SAN ANTONIO — The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality says it plans to add a new air monitor in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale play to measure the effect of pollution from oil and gas sites that are spreading across South Texas.
The move comes after Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff criticized the agency’s attempts to curb air pollution in the shale region south and east of San Antonio.
In a Sept. 2 letter to TCEQ Chairman Bryan Shaw, Wolff noted that no monitoring sites were based close to the frenetic drilling activity in the shale region, and he cited a yearlong investigation by the San Antonio Express-News that showed that natural gas flares had pumped out more air pollution than all six oil refineries in Corpus Christi.
Wolff also noted that the Alamo Area Council of Governments was studying how air pollutants from the Eagle Ford could drift into Bexar County and potentially increase summer ozone levels. Higher levels could trigger stricter regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The TCEQ had stated it had no plans to install more monitors in the Eagle Ford. But Shaw responded to Wolff in a letter dated Thursday and said more monitoring was on the way — and for the first time, at least one site will be located near major oil and gas activity.
“In response to rapid development of the Eagle Ford Shale area, TCEQ began plans to install additional fixed-site volatile organic compound monitors to help address questions about air emissions and air quality in the region,” Shaw wrote. An agency spokesman said Monday that the plans were in the works for “well over a year.”
Volatile organic compounds, also known as VOCs, include a variety of compounds that can be carcinogenic or precursors to ground-level ozone.
The new monitoring site will be in Karnes County, Shaw wrote, although a specific location has not been identified.
“Learning of TCEQ’s plans to install additional fixed-site volatile organic compound monitors in the Eagle Ford pleased me as this is an often-expressed constituent concern,” Wolff wrote to Shaw on Monday.
William Luther, San Antonio Express-News
The full moon rises above an oil drilling rig Wednesday, May 14, 2014 in an aerial image taken near Karnes City, Texas.
Shaw also said pollutants from the Eagle Ford weren’t likely to increase ozone levels in Bexar County. And he defended comments from TCEQ’s chief toxicologist, Michael Honeycutt, who said after a presentation at a San Antonio conference in March 2013 that while the TCEQ responds to complaints within 12 hours in the Barnett Shale in North Texas, such a quick response time isn’t possible in South Texas.
“We can’t do that in the Eagle Ford because it might take hours to get there,” Honeycutt said. “I kind of hate to say this, but those are lower priority than the ones where there’s hundreds of people living within a short radius.”
Shaw said Honeycutt was talking about odor complaints, not all complaints, and that TCEQ tries to respond quickly to any serious incident.
“It is true that under a set of very defined circumstances that are unique to the Barnett Shale area, we handle odor complaints differently in this area compared to the rest of the state,” Shaw wrote.
Shaw’s letter said 98 percent of complaints from residents in the Barnett Shale were based on odor. But he noted that most complaints in the Eagle Ford — 68 percent — were also about odor.
TCEQ records show that investigators sometimes took days to respond to such complaints in the Eagle Ford.
In La Salle County, it took nine days for a TCEQ investigator to arrive at Murphy Exploration and Production’s Nueces Central Facility, a production site for natural gas, condensate and crude oil. A resident complained of smelling a natural gas odor and getting headaches.
A TCEQ investigator found a pilot light on a natural gas flare was unlit and that raw gas was being vented directly into the atmosphere. Flares are supposed to burn off impurities in raw gas and turn it into carbon dioxide.
Murphy made changes to the flare’s operation, and the investigation was closed.
One of the air monitors located on the edges of the shale is in Floresville. The Express-News investigation found that levels of some pollutants at the monitoring site, which is often downwind of oil and gas operations, exceeded readings at a monitor in Deer Park, in the heart of the Houston-area petrochemical industry.
“TCEQ’s air monitoring efforts are weak in the Eagle Ford with the agency operating a single automated gas chromatograph in Floresville, yet with a comprehensive network of 15 automated gas chromatographs in the Barnett Shale monitoring network,” Wolff wrote.
Shaw said TCEQ isn’t finding widespread problems in the Eagle Ford. Usually, violations are “sporadic and localized in nature” and usually caused by mechanical or operator error, he wrote.
Wolff said that was comforting — to a point.
“We could both cite examples where lives have been lost and property destroyed due to a sporadic and localized mechanical or operational error,” Wolff wrote in his letter Monday.