February 21, 2018

Bad Air Day

Around North Texas parks and playgrounds, children are breathing dangerous doses of toxic fumes from gas industry sites
By Peter Gorman, Fort Worth Weekly, October 1, 2014

On a crisp Saturday morning, Delga Park, just north of downtown Fort Worth, was beautiful. The deep blue sky was spattered with cumulus clouds, and birds flitted among shade trees at one end of the park, sandwiched between I-35W and the Trinity River. The grass was neatly trimmed and trash-free; the ball field sparkled. The only thing missing from the scene was anyone to enjoy it.

Over the course of nearly two hours not a single parent with a stroller walked the footpath. No kids played ball or swung on the swings or used the slide. No one except this reporter was enjoying a cup of coffee at the picnic tables.

Maybe the park’s emptiness was a fluke. Or maybe not: Within a half-hour of arriving, I felt a light searing of something acrid at the back of my throat. Within an hour my eyes began to unexpectedly tear, and after two hours I had to leave because breathing was becoming difficult, even though I was sitting still.

If a recent snapshot of the park’s air quality is accurate, the same might happen to anyone who spent time in the park — and to many who live in the neighborhood.

At the far end of the park is a huge natural gas compressor station built by Chesapeake Energy. Over the past several years, pictures and videos taken with forward-looking infrared (FLIR) cameras, which detect gases not visible to the human eye, have consistently shown the Chesapeake facility to be leaking huge plumes of poisonous gases into the atmosphere around Delga Park.

A June 1 air sampling by the nonprofit ShaleTest Environmental Testing, paid for by a $10,000 grant from the Patagonia Environmental Fund, showed the makeup of those emissions: benzene, a carcinogen, in quantities many times what is deemed safe by state guidelines; xylene, which can have developmental effects on fetuses, in concentrations much higher than allowed; and lower but still troublesome levels of toluene, also a carcinogen, plus a long list of volatile organic compounds that contaminate groundwater when they eventually sift out of the air and fall to earth.

The study, called Project Playground, involved collecting air samples in state-of-the-art canisters from five park areas in North Texas located near gas drilling or processing sites. One sample from each site was taken on single days between Oct. 28, 2012, and June 1, 2014. Besides Delga, the sites included Trinity Park in Fort Worth; McKenna Park in Denton; a playground in DISH, in Denton County; and a spot in Mansfield that’s surrounded by four parks. At Delga Park, pollution dispersion air modeling was also done to project how far the airborne toxins would travel from their source.

The study’s most damning finding is that benzene levels at three of the parks exceeded the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s maximum recommended limits for long-term exposure. At Delga Park the levels were more than seven times that maximum level; in DISH they were nearly three times the limit and in Denton one and a half times the limit.

Other troubling findings: Toluene levels exceeded TCEQ’s maximum for long-term exposure at two parks, and propene — also known as propylene, which can cause headaches, confusion, memory loss, and even seizures — was above the allowable levels at the Mansfield location.

Dozens of other dangerous chemicals were found that did not exceed TCEQ long-term exposure limits. However, many researchers believe those chemicals still represent a serious health threat. In combination, even at allowable levels, the chemicals could be much more dangerous than they are individually.

The report was released on Monday.Scientists who were told of its results said the findings should cause concern for kids living near and playing in those parks. Breathing those chemicals for long periods each day, over months or years, could cause a myriad of illnesses, many of them potentially life-threatening, they said.

“The mix of chemicals from the gas operations might be more toxic than they would be for any single chemical,” said Dr. Anne Epstein, a specialist in internal medicine.

“The people living around Delga Park, in particular, are going to be sacrificed in the long term,” said Calvin Tillman, former mayor of DISH, and co-founder of ShaleTest. “And the sickening thing is that they’re being sacrificed so that the gas company can make a few bucks.”

Epstein has been studying the health effects from oil and gas exposure as part of her work with Lubbock’s Board of Health, which advises the city on public health risks.

“Long-term negative exposure to benzene at seven times the long-term limits is certainly a … threat to health,” she said. “This is definitely a cancer-causing agent. It causes leukemia and aplastic anemia, a low red blood count that is very dangerous to humans.”

Benzene suppresses the formation of blood cells in the bone marrow, she said. If ShaleTest’s single-day air-collection samples from the playgrounds were shown to be typical, Epstein said, that would represent a significant health risk.

“It’s important to remember that the acceptable toxicity levels for these chemicals were set for adults, not children,” she said. “Children and pregnant women are more susceptible to a variety of health risks from chemicals in the air, especially during critical windows of development when children’s brains and internal organs are growing rapidly.”

The presence of multiple chemicals complicates the picture, she said, but high levels of benzene “is the big red flag for me.”

Chesapeake spokesman Gordon Pennoyer said he would look into the question of the company’s compressor station near Delga Park but had not provided any response by press time.

Tim Ruggiero, a partner with Tillman in ShaleTest, said Chesapeake’s failure to respond didn’t surprise him.

“It frustrates me how these companies can avoid responding to things that might cast them in a negative light,” he said. “Take the FLIR camera: Whenever we show videos of the huge plumes, sometimes two miles long, coming off a compressor station, the typical response to reporters is, at best, a comment that what our camera was picking up was heat, not gas. That’s just not true: We’re using an $85,000 FLIR camera, and we’re picking up gas with it.”

Along one side of Delga Park is a row of about a dozen small, neat, single-family homes. Ruggiero said he’s talked to three of the homeowners.

“There’s one woman in that row who can’t hold down a job because she’s always sick, and none of the doctors she’s seen can explain why she has rashes and is constantly nauseated. Another woman has a child whose hair is falling out, and the doctors can’t give her any explanation about why that is happening.”

Ruggiero said he’s surprised that people, especially doctors, are not connecting the dots between the symptoms and the cause. “If people living near these gas facilities are all coming down with similar symptoms — rashes, nausea, eye problems, nerve issues — well, I think you ought to look to see if there is a connection between those facilities and those symptoms.”

Dr. Carol Kwiatkowski is executive director of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, a nonprofit organization dedicated to collecting scientific information on health and environmental problems caused by low-level exposure to chemicals that interfere with human development and function. She said it’s not easy to show the connection Ruggiero talked about.

The link between combinations of dangerous chemicals and chronic health problems “has simply not been studied enough, something our organization is trying to rectify,” she said. “But there is definitely potential for impacts to kids.

“Benzene we know about, but toluene and methylene chloride — these are other chemicals that are not good to have around humans,” she said. What scientists are seeing in their studies, she said, is that even in low doses, aggregates of such chemicals “are causing asthma, respiratory effects, and immune-system compromising. And children are so much more vulnerable than adults. Their bodies are not capable of dealing with them. The last thing you would want to do is put a playground anywhere near things like a compressor station.”

Jim Schermbeck, a longtime activist and director of the grassroots environmental group Downwinders At Risk, has been studying the issue for years. He agreed with Kwiatkowski’s assessment.

“Those VOCs stay close to the ground, congregating exactly where kids are going to be playing. And we know from studies that have been done in Texas and other states that the more time you spend around a compressor station or a leaking tank, the more danger you are putting yourself in,” he said. “And it’s particularly insidious to put parks where children are playing near these facilities.”

That’s exactly what was done in DISH. Several companies built compressor stations and other gas facilities just outside of the town limits beginning in 2006. To show what good neighbors they were, the companies provided most of the funding for a large playground 300 feet from a well site and less than 700 feet from one of the largest compressor station complexes in Texas.

Many dozens of people in DISH began coming down with a wide variety of illnesses, from neurotoxicity to nosebleeds. Tillman, elected mayor of DISH in 2007, tried to fight the gas companies but had little success because the facilities were outside his town’s limits. When his own sons began having regular nosebleeds, he decided to leave.

“We were the epicenter of the Barnett Shale boom, and it was just awful,” he said.

The compressor stations there have since been enclosed, and other efforts have been made to lower toxins in the air. But when ShaleTest performed an ambient air- quality study there for Project Playground in late October 2012, both benzene and xylene were still found at levels above TCEQ’s recommended limits. A long list of other poisonous chemicals, similar to the chemical soup found at Delga Park, was also detected.

David Sterling, a professor of environmental and occupational health at UNT’s Center for BioHealth, declined to comment on the ShaleTest study because he had not seen it. But he agreed with other scientists that if benzene in high levels was found at a playground and there was no other source that might have been causing it, “steps should be taken to reduce or eliminate the releases.”

Sterling noted that “a park near a busy road is going to have many of the same results … from automobile exhaust.” But he acknowledged that the volume of benzene found at Delga Park — 10 parts per billion — was very high.

Tillman doesn’t buy into the possibility that traffic exhaust could cause the levels of benzene and xylene found at several of the parks. “I’ve been told that you might get a reading of 1 part per billion for benzene from a busy road. In DISH we had nearly three parts; in Delga Park we had 10. There’s no way you could get those readings from traffic.”

In collecting air samples at Delga, he said, “We walked as close to the gas facility as we could. We had the FLIR so we could see the gas plume, and we walked right into it to get our reading. It wasn’t from traffic.”

The air samples collected by ShaleTest were analyzed by Columbia Analytic Services (now ALS Environmental) of Houston. The DISH location and Delga Park, both near compressor stations, had the highest levels of benzene and xylene.

“I don’t think parks and playgrounds should be anywhere near gas wells,” Tillman said, “but things like gas processing facilities and compressor stations certainly should not be around parks.”

Gas company spokespersons declined to comment on this story because they had not seen the report.

Ruggiero predicted that the drilling industry would eventually try to discredit the ShaleTest findings.

“They’re going to say this was not done correctly. They’re going to say they don’t trust our methodology, that all we took was a snapshot and not a long-term view, that their workers aren’t getting sick,” he said. “But you know what? Their workers can go home at the end of the day. The people who live around these parks — well, some of them have pre-school kids who are living with those chemicals all day, every day, for years. Those people can’t just get out of exposure to those chemicals after eight hours.”

What’s most disappointing, Ruggiero said, is that “after all these years we’re still asking the same questions and fighting the same battles we have been fighting from day one. If these gas companies want to be good neighbors, they should be testing their own sites and remediating them. They should be responsible for their equipment. Compressors don’t have to leak. Water separators and gas wells don’t have to leak. They don’t have to poison people to get the job done, but they do.”

Kwiatkowski said it bothers her that people like Ruggiero and Tillman are having to do the studies. “They’re stuck … because the government isn’t doing them, and the gas companies certainly are not doing them. The industry is not in any hurry to put monitors on their vents to tell us what is actually coming out into the air we breathe.”

She said that the gas industry’s position is that no one can prove that the dangerous chemicals are coming from their equipment. “But the response to that should be, ‘Well then you tell us what you’re emitting. You do the tests. Do the work to get us that information.’ But they won’t do that. They don’t want to be found responsible for people getting sick.”

TCEQ spokesperson Andrea Morrow, in an e-mail response, said the commission could not “comment on the validity of the data [in the ShaleTest report] or determine if the data were evaluated appropriately.”

The ShaleTest samples were “representative of a short-term exposure duration. It is not scientifically appropriate to compare short-term measurements to TCEQ long-term air- monitoring comparison values,” she said. “There is not enough information in this report to suggest that there is a reason for concern.”

Tillman argues that when short-term “snapshots” show the same results year after year, they do paint a bigger picture.

“I do not believe that TCEQ even has a seat at the table in this discussion, given their history of siding with the gas industry,” he said. “We’ve been collecting data for 10 years or so, and we have a bunch of snapshots in time, and they all suggest there is a bigger problem here.”

Alan Septoff, communications director for Earthworks, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting communities from the adverse impacts of mineral and energy development, agreed with Tillman’s assessment of TCEQ. “Rather than take the results … as a warning flag that demands follow-up to determine if a long-term problem exists, they try to minimize the problem” he said.

Jane Lynn is an anti-drilling activist from Arlington. When she spoke to Fort Worth Weekly, she’d just gotten off the phone with the Mansfield gas well inspector.

“I have a teenage daughter in her school’s marching band, and when they go to different schools and fields, she’s exposed to all of this stuff. They’re marching for hours in that gas well air, and it concerns me, and it should concern any parent,” she said. “It’s a shame that I have to even consider that my daughter might be stuck in a place for hours and hours while she breathes poisoned air.”

Lynn doesn’t think there should be any gas activity near parks. “It should not be around people, period. But it is,” she said. “These gas companies discovered the minerals here, and that made us people just something in the way. … We’re a nuisance to them. And they drilled, and it has been reckless, and it should be a human rights violation. Heck, we’re not even humans to the gas companies — we’re a track number on a piece of property.”

She said she’d like to have ShaleTest taking samples in Arlington. “We need them here testing our playgrounds. We can’t afford not to know if our kids are safe.”

Many children live in the immediate area of the parks tested by ShaleTest. In DISH, the study said, 49 kids live right near the playground. The neighborhood surrounding Delga Park is home to 378 kids. Near McKenna Park in Denton, the number is 735.

“When we say ‘the immediate area,’ we mean within a few blocks at most, and we used census data to ascertain the number of children living there,” Tillman said.

Wilma Subra, an environmental scientist and former vice-chair of a national advisory council for the Environmental Prodection Agency, called the ShaleTest report significant.

“We have a problem here,” she said. “Let’s face it: This is a long-term exposure issue to a known carcinogen. And the kids probably also live near those parks. So we’re looking at a cumulative impact of where they play and live and go to church — and that’s bad.”

“The gas companies have told us since the beginning that the chemicals they’re spewing from wells, from fracking, from every facet of the industry do not exceed long-term danger levels,” said Tillman. “But we’ve been into this for more than a decade now, and all the samples we took are right next to playgrounds.

“Maybe the levels we’re seeing — excluding benzene levels — won’t harm adults,” he said. “But it’s our babies, our children who are exposed to these poisons, and we’re getting to a point where we will be seeing real and bad health effects. How can you put these levels of carcinogens in playgrounds and hope kids won’t be affected? We are going to get what we know is coming, and that’s a shame.”

Tillman said he hopes the results of Project Playground will prompt local governments to have their parks and playgrounds tested as well.

“We’d like to see air sampling done all over the country where gas and oil work is being done,” he said. “Heck, we did only a fraction of the playgrounds that are near gas facilities in North Texas. There are lots of them, and they’re all over, and they are hurting a lot of kids. And that should not be happening.”