Fracking blamed for health problems

By Peter Huck

Bob, Lisa and Emma Parr on their Texas ranch.
Bob, Lisa and Emma Parr on their Texas ranch.

Bob Parr had visions of a peaceful rural life with his new wife and her daughter on the undulating Texas prairie.

He had brought Lisa and her daughter Emma to his ranch outside Decatur, Wise County, 100km northwest of Dallas, in 2008.

It was a short-lived dream. Wise County sits atop the Barnett Shale in North Texas, one of the richest oil and gas fields in the US. Within a year gas wells began to mushroom around the Parrs' home as oil companies moved in, part of a loosely regulated hydraulic fracturing - fracking - shale boom that has funnelled US$7 billion ($8.3 billion) into Texas tax coffers since 2012. It has also brought misery to the Parrs and many other rural inhabitants.

By 2010, Lisa Parr was keeping a journal detailing breathing difficulties, dizziness, rashes, nausea, headaches, welts, lumps on her neck, nosebleeds and burning sensations.

"Our life turned into a nightmare," she told David Hasemyer, a reporter with InsideClimate News.

"We were deathly sick, scared and didn't know what to do." The independent news agency spent eight months in a combined investigation with the Centre for Public Integrity and The Weather Channel on how atmospheric emissions from fracking have upended the lives of people across rural Texas, a microcosm of national health risks caused by fracking.

During 2010-2011, the Parrs - one of several Texan families the news team interviewed - filed 13 complaints about their health concerns with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality [TCEQ] which, along with the Texas Railroad Commission [TRC], regulates the oil and gas industry.

It proved a futile exercise. "No violations were found," the TCEQ responded to one complaint, even though inspectors found Aruba Petroleum, one of the companies that had drilled more than 100 wells within 3.2km of the Parrs' ranch, had discharged volatile organic compounds (VOCs), a toxic cocktail of chemicals known to cause the symptoms that plagued the Parrs. Although the TCEQ received 77 similar complaints from Wise County residents during the 2008-2011 period, nothing changed.

Opponents of fracking have taken their protests to Washington. Picture / SUPPLIED
Opponents of fracking have taken their protests to Washington. Picture / SUPPLIED

Life for the Parrs worsened. In July 2010 an investigator abandoned efforts to collect air samples from a plume emitted by an Aruba facility 85m from the Parrs', complaining of dizziness and a sore throat. Court records revealed VOCs and other agents that cause health damage. Aruba had run its site without a TCEQ air emissions permit. In April 2011 a TCEQ inspector found an Aruba site near the Parrs' house vented 2441kg of VOCs in under six hours, a tenth of the yearly permitted total.

In both cases the TCEQ fined the company. Yet nothing changed.

Finally, the Parrs filed a $66 million damages suit against Aruba and 10 other companies, alleging "inescapable assault" from toxic "spills, emissions, and discharges". On April 22 a Dallas jury found for the Parrs, awarding them $2.9 million after finding Aruba "intentionally created a private nuisance" that adversely affected the plaintiffs' health.

"The verdict is significant in the sense that it appears to be one of the first, if not the first, cases in the US, and certainly in Texas, where a family that claims to have been harmed by emissions generated by oil and gas production and development has won a court case," David Hasemyer, a reporter with InsideClimate News, told the Herald. Aruba contends its operations did not harm the Parrs.

Residents atop the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas have similar issues.

If the Parr verdict stands then other litigants, waiting in the wings, will likely sue. "I think there probably are lawyers out there digging into this right now, given the success in this case," says Thomas McGarity, an environmental law professor at the University of Texas. "Whether we see more cases filed depends to some extent on how this case fares on appeal."

In the past , complaints against fracking have involved threats to aquifers, excessive water use, trauma from living next to 24/7 industrial sites (constant noise and rising costs, such as rents) and increased seismic activity. Fears that airborne emissions are harmful opens a new front.

Aruba is expected to come out swinging if the case continues to appeal, backed by an industry determined to stop protests in their tracks.

As Texas, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, Montana, Pennsylvania and other states ride the national fracking bonanza, big money is at stake.

One major finding from the Parrs' case is just how ineffective regulation is in Texas, not least because the pro-industry TCEQ is run by political appointees. Some later work as lobbyists for the oil and gas sector.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics found the industry has channelled almost US$58 million into state political campaigns since 2000.

After the TCEQ imposed stricter emission standards in 2011 the legislature drafted a wrecking bill. "And within three months the bill became law and Governor Perry signed it," says Hasemyer. "The political will isn't there. In fact, the political will is very much on the side of the oil and gas industry."

The industry often self-audits emissions, the TCEQ does not always know how many fracking sites exist and fines are paltry. Between 2009 and last year the number of unplanned "emission events", that spew toxic fumes from fracking facilities, doubled from 1012 to 2023.

The TCEQ insists fracking is no danger to health and has just five monitoring sites on the periphery of the Eagle Ford Shale (35 sit atop the Barnett Shale) in case ozone emissions migrate into the San Antonio metropolitan region.

The city's ozone levels have repeatedly violated the Clean Air Act (enforced by individual states), risking economic sanctions from the US Environmental Protection Agency. Methane released by fracking is a greenhouse gas 34 times more potent than CO2, and studies from Cornell University, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reveal methane emissions are far higher than thought. The NOAA found methane leaks in Colorado, which has more stringent regulations than Texas, were triple past estimates and the NAS found emissions 50 per cent worse. An Inspector General's report last year concluded methane emissions from fracking were "likely underestimated". The Cornell study concluded shale gas was dirtier than coal and oil due to methane's greenhouse gas footprint. Tellingly, the oil and gas business has exempted many production methods from EPA standards.

Meanwhile, the boom continues, with scant scientific evidence to measure possible health downsides, a situation that echoes the "downwinder" phenomenon when Americans were exposed to atmospheric radiation from 1950s atomic bomb tests. Except this time people routinely see and inhale noxious yellow-brown fumes that drift downwind from fracking sites.

"My sense right now is that we're driving in the dark," says Aaron Bernstein, associate director of the Centre for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard University. Although more is known about the inheritability of environmental toxins, passed from parents to children, due to a paucity of hard data fracking's health effects remain unclear, making it hard to create a regulatory regime.

"Any extractive industry will have health effects," says Bernstein. "Many are well known. And we owe it to ourselves to make use of the knowledge we've gained from past suffering. To ignore that is folly. It really is short-sighted."

In Wise County, the Parrs, like others affected by a boom that has shattered dreams and turned lives upside down, want to sell their home. "But they're having a really difficult time," says Hasemyer. The jury found the Parrs' property had devalued by $275,000. Neighbours who went up against Aruba and settled saw their home's value plummet from $257,330 to $75,240 before they fled. As word of such personal disasters gets around few want their lives impoverished by frackers on their doorstep.

- NZ Herald

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