By JENNIFER HILLER and JOHN TEDESCO | San Antonio Express-News
Amber Lyssy used to love driving to her family’s Wilson County farm.
“I would roll my windows down and smell the fresh country air,” Lyssy said.
But lately, she’s not sure what she’s breathing as oil wells and natural gas flares from the Eagle Ford Shale boom creep up to the farm’s property line.
“The flaring is ridiculous,” Lyssy said.
She and her husband, Fred Lyssy, raise cattle, lambs, goats and pigs on a 564-acre property owned by Fred’s mother, who has turned down repeated offers from oil and gas companies to drill.
“There’s millions of acres, and they want it all,” Fred Lyssy said.
Grassland Oasis, their organic farm, is dotted with mesquite, oak, huisache and Jerusalem thorn, but it also has a monitor to detect hydrogen sulfide, a deadly gas.
The monitor hasn’t sounded yet, but summer’s southerly winds sometimes carry a stench to the farm.
“It doesn’t make any sense that their emissions can cross private property lines and be allowed to pollute. I don’t want to smell it,” Amber Lyssy said.
She also doesn’t want her three young children to breathe the emissions.
Hemmed in by the oil field, the Lyssys this month decided to leave his mother’s South Texas property and start over somewhere beyond the reach of oil field pollution.
The Lyssys and other South Texas residents only can guess at the emissions released by the gas flares spreading across the shale region south of San Antonio.
But a San Antonio Express-News analysis of flaring data, government pollution estimates and hundreds of pages of public documents paints a picture of deteriorating air quality in the Eagle Ford Shale.
The Express-News obtained flaring data from the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry, and plugged the numbers into Texas Commission on Environmental Quality formulas to find out how much pollution is emitted from Eagle Ford flares.
Since the drilling boom began in 2008, thousands of flares have burned in the 20,000-square-mile oil patch. Each flare is small enough to escape government reporting requirements on air emissions.
But collectively, the Eagle Ford flares emit more pollution than oil refineries.
In the early days of the boom, flaring released 427 tons of air pollution each year. By 2012, pollution levels shot up to 15,453 tons, a 3,500 percent increase that exceeds the total emissions of all six oil refineries in Corpus Christi.
The pollutants include a precursor to acid rain known as sulfur dioxide, which smells like lit matches and can cause breathing problems.
The flares also emit carbon monoxide, a toxic gas formed from combustion; nitrogen oxides, or NOx, which can produce ground-level ozone; and volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, which include a variety of pollutants such as benzene, a sweet-smelling carcinogen.
Neil Carman, a former TCEQ scientist who now works with the Sierra Club, said he has “very serious public health concerns” about the amount of flaring in the Eagle Ford.
“People are smelling carcinogens,” Carman said. “When you talk about a cancer-causing substances like benzene, the only safe level is zero. Anything more than that, you put a person at risk.”
TCEQ spokesman Terry Clawson said air monitoring stations in South Texas haven’t detected “any significant impact on air quality.”
He emphasized that flaring pollution is spread across the entire region, although the newspaper’s analysis shows some counties fare better than others.
A quarter of all the Eagle Ford flaring pollutants came from La Salle County, which flared the most gas in Texas in 2012.
The TCEQ has focused on the pollution effect in San Antonio.
“At any given time, depending on wind direction, emissions from the Eagle Ford Shale area either may not be impacting San Antonio at all, or only a certain portion of the Eagle Ford Shale may be upwind of the San Antonio area,” Clawson said.
Flares burn natural gas because venting it to the atmosphere is more environmentally harmful. Flaring also is a safety measure to relieve over-pressured equipment or piping.
But some flares accidentally vent raw gas. And Carman said many flares in South Texas are not efficiently burning gas the way they should.
“This idea that everything is burned is just a lie,” he said. “I’ve been on a number of trips in the Eagle Ford and seen smoking flares. If you see a smoking flare, that’s not complete combustion. … If it’s not completed, you get a smorgasbord of chemicals. Some of them are carcinogenic.”
While flaring is the most visible source of air emissions in the Eagle Ford and one of the most noticeable changes in the rural region, it’s just one source of air pollution at drilling operations.
A recent government study estimates that combined air pollution from everything from gas flaring to hydraulic fracturing to seismic testing emits more nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide than two dozen Texas petroleum refineries.
Despite the increasing pollution, Texas operates only seven air monitoring stations near the Eagle Ford — less than half the number in the Barnett Shale area near Fort Worth area and its affluent suburbs.
The TCEQ promises a 12-hour response time to complaints in the Barnett Shale. The agency makes no such promise in rural South Texas.
Since September 2012, TCEQ has done about 900 investigations related to oil and gas activity in the Eagle Ford. It usually takes regulators a day or two to arrive in person to investigate complaints about smoking flares and strange odors.
Sometimes, it takes as long as 10 days.
A ‘lower priority’
Environmental and health complaints about oil and gas operations have included everything from headaches caused by the odor of crude oil to coughing caused by dust clouds from the construction of caliche drilling pads.
Smoking flares, visible over the tops of mesquite, pecan and oak trees, have prompted residents to email the state with messages such as this in 2011: “Black smoke billowing from flare, we have flares all around us and it smells TERRIBLE.”
While the Railroad Commission regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, the TCEQ oversees air permits and complaints about odors.
Michael Honeycutt, the TCEQ chief toxicologist, said after a presentation at a conference in San Antonio in March 2013 that the Barnett Shale’s 12-hour 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.”
More than 1 million people live in the Eagle Ford region, the most recent Census Bureau estimates show. Although the Eagle Ford has become one of the world’s most rapidly developing oil fields, the TCEQ still has no accelerated response time in South Texas.
In one instance last August, someone in La Salle County complained of smelling a natural gas odor and getting headaches. The unidentified resident said wildlife was avoiding the area.
It took nine days for the TCEQ to arrive at Murphy Exploration and Production’s Nueces Central Facility, a production site for natural gas, condensate and crude oil.
Investigator Paul Alford found “moderate to strong” intermittent odors that were “unpleasant” but not consistent enough to warrant what the state considers a nuisance.
For that, an odor has to be unpleasant for 10 straight minutes at “very strong intensity” on a weekly basis.
But Alford did discover that the pilot light to a flare wasn’t lit. Hydrocarbons “routed to the flare were uncontrolled and vented to the atmosphere,” his report said.
On another walk-through of the same site in early September, the investigator said the flare wasn’t combusting properly.
The company was given notices of violation, and several of its officials met on site with Alford, where they watched his infrared camera and saw what appeared to be “un-combusted hydrocarbons.”
Murphy made changes to the flare’s operation and the investigation was closed.
North of Cotulla in La Salle County in April 2013, a resident complained about excessive smoke coming from a flare at a Chesapeake Oil Inc. natural gas gathering facility off Interstate 35.
Investigators Alford and Christian Achonye arrived 10 days later.
They saw visible emissions from the flare for the entire inspection and measured emissions from the flare, a separator tank and two hatches. Light hydrocarbon odors were noted.
The company was cited for violations that included failure to maintain all emissions control equipment in good order.
Chesapeake was given a common warning: Fix the problem and submit proof, or be sent to “formal enforcement,” a process than can lead to a fine.
But financial penalties are rare.
The TCEQ says its policies are geared more toward bringing companies into line with the rules than in racking up fines. So far, the agency has issued 21 fines in the Eagle Ford region totaling $131,269, an amount that may be reduced to $70,011 if companies agree to make required fixes and pay on time.
In Chesapeake’s case, the TCEQ closed the investigation after the company fixed the problem. The agency didn’t pursue any penalties.
Luke Metzger, the director of Environment Texas, said the TCEQ doesn’t have enough investigators, making it hard for the agency to get to sites in rural areas in time to confirm the possible problems people report. Weather or site conditions change. Winds shift.
“They’re understaffed,” he said.
Companies also are required to report emissions events, and Metzger said the agency could fine companies when they exceed the pollution limits of their permits, but doesn’t.
“The agency should use the records to show that companies are exceeding permits,” Metzger said “All too often they just get a warning. They don’t get any penalty. There’s no incentive.”
‘My side of the fence’
Cynthia Dupnik sometimes sees flares at night that create such bright halos that it looks like forest fires burning in Karnes County.
“It’s like I’m in the middle of a huge industrial site,” Dupnik said. “Someone told me, ‘They’re going to squeeze you. They’re all around you. You have to get out of there.’
“It’s a toxic cesspool. That’s what it is.”
Dupnik said she developed a litany of health problems in the wake of prolific drilling near her home. She suffers headaches that last for days. There have been persistent coughs and sores in her nose.
“Excruciating,” she said. “And it takes forever for them to heal.”
Dupnik lives in the small community of Hobson in Karnes County off FM 81, a narrow roadway that’s being battered by heavy truck traffic.
Dupnik bought rural property there in 1991 with plans to pay it off and leave it to her daughters.
“I liked the idea of a country life,” she said.
On a winter afternoon, Dupnik could see drilling rigs and a hydraulic fracturing operation from her property. Short drives from her home in any direction reveal the heart of the Eagle Ford, known as a “sweet spot” where oil and gas operators are finding some of their best results.
There are drilling rigs, fracking spreads, pumpjacks, tank batteries, disposal wells and gas processing plants. Trucks ferry crude oil, frac sand and gravel.
Doctors have prescribed Dupnik round after round of antibiotics. One of her previously healthy dogs has been sick with allergies and skin problems, which Dupnik attributes to the strange smells that drift across her property.
“My family didn’t leave me anything,” she said. “I bought this land for my kids. This is what I’m leaving them, and I’m not real proud of it.”
Dupnik owns the surface but not the mineral rights to her property. If she did, she said she would walk away from her home and buy a small plot of land elsewhere.
“It costs you to relocate. I’ll never to be able to go buy 25 more acres of land so I don’t owe on it,” she said. “I had this land for my girls. The intention of purchasing it was to leave it to them. I took a lot of pride in that.”
One of several well sites and processing facilities near Dupnik’s property is Marathon Oil’s Challenger Central Facility, which includes separators, compressors, vapor recovery units, flare and storage tanks.
Last fall after Dupnik reported getting sick, TCEQ investigators checked oil and gas sites near her home and found possible violations at the Challenger Central Facility that included a tank releasing uncontrolled emissions and a high-pressure flare not operating properly, also resulting in uncontrolled emissions.
Marathon switched to a temporary flare when told about the problem, but didn’t have a permit for it, which got it flagged for another possible violation.
There was no financial penalty. Instead, the TCEQ in December recommended this:
“The company shall properly operate all pollution abatement equipment.”
“The company shall operate as represented in the permit application.”
“The company shall obtain permit authorization for the third flare.”
The TCEQ recently said it has new information and is evaluating its investigation.
Marathon’s recent Corporate Social Responsibility report says that in response to violation notices in the Eagle Ford, the company did some redesign, installed new recovery units on equipment to prevent the release of vapors, installed several flares “to assist smokeless operation” and had employees and some contractors go through refresher training.
The report said that this year, Marathon will identify sources of flaring and evaluate emissions reduction projects.
Like many in South Texas, Dupnik said she isn’t opposed to oil and gas drilling.
“Do it the right way. I don’t think that’s asking too much,” Dupnik said. “You stay on your side of the fence and I’ll stay on mine. But don’t come on my side of the fence.”
In February, Dupnik and her husband, Thomas, sued Marathon Oil Corp. and Marathon Oil EF LLC.
The lawsuit mentions the Challenger Central Facility and Marathon’s North Longhorn Central Tank Battery, which in 2012 reported two emissions events to the state.
In one of the instances, the company reported the release of 29 pounds of benzene as well as thousands of pounds each of propane, pentane and butane.
Lee Warren, spokeswoman with Marathon, said she couldn’t comment on the lawsuit other than to say, “We do deny the allegations contained in the plaintiff’s petition, and we’ll vigorously defend our position.”
A judge dismissed a similar lawsuit this month, leaving the status of Dupnik’s case in limbo.
Rural town’s dirty air
The TCEQ has positioned permanent air monitors on the outskirts of the Eagle Ford Shale — not in areas with the most drilling and flaring.
One was installed in Floresville in Wilson County southeast of San Antonio last summer.
There’s no drilling in Floresville, but southern Wilson County is part of what’s called the Eagle Ford’s crude oil “window.”
Operators hunting oil flared one-third of the gas produced in Wilson County in 2012, the highest percentage of all Eagle Ford counties.
In the first half of the year, the Floresville monitor measured higher monthly averages for several pollutants, including the natural gas liquids ethane and propane, than the monitor in Deer Park in the Houston area, one of the state’s major centers for refineries and chemical plants.
The TCEQ said no volatile organic compound concentrations at either monitor reached the level of a health risk.
The higher concentrations in Floresville for some toxics weren’t surprising, given the different sources — the petrochemical industry in Deer Park and drilling south of Floresville, population 7,021, the agency said.
But Louisiana chemist Wilma Subra, who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 1999 for helping poor communities understand the science of air and water pollution, found the readings troubling.
“You expect to see those compounds in the air when you have methane flaring and venting,” Subra said. “As you know, Deer Park is horrible and large. The Eagle Ford is large but has nothing like the facilities in Deer Park.”
Of the 31 Texas air monitors that measure hourly pollutant concentrations, Floresville in June ranked second statewide in the average concentration of propane and third in the average concentration of n-butane, a gas that targets the central nervous system and commonly is used as lighter fluid.
Floresville had the state’s sixth-highest concentration of ethane, the second-largest component of natural gas after methane.
The TCEQ has no plans to install more fixed monitoring stations in the Eagle Ford. The agency says on its website, “Overall, shale-play activity does not significantly impact air quality or pose a threat to human health.”
It does have a research project with the University of Texas at Austin to develop a mobile-monitoring program, but that will measure emissions upwind and downwind of the field, not within the field itself.
The TCEQ also periodically flies over the Eagle Ford and other shale fields with infrared cameras to look for emissions from oil field equipment that would be invisible to the naked eye.
On the black-and-white images, pollution from seemingly benign sources appears to pour across the countryside like smoke.
Last summer, the agency flew over the Eagle Ford and surveyed about 10,210 tanks, flares and separators. It detected emissions in about 500 of them, or 5 percent.
“Some of those emissions may be authorized,” TCEQ Commissioner Bryan Shaw said in a speech at the recent Eagle Ford Consortium conference in San Antonio. “There’s a very small universe of any leaks that are occurring or any emissions that are occurring at these facilities.”
Shaw said air monitoring and testing shows there’s no reason to be alarmed about pollution from the Eagle Ford.
“They’ve been leaks and seals that were failing and allowed escapes of materials to occur,” Shaw said. “They were those types of things where hatches are left open, things that are just a maintenance and routine maintenance and inspection type of fix to that, not something that calls for a wholesale change in the regulatory process.”
More than refineries
Flares aren’t the only source of pollution in the shale.
In 2012, drilling activity from the Eagle Ford boom produced an estimated 111 tons of nitrogen oxides and 229 tons of volatile organic compounds daily between April and October — more than all the cars and trucks on the road in the eight-county San Antonio metropolitan area, according to an environmental report from the Alamo Area Council of Governments.
The report expects worsening Eagle Ford air pollution in the next five years.
By 2018, depending on how many wells are drilled, emissions of volatile organic compound emissions could nearly quadruple. Nitrogen oxide emissions could rise as much as 69 percent daily during ozone season, the report estimates.
Under every development scenario imagined by AACOG — low, moderate or aggressive drilling and production — the Eagle Ford region by 2018 would produce more volatile organic compounds than the entire San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area. It also could produce more nitrogen oxides.
The study looked at the ultimate effect on the air quality in San Antonio, a metropolitan area teetering on the brink of nonattainment for federal clean air standards.
That pollution could create a slight increase in ground-level ozone in the city, but so far, TCEQ officials say they don’t see “any significant or obvious impact of oil and gas emissions” and that some of the worst ozone days in San Antonio happen when the wind is not coming from the direction of the Eagle Ford.
The study didn’t consider ground-level ozone formation in the Eagle Ford and the risk posed to its residents.
Already, flaring and other drilling activity in the shale appear to be creating more air pollution than the state’s refineries, according to a comparison of the Eagle Ford’s estimated emissions and the pollution data from the refineries.
Daily air pollution releases are only available for 24 of the state’s 27 petroleum refineries. In 2012 during the “ozone season” — the warmest months of the year when air quality dips — the Eagle Ford activity every day was releasing twice the nitrogen oxides as all of those 24 refineries combined.
The Eagle Ford also emitted nearly six times the amount of volatile organic compounds than the refineries and nearly three times the amount of carbon monoxide.
Yet drilling, exploration and production — the so-called “upstream” part of the oil and gas industry — hasn’t garnered nearly the attention of the “downstream” refineries, which are fixed sites that are clustered in more populous port cities.
The Environmental Protection Agency in May announced plans to crack down further on air pollution from oil refineries, including a new requirement to measure the levels of benzene at a refiner’s fence line.
The rules resulted from a lawsuit filed by environmental groups on behalf of people living near refineries in Texas, Louisiana and California.
In May, 64 environmental groups filed a petition asking the EPA to use its authority under the federal Clean Air Act to set pollution limits on oil and gas wells and associated equipment, arguing that 150 million people now live in areas with shale drilling and production.
The petition focuses on “population centers” but notes that the Eagle Ford field reaches near the metropolitan areas of San Antonio, Bryan-College Station and Laredo.
“There’s tens of thousands of people living next to the refineries, so it’s gotten much more scrutiny,” said Metzger of Environment Texas. “I think better monitoring is something we should be looking at for other parts of the industry, too. There’s evidence that pollution travels pretty far.”
Diana Hinton, an oil field historian and professor at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, said the fast pace of American oil and gas drilling can lead to problems between residents and industry.
“In an American boom, the pace is fast,” Hinton said. “If you don’t move fast, someone is going to get there before you.”
By the time oil and gas start flowing, there often are no pipelines, disposal sites or worker housing, Hinton said. Everyone plays catch-up.
And a rural region such as South Texas may look unpopulated to outside companies.
“Sometimes, they look at rural areas and they think of it as the proverbial blank slate, and we can do anything,” Hinton said. “All of the sudden, you have a gas processing plant every 5 miles. You are going to have a problem.”
Idyllic ranch no more
In southern La Salle County, rancher Charles Covert relished the remote silence of his 2,000-acre property when he bought it more than 20 years ago.
Riding in a camouflaged, electric-powered cart on a spring day, Covert chanced upon deer, hawks, ducks and a rafter of turkeys. White prickly poppies had started to bloom, but fresh growth had yet to emerge on the mesquite trees.
But the Eagle Ford energy boom is at his doorstep and impossible to ignore. Along his fence line, a tank battery on a neighbor’s property hums with the sounds of generators and a flare incinerating gas.
In late 2012, Covert and his employees started complaining about odors from the facility.
The TCEQ investigated and found numerous problems at the tank battery, which is close to Covert’s house and other buildings. The agency’s investigator confirmed nuisance odors and emissions that had the potential “to affect human health and safety and impact the environment unless immediate action is taken.”
Air samples measured benzene, a carcinogen found in tobacco smoke and car exhaust. State investigators themselves noted a sour gas smell and ended up with irritated eyes on visits to the ranch.
The TCEQ eventually fined Houston-based Swift Energy Operating LLC $14,250, which could be reduced to $11,400 with corrective measures.
Covert compared the sound of Swift’s loud flare to a 747 passenger jet.
“It was frightening,” he said. “I mean, we’ve had episodes literally where we thought there was an explosive event. If you can keep a straight face while it happens, you’re a better man than me.”
Covert, a psychiatrist who practices in Houston and spends extended weekends working at the ranch, has considered selling the property because of health problems.
He said he lost his sense of taste and needs to use inhalers and eye drops.
He and his doctors believe that releases of hydrogen sulfide, which has a rotten-egg smell and is known as sour gas, caused his health problems. Sour gas is corrosive to equipment and can be deadly for people and animals.
“When all your doctors tell you never to come back you have to think about that. It’s not anything you want to do,” he said.
The Swift facility is 1,293 feet from Covert’s nearest building. The state requires a quarter-mile distance, 1,320 feet, between a facility that handles sour gas and a home, recreation area or other types of structure.
Swift’s initial permits for the tank battery said the site was a sweet gas facility, meaning it handled only trace amounts of hydrogen sulfide.
After complaints from Covert Ranch, Swift shut in the tank battery and installed hydrogen sulfide scavenging equipment at several wells to lower the hydrogen sulfide content.
By March 2013, its technical paperwork filed with the state said the site handles sour gas, but that the level had been reduced to 4 parts per million.
Among the changes Swift made was upgrading the existing flare gas supply line and installing a larger regulator for proper combustion. Now the flare is concealed in a cylinder. The company also installed hydrogen sulfide monitors at the facility and near the fence line.
“In hindsight, perhaps we could have found a better location,” a Swift executive told the Express-News last year.
The company recently declined to comment further because Covert filed a lawsuit against Swift in April that says he has suffered more than $1 million in damages.
“Swift Energy is Texas-based, works hard to be a good neighbor in its operations and has continually responded to and tried to accommodate Dr. Covert,” the company said by email. “We are saddened that Dr. Covert has decided to file a lawsuit related to these matters.”
In court documents, Swift said it acted with reasonable care and that Covert’s “alleged injuries, disabilities and/or damages, if any, are the results of a pre-existing or subsequent condition for which defendants should not be held responsible.”
The company also asserts an “act of God” defense.
More than a year after his first complaint, Covert’s ranch remained a place of contradictions. Turkey ran on a gravel road before taking flight to hide in the brush. Sandhill cranes circled and landed near a deer feeder. La Salle County is part of what hunters call the Golden Triangle, a region with iron-rich soil and trophy deer.
But Covert holds his breath as he drives by the tank battery. Just in case.