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Hard work ahead

Profile image for By Sarah Perry / For the Denton Record-Chronicle
By Sarah Perry / For the Denton Record-Chronicle
Matthew Baker, assistant director of the Field Operations Support Division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, shows how hourly air samples are analyzed by a permanent air quality monitor in Dish, in April 2010.
Matthew Baker, assistant director of the Field Operations Support Division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, shows how hourly air samples are analyzed by a permanent air quality monitor in Dish, in April 2010.

When Susan Knoll, her husband, Michael, and their teenage daughter moved into their $1 million, 4,500-square-foot brick home in Bartonville three years ago, Knoll couldn't imagine a more idyllic place - her dream home surrounded by trees on 2 acres with a pool and three fireplaces.

But today, Knoll says, a gas well dug behind their property has cast her family into what she describes as a scene out of a Stephen King novel, complete with noxious water, foul air, numbing headaches and grasshoppers falling dead from the sky.

"This was supposed to be the home before the nursing home," Knoll says. "We built this home to live in forever, and before we have any long-term health effects, we have to move. But where do you move where there isn't going to be drilling? Now people sit in our backyard and get bloody noses."

Knoll was horrified when one morning she turned on her garden hose to put some of her family's well water into a glass pitcher. The water was spewing foam and steam and smelled of sulfur. As the foam subsided, Knoll took a candle lighter and touched the flame to the water. After a few minutes, she dipped a hand in the pitcher. A waxy substance dripped from her hand. It looked like contact lenses had formed on her fingertips.

Last summer, Knoll had her water tested by a private company. A chemical called methylene blue active substance was found in her water - a lubricant used in natural gas drilling that can cause water to have a soap-like feel.

Knoll says that since drilling behind her property began in April, she's complained to the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality dozens of times about odors, gas leaks and loud noises. The agencies have visited her property but have found no violations. The Railroad Commission tested the pools of water that mysteriously appeared on her property but did not test her well water. The agency found nothing wrong.

Knoll isn't alone in her complaints about operational practices of the gas companies that are drilling in the Barnett Shale. Dozens of citizen groups have formed in North Texas in the last several years, claiming that the Railroad Commission and TCEQ aren't regulating gas drilling properly. While states such as Pennsylvania and New York are clamping down on hydraulic fracturing or refusing to grant new permits because of environmental and health concerns, no one appears to be pulling back the reins of hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett Shale. The Railroad Commission has 87 investigators to police the wells in Texas, the fewest number of regulators per well in the country.

From January 2007 to July 2010, Railroad Commission records - obtained in an open-records request - show 21,593 inspections in the Barnett Shale region. Inspectors in the Kilgore district launched a special initiative in 2008, knocking out 812 lease inspections during one week in October, according to commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye. On average, however, the commission inspects about 155 facilities in the Barnett Shale region each week.

She sent the results to TCEQ, and an investigator came to her house within an hour. But the drilling rig was gone, and new test results showed no benzene. The investigator didn't test for carbon disulfide. She says the investigator asked her to sign an affidavit, agreeing to post the test results online. Rogers refused, saying she would only agree if they included her test results that were done at the time of drilling. TCEQ said no.

"It breaks my heart," Rogers said in December, leaning against her couch and staring at her palm trees and turkeys through her window. "I can't tell you what it's done to me. I was brought up to think that a piece of land is the most precious thing you own. I don't care about this house. They had 20 acres of land. The pad site is 8 to 10 [acres], and they bulldozed everything. The birds are gone. This place used to be covered in birds. Sparrows were everywhere. The rabbits are gone. I know it sounds silly, but it means something to me.

"All the entities that are there to protect you - none of them could be relied on and it's absolutely demoralizing," she said. "TCEQ is supposed to protect us. You call them and they don't do a damn thing."

TCEQ monitors compounds in the air by setting effects screening levels (ESLs) for short-term and long-term health effects. If a chemical doesn't exceed those levels, TCEQ does nothing. Even when the chemicals are exceeding set levels, "it does not necessarily indicate a problem, but a more in-depth review is conducted," according to the 2010 Effects Screening Level standards.

At an air quality study committee in March 2010, the chief toxicologist of TCEQ said that he was most worried about benzene, and had not seen supporting data that revealed sulfur-containing organic compounds as a health problem.

Neil Carman, the clean air program director for the Sierra Club, is most concerned about how the effects screening levels are set by TCEQ. Carman spent 12 years as an investigator for TCEQ and investigated industrial plants in West Texas. "True toxic risk to hundreds of thousands of citizens is not known or adequately addressed by TCEQ," he said in an e-mail.

The ESLs are set too high and are not state air standards, but merely suggested guidelines for companies, he said. If pollution does exceed the suggested ESLs, oftentimes TCEQ still says there's not a problem. In some cases, TCEQ has used enforcement action to force companies to decrease pollution, but "not often," he said.

"A lot of states use this approach," Carman said. "It's really an approach to help industry put out a lot of pollution. When you have standards, they are more enforceable."

When investigators are testing the air, the wind can play a factor in accuracy. If the wind shifts, the pollutants also can shift, so investigators must be in an almost perfect spot to collect accurate data, Carman said.

When you're talking about cancer-causing agents such as benzene, the only safe level of pollution is zero, he said. Any level above zero means people are at risk of exposure to carcinogens. Children, whose bodies are still developing, are more susceptible to exposure.

"The agency uses a lot of averaging in the calculation of ESLs," Carman said. "Our bodies are not designed to average. With over 30 years now of investigating air pollution in Texas, I see the agency as a failure."

The TCEQ regional office is located in a strip mall off Interstate 820 in Fort Worth. Inside, an administrative assistant greets visitors with a smile. On this particular day, she pauses to answer the phone.

"How may I help you?"

Another pause.

"Is this regarding gas wells or another source?"

"OK. Stand by."

In the past year since TCEQ instituted its 12-hour response policy for complaints associated with drilling in the Barnett Shale, the office has received more than 300 calls, according to Alyssa Taylor, who's in charge of inspections for the region. The complaints have included loud noises, health issues such as vomiting and headaches, and sick animals. TCEQ has 10 investigators who handle the complaints, but that is a small slice of the duties each investigator has. In addition, they're charged with inspecting air quality around 14,000 gas wells and 49,000 pieces of production equipment in the Barnett Shale area.

Each investigator would have to visit about four wells every day to see all the wells in the 24 counties making up the Barnett Shale area. But TCEQ doesn't like to think of the gas wells as singular entities - the agency prefers to look at how many sites investigators have visited. On average, TCEQ visits about 50 sites a month. These sites can include up to 20 wells apiece.

Tony Walker, the regional director of TCEQ, says the agency has a risk system to help decide which wells it should investigate. At the beginning of each fiscal year, TCEQ prioritizes wells based on the operating company's compliance history, the wells' location to churches and schools, and the potential air emissions. If a company has received violations, then TCEQ will monitor its wells more closely, Walker said.

Of the wells investigators visit, about 5 percent are found to have violations, Walker said. It's a low percentage because companies, in general, want to be compliant.

"I'll just say, well, I've been involved in this quite a while," Walker said. "The idea is that regulated entities try to be in compliance. They know the way they do business is based on that."

Investigators for the Barnett Shale don't have to be familiar with the natural gas industry, Taylor said. She usually hires people with a science or engineering background; the candidate must be a team player and be able to speak to the public.

After investigator Luke Jones was hired, he learned how to operate equipment and write reports. Most training is done on the job, and new hires are supervised by senior investigators before they are sent into the field on their own.

If someone calls after the office closes, investigators respond immediately when there's a potential health impact, Taylor said. If someone is having persistent headaches or nosebleeds, or there's a high-pitched sound, it's classified as an "emergency situation." If the call isn't an emergency, it can wait until morning, she said.

But when Jones is performing a scheduled investigation or responding to a complaint, he's not allowed to be on the gas site unless someone from the company is present. Once, when he was using a camera to view a site, he couldn't see the gas tanks. He had to wait an hour before someone from the company showed up to let him on the site.

"It's in everybody's best interest if the company is there," Walker said.

Not every investigator with TCEQ thinks the agency is doing its job properly. In October, Jeff Kunze, who has been an investigator with TCEQ's Waco region for 11 years, wrote to TCEQ's executive director, pleading for help. Kunze said that since an audit recommended "tighter controls on overtime" for the Field Operations Support Division, TCEQ had been using other staff who aren't properly trained or equipped to respond to emergencies.

"Use of different staff may be management's prerogative, but … it appears that budgetary and other concerns have overridden the obligation to comply with applicable laws, rules, and regulations - to the detriment of public and staff safety," Kunze wrote.

In the letter, Kunze said there were times when TCEQ staff were forced to use inoperable equipment in monitoring gas operations in the Barnett Shale area. In one instance, staff members had to find the source of odors by smell. Repeatedly, he pointed to incidences in which the staff was not provided with personal protective equipment needed on site to protect them from hazardous materials. Even when the equipment was available, the staff was discouraged from using it to "avoid alarming" onlookers.

"Ironically, TCEQ fines companies for environmental violations when its own staff is not provided the equipment and training required by law," he wrote.

To demonstrate to the public the dangers of gas drilling in the area, Susan Knoll keeps pictures of the dying grasshoppers on her laptop. She also organizes protests, attends city council meetings and has joined the board of a nonprofit organization that provides air, water and soil testing to low-income families near drilling sites.

Knoll, a petite woman with wispy blond hair, doesn't come across as a crusader. But when she begins talking about the gas well behind her home, her cheeks flush and her voice hardens.

"They don't let up. Every day there's something new," she says, spurting out a list of new drilling activity in Bartonville and Argyle. "There's so much going on, it's exhausting keeping up with it. But this is our family, and we have to protect it."

In Wise County, Tim Ruggiero has had an experience similar to Susan Knoll's. He moved from a Denton subdivision to his ranch home in 2004 so he could have a small farm. His daughter wanted horses; he and his wife wanted more space.

The drilling began in September 2009. After becoming dissatisfied with the state's response to his complaints, he had his water tested and found strontium, boron and a chemical resembling the gasoline additive MTBE.

After spending more than $7,000 on independent testing, Ruggiero and Calvin Tillman, the outgoing mayor of Dish, decided to start a nonprofit organization to test air, water and soil for people who can't afford it on their own. They call it ShaleTest. Knoll is on the board.

Ruggiero and Tillman went on a tour of the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation similar to the Barnett Shale that's located in several Northeastern states. They met dozens of people whose water was contaminated.

"We have to do something," Ruggiero says. "We're going to show the contamination, and we want to show a direct correlation [between contamination and drilling]." Engineers in Pennsylvania and Arkansas have agreed to help with testing, he said.

Ruggiero sits on his porch drinking diet cola and puffing on a cigar. He looks out at the well next to his property and glances at his two horses grazing nearby. "The very same government agencies that are sworn to protect us are barely lifting a finger to help," he says.

On a warm fall day, Susan Knoll drives through Bartonville, pointing to huge plumes of smoke billowing in the air. The source: the Wright Well on North Gibbons Road. Piles of dirt make it impossible to see any activity at the well. A dead tree stands next to the road.

"It doesn't feel good knowing you can't do anything to stop them," she says.

April 1, 2010, was the first time Knoll called TCEQ and the Railroad Commission. Pools of water had formed in her backyard. A Railroad Commission inspector came out. He dipped a clear vial into one of the pools. The murky brown substance flowed into the tube.

"And what are you testing that for?" she recalls asking the inspector.

"The basic minerals, just to see if it's salty," he told her. "This'll just be for chlorides, sulfides. One of the first things I'm going to test for is to see if it's salty or not. It doesn't look like it's salty." He trailed off.

"What would that mean if it were salty?" she asked.

"Well, that's a sign - a lot of oil fields produce water that's salty," he told her. "Most of it is very salty."

The lab results showed nothing was in the water. Then two months later, she tested her well water and found methylene blue active substances.

In April, Knoll kept smelling gas. On April 30, she called TCEQ. An inspector came again. No violations were found.

On May 7, she and her husband began to feel light-headed. Their noses burned and their stomachs churned. The smell of metal was everywhere. No violations were found.

In June, the grasshoppers began dying. Hundreds of them were spread out on Knoll's patio like dead leaves. They lay on their backs, legs twitching in the air. TCEQ arrived - within 12 hours - and discovered leaks in a temporary pipeline. Before the investigator could record the leak, the company fixed it.

The investigator took an air sample, and the emissions were at safe levels, according to the report. No violations were found. Knoll vacuumed up the dead insects.

She shakes her head.

"No one actually believes it until you live it, because it's unbelievable," she says.

Staff writer Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe contributed to this report.