "[Titan] did not want me on this padsite," Tramm said, "and did not make it easy for me to set up my stuff." They may have had reason. Though Tramm believes hazardous compounds weren't wafting into the surrounding neighborhoods, he still detected volatile organic compounds like benzene emanating mostly from open tanks filed with flowback, the poisonous mixture of heavy-metal laced water from deep underground, fracking fluid and natural gas liquids. Oddly enough, the benzene levels were highest at night, he said, when production operations were shut down and the wind was calm, allowing the fumes to accumulate.
But: "Go to your gas station where they sell diesel and you'll be inhaling way more (volatile organic compounds)."
It's possible that the relatively well-to-do citizens of Colleyville and Southlake will make a good neighbor out of this fracking site yet. But like Tramm says, context counts. And so does scrutiny.