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TribBlog: State's Air Monitor Inaccurate? [Updated]

According to a study commissioned by the town of DISH, which sits in the heart of the gas-rich Barnett Shale region, a permanent air monitor recently installed by the state is giving false readings.

Calvin Tillman, Mayor of Dish, Texas

According to a study commissioned by the town of DISH, which sits in the heart of the gas-rich Barnett Shale region, a permanent air monitor recently installed by the state is giving inaccurate readings.

In April, after questions arose about toxins being released the air by machines associated with natural gas drilling, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality installed a permanent air monitor in DISH. TCEQ website says the monitors cost approximately $250,000 for the first year of operation and up to $100,000 each year afterward. The monitor has yet to measure any significant cause for concern.

Unwilling to take TCEQ's word for it, the town commissioned an independent study of the air around the monitor. A press release put out late Sunday night by DISH Mayor Calvin Tillman (who was recently profiled in the Tribune) said the town's study “showed level of the carcinogen benzene at triple the levels detected by the state's permanent monitor.  For the carcinogen toluene, the levels detected during the independent testing were 50 times the monitor's detections. Additionally, there were several other chemicals detected that the permanent monitor does not sample for.”

The release noted that it is unclear if the monitor is being manipulated or simply malfunctioning.

“We really thought our air quality was improving, this is devastating to find this information is inaccurate,” Tillman said in a statement. “The TCEQ permitted this facility, and they have no idea how to clean it up to protect public health.  It is also very disappointing that the State of Texas has spent a million dollars on equipment that is not accurate."

TCEQ officials say that, despite accusations to the contrary, they are paying close attention to DISH. Talking with the Tribune in July, John Sadlier, deputy director of compliance and enforcement at the TCEQ, said of DISH, “There’s no place like this in the state. We’re on the ground in DISH at least once a week responding to every complaint.”

In that same discussion, TCEQ communications director Andy Saenz said that if they receive data indicating a need to get further involved in DISH or anywhere else in the Barnett Shale, the agency will respond accordingly.

Tillman, who has risen to prominence criticizing the oil and gas industry and the state agencies that regulate them, recently announced that concern for the health of his chidren compelled him to put his house on the market and prepare to leave DISH. He pledges to stay active on air quality issue, even if he’s not living in town anymore. “Whether I live in DISH breathing chemicals, or somewhere out of this area, I will always be involved in this subject in some capacity,” he recently wrote on his blog.

When Tillman is gone, Saenz noted that elected officials like state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, and state Rep. Tan Parker, R-Flower Mound, will still be there and that TCEQ will continue to work with them on air quality matters. "There are a lot of elected officials that we’ve made a commitment to,” Saenz said, “and we’re going to continue to apply whatever resources are necessary to fix the problem.”

Update (12:09 p.m.):
The TCEQ put out the following statement Monday morning: "TCEQ would also like to understand why the results were different. Staff asked Mayor Tillman for the scientific data backing up his results at an August 2nd meeting and we have yet to receive any data. For the record, even the mayor's own alleged data indicates readings barely above long term thresholds that would only be of concern after 70 years of continuous exposure. The agency's monitors are operated by the University of Texas under contract to the TCEQ and we are confident of the validity of the data."

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