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Raising health and air quality concerns in Texas’ fracking frontier

February 19, 2014 at 6:33 PM EDT
As shale and natural gas fracking booms in South Texas, a new report raises unsettling concerns about possible related health risks and poor air quality. The Center for Public Integrity collaborated with others in examining nearly 300 complaints filed by residents. Jim Morris, a journalist who contributed to the report, joins Judy Woodruff to detail the findings and respond to the industry’s rejection.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, as shale and natural gas fracking booms in Texas, there are new questions about its possible connection with air quality and health problems.

That’s the focus of a new report jointly done by the Center for Public Integrity, Inside Climate News, and The Weather Channel. It specifically looked at drilling in a huge area known as the Eagle Ford Shale Play, where, as you can see, the oil wells are in green dots, gas wells in red.

It examined almost 300 health complaints in the region potentially linked to fracking. The industry is disputing the report.

Jim Morris is one of the journalists who worked on it for the Center for Public Integrity.

Welcome to the program.

JIM MORRIS, Center for Public Integrity: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just a little bit of background. How much drilling of this kind is going on in this South Texas area and why did you decide to look at the air quality issue?

JIM MORRIS: There are about 8,000 wells that have already been drilled in the Eagle Ford Shale, which is about 20,000 square miles. Another 5,000 or so have been permitted or online.

We chose to look at the Eagle Ford specifically because it has not been part of the national conversation on fracking. And we looked at air because so much focus has been put understandably on contaminated water that we felt it was time to look at air pollution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what were your main findings?

JIM MORRIS: The main findings were that there are all manner of toxic chemicals that are associated with oil and gas production that appear to be making people sick, benzene, which can cause cancer, sulfur dioxide, which causes severe lung problems, hydrogen sulfide, which can cause a variety of chronic conditions and also it can be lethal in high enough doses.

All this comes out during drilling, processing. It even comes out of pipelines.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you — it is emitted, and you said it can cause problems. Is it causing problems?

JIM MORRIS: Well, we looked at — first of all, not enough study has been done and not enough monitoring has been done. And I can come back to that.

But we looked at nearly 300 complaints filed by residents of the Eagle Ford Shale with the state of Texas. And the vast majority of those had to do with health problems that appear to be related to air emissions, nausea, chronic headaches, nosebleeds, severe asthma attacks. Those symptoms are consistent with symptoms we have seen from other shale drilling areas, somewhat older plays, as in Pennsylvania, for example.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So is there a proven connection between the chemicals that you are describing and what these people are complaining about?

JIM MORRIS: Well, yes, the science certainly shows that a number of these chemicals cause the sorts of conditions these people are complaining about.

Now, if you are talking about the relationship between benzene and leukemia, obviously, that’s not something you are going to see for many, many years. And, again, not enough study has been done and not enough monitoring of the air is being done by the state of Texas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me just read to you what the industry is saying back. As we reported a moment ago, they’re rejecting this.

I’m just going to read — this is from the Independent Petroleum Association of America. They say, in part — quote — “After eight months of research, the best this team could come up with was a rehash of what some anti-fracking activists claimed last year and a couple of old regulatory memos which they completely misread.”

Now, that’s just part of what they say.


The industry wasn’t very happy that we were down there. And, in fact, the industry — neither the industry nor the regulatory agency in Texas, which is the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, would sit down with us in Austin or talk to us in the field when we were down in the Eagle Ford. We made eight trips down there. So I would dispute his characterization.

And I would say that we looked at permits, very complex stacks of paper on air permits, for example, did the numbers, ran all this by experts, by scientific experts, by some of the state’s own permitting engineers. So, to say this is some sort of a rehash of anti-fracking propaganda is just — is just silly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What they go on to say is, “What the report largely ignored is that tens of thousands of families in the Eagle Ford are,” in their words, “living better lives because of oil and gas development.

JIM MORRIS: You know, I don’t know that they can necessarily back that up.

I mean, we did report, for example, that the tax base in Karnes County, Texas, which was the sort of focal point of our reporting, increased 28-fold between 2008 and 2013. We quoted the county judge who said this is the greatest things that’s ever happened to her county. So we certainly acknowledge that there are economic benefits.

But our focus was the environment and specifically air pollution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, finally, the other thing they say is that the state regulators are now in the process of changing the rules to deal with health concerns. And they’re saying that they have already responded to complaints, that the industry is responding to this.

JIM MORRIS: Well, let me — I don’t know how the industry has responded. Let me tell you briefly how the state has responded.

Of the 300 complaints, they found 164 violations. Only two fines were levied by the state for those 164 violations.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just quickly, where do you go from here with this?

JIM MORRIS: We’re going to be following it up aggressively.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Jim Morris with the Center for Public Integrity, we thank you.

JIM MORRIS: Thank you.