While the South Texas oil boom has meant a flood of cash and people to formerly impoverished communities, there have also been serious repercussions — namely, rampant air pollution. Jim Morris of the Center for Public Integrity explains the boom's environmental effects.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Yesterday on the program we heard about the oil boom in South Texas along the Eagle Ford Shale. The drilling and fracking have brought an influx of industry and cash to formerly impoverished communities.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's progress. It has provided opportunity beyond belief, beyond what anybody could've imagined.
BLOCK: But there's a serious environmental and health toll as well, according to an investigative team that looked into pollution from the boom. The reporters decided to focus not on water pollution but on what they consider an equally serious problem that gets less attention: air pollution. Jim Morris is senior investigative reporter with the Center for Public Integrity and he led the eight-month investigation along with InsideClimate news and the Weather Channel. Morris describes the emissions as a toxic soup of chemicals being released into the air day in and day out along the Eagle Ford Shale.
JIM MORRIS: It's a combination of what's called volatile organic compounds and that's carcinogens like benzene would be an example. Formaldehyde would be another. There's a long list of these chemicals. On top of that you've got sulphur dioxide, which is a component of smog. It's a respiratory irritant so people who already have or are prone to asthma for example, if they're exposed to sulphur dioxide it gets immeasurably worse.
BLOCK: And when you think about the health effects of these emissions, let's listen to voices of three people who live in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale. They're from Karnes County. These are people you interviewed for a video report that you produced with the Weather Channel and InsideClimate News.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO INTERVIEW)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: For myself I've experienced a lot of difficulty with my breathing.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: I used to come out here this very park before and run literally about four or five miles a day without any problems. Now I rarely get a mile off before I start choking. It's just something heavier with the air.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I have two-and-a-half acres and I can't bring my grandchild out here to enjoy it because I'm afraid for his health.
BLOCK: Jim Morris, how common were these complaints and is there medical evidence to back up what they're saying?
MORRIS: The complaints we heard were very common. We reviewed about 300 complaints that had been filed by citizens of the Eagle Ford with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and just saw a lot of common threads, headaches, nausea, breathing difficulties, nosebleeds. And when you look at the science on some of the chemicals that are coming out of these operations, you see those are the very symptoms that would be expected to be associated with emissions from the oil and gas industry.
BLOCK: Let's talk about the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, TCEQ, which is in charge of monitoring most air emissions. What's their track record?
MORRIS: The TCEQ's track record is not good either in terms of monitoring for toxics in the air - they've only got five permanent monitors in the entire Eagle Ford Shale, which is 20,000 square miles, twice the size of the State of Massachusetts.
BLOCK: And by monitor you mean an actual physical station (unintelligible)...
MORRIS: Physical station. We saw one in Floresville, Texas, which is on the sort of northern fringe of the shale play. And the other four are down on the border around Laredo. And so they don't have these permanent monitors in places where there's heavy drilling. So the record is not good in that regard. TCEQ's record on enforcement is not good either. We looked at nearly 300 complaints that have been filed by residents of the Eagle Ford. And there were 164 violations that were documented by the TCEQ as a result of those complaints.
So they did find problems, but then we found that out of those 164 violations there were only two fines levied, the biggest of which was about $14,000. So it's not much of a stretch to see why companies don't really take that agency very seriously.
BLOCK: When you confronted folks from the oil industry with your reporting and said, look we're hearing all these complaints about health effects from air pollution emissions, from oil production facilities, what did they say? What's the response from the oil industry to this?
MORRIS: Well, the first problem we had was getting somebody to respond. We had a heck of a time when we were in Texas. And between us and InsideClimate News and the Weather Channel we made, I want to say, eight separate trips down there.
So there were plenty of opportunities to do on-the-ground, face-to-face, in some cases on-camera interviews with representatives of some of the big oil companies in the Eagle Ford, like Marathon Oil for example or Conoco Philips. And they all declined. They didn't want to talk to us. A couple of them answered questions in writing.
We did do an interview with a gentleman here in Washington named Steve Everley who's with a group called Energy in Depth. And his response was, there's no evidence that these emissions are causing any harm. The problem is, a lot of the concern associated with chemicals like benzene, you know, if it's a carcinogen you're not going to see the problem right away. You're going to see it 10, 20, 30 years down the road.
BLOCK: There is one other aspect too that's in your reporting which is no surprise, the oil and gas industry, especially in Texas, is immensely politically powerful.
MORRIS: I think what surprised us is that it's even more powerful than we realized. We did an analysis as part of our reporting and found legislators or their spouses had direct financial interest in the Eagle Ford. In other words, either got royalties from or held stock in companies that were actively drilling in the Eagle Ford Shale.
BLOCK: Why doesn't the federal Environmental Protection Agency step in if there are concerns that the state isn't doing its job in Texas on monitoring air pollution? What about the EPA?
MORRIS: That is a very good question and it's one that we're going to be asking in some of our follow-up stories. I mean, the states are responsible for enforcing the Federal Clean Air Act with the EPA as a supposed backstop. But there's really no evidence that the EPA has stepped in in Texas or will step in. And so that's a question we're going to be asking, I hope of the regional EPA administrator in the very near future.
BLOCK: Jim Morris, Thanks for coming in.
MORRIS: Thank you.
BLOCK: Jim Morris with the Center for Public Integrity. He led an eight-month investigation looking into air pollution from the Eagle Ford Shale. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.