The Reality of Life on Black Cloud Nine: Martyrs of Eagle Ford Shale

What used to be the quintessence of the Wild West prairie stretch wide across the South Texas horizon has become a foggy, black Petri dish as a result of the oil and gas drilling industry boom on the Eagle Ford Shale formation. The play stretches 400 miles long and 50 miles wide containing several rural counties, the residents of which are desperately grasping for an explanation of why and how their air has become so dense with emissions.

The Center for Public Integrity joined with InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel to release an in-depth report as to the current state of these and other residents living on top of valuable formations. Their findings uncover the sobering lack of empathy and motivation from authorities trusted with the public health of these communities. An industry which is attributed with enormous improvements to the state economy is slowly killing the quiet communities that define Small Town USA within its borders and no one is listening to their pleas for justice.

The report uncovers disconcerting results for a number of questions concerning this industry boom. Since 2008, the Eagle Ford Shale play has experienced exponential activity concerning the oil and gas industry. More than 7,000 wells have been drilled into sedimentary rock to extract oil and gas while another 5,500 have received approval for the same. There are thousands of production facilities scattered across the region, providing employment and livelihood for many in the area. The activity has made this area one of the most active drilling sites in the country. Industry leaders in the area have been backed by state of officials has their operations have created millions of jobs for the people of Texas. Since the drilling expeditions took off, Eagle Ford Shale has become virtually covered in oil and gas well or storage sites.

Despite competing data from interest groups on both sides of the debates, there is no denying the presence of emission from these operations. Examination of air permits for three oil and gas production facilities in Karnes County, Texas reveal troubling truths about what the people of those areas are forced to breathe on a daily basis. The sites, combined, have permission of the state to emit:

  • 189 tons of volatile organic compounds (VOC)
  • 142 tons of nitrogen oxides
  • 95 tons of carbon monoxide
  • 19 tons of sulfur dioxide
  • 8 tons of particulate matter
  • 0.31 tons of hydrogen sulfide

These are the numbers from just three facilities in the locality. Texas' Eagle Ford Shale is home to thousands of these production sites with permission to emit tons of chemicals into the air every year. These numbers also do not include effects of what local authorities refer to as "emission events," release of unauthorized emissions due to a mechanical failure or leak on one of the sites. The concern for the people of the area starts with the fact that their situation is highly suppressed and hidden from the eye of public attention. To put things in perspective, the numbers concerning VOC emissions discussed for the three sites above are 12 percent higher than what Valero's Houston Oil Refinery site puts out every year.

Gasping for Air & Answers

The article released centers on the heartbreaking stories of several families whose lives have been and are being devastated by this industry. These antidotes serve as sobering illustrations of the broader reach of emissions and contaminants released daily by oil wells, gas wells, and drilling operations. These families and their neighbors find themselves facing an impossible dichotomy: to stay quiet and continue breathing the air or to go up against billion-dollar oil giants backed by both state and local agencies. Families mentioned in these stories have all filed individual complaints with the agencies they hoped would be on their side.

They were led to take action after suffering a wide range of various yet similar symptoms including:

  • Headaches—some report intensity to the point of temporary blindness
  • Respiratory problems & intense asthma
  • Nausea
  • Nosebleeds
  • Body Rashes

The symptoms described by the people of Eagle Rock echo complaints from other Shale communities around the country, emphasizing the need for action from someone who can help. Furthermore, these are only immediate effects of the emissions. With the presence of contaminants like benzene, a known carcinogen, in the air, residents stand at higher risks of disease and cancer—although oil industry interest groups insist on the contrary.

One family mentioned in the article lost six of their treasured dogs to mysterious deaths immediately following the installation of oil drills within their neighborhood. As farmers, they are increasingly concerned about how the air quality and water quality will affect their integrity as organic produce providers. Another couple can no longer enjoy watching the sunset as the horizon is covered in a black layer and the stench in the air drives the wife to her breathing machine to relieve her intense asthma symptoms.

A Blind Eye to the Black Smoke & A Deaf Ear to the Deafening Cries

Residents of Eagle Ford communities have not been silent since their homes have been ravaged by the oil industry. Many complaints are filed yearly concerning emission events, injuries, and generally hazardous air conditions. After one resident complained to the TCEQ, it was found that Marathon Oil facilities near their home were giving off emission levels that were so high, the investigators "evacuated the area quickly to prevent exposure." The $25 billion Houston-based company suffered no consequences after reporting that the problem had been fixed. That same year, Marathon waited three months to issue a report of an emission incident at its Sugarhorn plant that resulted in the release of 26,000 pounds of VOCs over a span of 12 hours—demonstrating the inadequacy of the weak, trust-based enforcement system in place.

Complaints are made and citations are even filed but fines for operators in Eagle Ford who are found to violate state regulations seldom reach the maximum amount of a mere $25,000—again, a weak reprimand for corporations gaining millions of dollars every year from these same operations. Only 117 citations were issued statewide from January 2012 to October 2013, resulting in fines less than the maximum threshold—only two of those fines were issued to operators in Eagle Ford and both were for less than $15,000.

Even when found in the wrong, these companies maintain the public stance that their operations are not a harm to the community. One complaint filed by a La Salle County resident led to the discovery of high levels of hydrogen sulfide which was being released into local air. Even the investigators responding to the complaints suffered effects of the odor. Swift Energy, the company owning the facility, was cited for discharging contaminants "at such concentration and of such duration" as to harm the quality of life. Swift, which experienced a net income of more than $20 million that year, refused to acknowledge it was in the wrong and was slapped with a simple fine of just $14,250.

These are only two out of hundreds of complaints that are filed and forgotten in and around Eagle Ford every year. Regulations of the industry are inadequate and left that was intentionally. Those regulations and enforcements in place are nowhere near effective enough to incentivize companies to start behaving.

Empathy, Effort, and Enforcement: No Where to Be Found

Regulation of the oil and gas industry falls to the hands of individual states, like many other commercial industries. Unfortunately, this results in drastic variations of air quality standards between states and Texas, being the center of activity, is notorious for low standards, ambiguous regulation, and weak enforcement. This is graphically demonstrated by what the state has done, or rather has not done, to afford regard and protection for the people of Eagle Rock. While the Barnett shale was quickly addressed due to loud cries from suburban communities and public media, Eagle Rock's cries are muffled beneath a black, oily pillow that is the oil and gas extraction prosperity on its land.

The current situation is bleak. The Center for Public Integrity, Inside Climate News, and The Weather Channel released their findings in the article much to the dismay of any reader.

  • The state's monitoring system is all but non-existent. Flaws in the system have resulted in almost complete ignorance of how bad the situation in Eagle Ford has become for residents.
  • As opposed to the Barnett Shale region near Fort Worth, Eagle Ford received no air quality protections from the state, with only five permanent air monitors installed at the very outskirts of the 20,000 square-mile region.
  • Thousands of the production facilities in Eagle Rock are allowed to self-audit emissions. They have no obligation to report to the state at the agency in charge of air emission regulation, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is not even away of many of them existing.
  • Oil companies that break whatever laws do provide protection for the air quality are seldom punished. Out of almost 300 complaints filed concerning the oil and gas industry and 164 documented violations in Eagle Ford, only two resulted in fines. The largest fine was just under $15,000, a slap on the wrist for the multi-million dollar companies spearheading these operations.
  • Texas state legislature voted to cut the State's budget for air quality monitoring by one third. The budget allocated to the TCEQ was $555 million when the Eagle Ford boom started up in 2008 and was slashed down to $372 million for the 2014 fiscal year. Finances allocated to air monitoring equipment have been cut as well.

Examination of the state's policies on enforcement and regulation of the gas and oil industry, especially in Eagle Ford, reveal what seems to be a weak, honor-based system. Not only is there a lack of resources to implement changes to protect residents of these communities, but there is no will from anyone in a place of influence to find a solution. State agencies and legislative figures, saturated in oil money, operate on policies and practices that do more to protect the industry rather than the public.

While environmental protection interest figures are beginning to speak up about this injustice, the quiet residents of Eagle Ford's communities are slowly losing hope for a favorable option. Living conditions have turned their homes from family treasures into black prisons that would not sell without great difficulty even if they wanted to leave. They are left with the decision of whether to stay and accept their disposition as collateral damage for what many consider the "greater good" or to relinquish their home to the oil giants that have invaded and flee the black smoke that infiltrated their skies.

To learn more about the situation in Texas and the nationwide oil and gas industry, read the full story on Eagle Ford Shale here.

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