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Drilling Brings a Rise in Health Complaints

While drilling for oil and gas has exploded across Texas, residents and environmental advocates allege that state regulators haven't kept up with complaints about negative health effects. This story is part of our Shale Life project.

By Neena Satija, The Texas Tribune and Reveal
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*Correction appended

Video: Watch ranchers use an infrared camera to hunt for dangerous emissions. 

Bradford Gilde, a Houston lawyer, stumbled across some unexpected evidence as he was preparing to sue Aruba Petroleum on behalf of a North Texas couple who believed fumes from the company’s natural gas wells were making them sick.

His clients, Bob and Lisa Parr, complained of chronic dizziness and eye and throat irritation. A Texas environmental inspector reported experiencing the same symptoms in 2010 after visiting Aruba’s wells in Wise County, Gilde learned.

Responding to complaints from residents and its own inspector’s dizzying experience, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality later fined Aruba $49,000. Gilde ultimately won a $3 million judgment for his clients, and the company is appealing.

At trial, however, he was not allowed to use evidence reflecting the state’s findings and sanctions against Aruba because, as part of its agreement to pay the fine, the company formally denied any wrongdoing.

To Gilde, the experience underscored the lack of clout the state’s environmental regulations — and the agency charged with enforcing them — have in Texas’ rapidly growing oil and gas fields.

“They’re overworked; they’re woefully understaffed; they don’t have the financial resources,” Gilde said of state regulators.

While drilling surges in South Texas’ oil-rich Eagle Ford Shale and North Texas’ gas-rich Barnett Shale, the commission said it was stepping up enforcement in both shale regions. 

In the past two fiscal years, the agency has issued 35 administrative orders totaling more $436,000 in fines in the two regions. Those include fines for air, water and waste disposal violations discovered through all inspection activity, including in response to complaints.

Although its inspectors have been sickened at least twice, the agency does not believe airborne emissions from oil and gas drilling pose a threat to human health.

“The typical issues are mechanical or operational errors, and they’ve been quickly remedied for the most part in working with the industry,” said Susan Jablonski, a field director in the agency’s office of compliance and enforcement.

The Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, a nonprofit set up by a coalition of drilling companies in the Barnett, said there was no evidence that drilling was harmful. Ed Ireland, the council’s executive director, said last summer that improvements in drilling efficiency were also lowering emissions.

But advocates and residents living near oil and gas wells believe otherwise. In the last two fiscal years, the Texas commission has received more than 400 complaints related to air quality that residents believed resulted from drilling in the Barnett and Eagle Ford. Those complaints resulted in six fines. 

Many described headaches, dizziness, itchy eyes and nosebleeds; others claim more serious effects, like lung disease. The symptoms are consistent with Environmental Protection Agency descriptions of possible exposure to emissions from oil and gas drilling.

The agency made documentation available for two of the fines. In 2013, the drilling company Wiley Lease Company was ordered to pay $6,250 for releasing air contaminants without the proper permit from a wastewater disposal site in South Texas’ Atascosa County. The company was also told to get the right permit retroactively, after which the same emissions would be allowed.

And last summer, Swift Energy Operating was fined $14,280 for odors around a drilling site that, according to agency investigators, “may be injurious to or adversely affect human health or welfare.” In documents, the agency said its staff “experienced irritation of the eyes and a burning sensation in the throat” during each of four visits to Swift’s La Salle County operations in South Texas in 2013.

Swift Energy would be allowed to pay just $11,400 of the fine, the agency said, “upon timely and satisfactory compliance,” which involved mostly repairing equipment leaks.

Such low fines do not carry enough weight to compel companies to follow the rules on a regular basis, said Hugh Fitzsimons a rancher near the Mexican border who has seen an explosion of drilling activity on his 11,000-acre property.

And his foreman, Freddy Longoria, who lives on the ranch full time, often experiences health effects he believes are related to oil and gas drilling.

“We’ve noticed that our boys started getting headaches,” said Longoria, who has three children and has worked on the ranch for 15 years. “They didn’t have them in school. But they would have them when they got here.”

Soon after the oil boom began, he said, family members began feeling allergy symptoms and experiencing nosebleeds while on the ranch. But every time Fitzsimons has complained to state regulators about the symptoms, the problem “mysteriously disappears” before state investigators arrive, he said.

Gilde said his clients had similar experiences with problems going away by the time regulators arrived. For his clients, he said, that meant “not only did they have the experience of bad air, but they’re also perceived as a liar.”

Jablonski said the TCEQ tried to respond to complaints quickly, especially health-related ones. But it takes an average of 11 days to respond to complaints in the Eagle Ford Shale, according to the agency. Much of the region is rural, and drilling often occurs in remote areas.

And response times are longer in the Eagle Ford because “staff must often contact a responsible party to gain access to remote locations that may not be continuously manned,” said Terry Clawson, an agency spokesman. The advance notice gave companies an opportunity to make temporary fixes before investigators found violations, Gilde said.

While state investigators did not experience health effects when visiting Fitzsimons’s ranch, they did issue some notices of violation for lack of permits and other small problems a year ago. But as the problems continued, he decided to take matters into his own hands by sending Longoria to a class in Dallas where he learned how to use an infrared camera, which can show dangerous air emissions invisible to the naked eye.

The class cost $3,000, and renting the camera for a week cost another $4,000. In September, Longoria spent his week watching white, previously unseen plumes of smoke billow out of compressor stations, tank batteries and drilling sites across the ranch — some at the same places where the Texas commission had issued notices of violation a year ago.

The agency has received the videos and said it was reviewing them.

“It’s kind of exciting because you look at something that you’ve been looking at for so many years, and you smelled that smell for so many years, and now it’s here,” Longoria said. “You can see the vapors. You can see the gas.” 

Correction: This story originally contained incomplete information on the scope of regulatory efforts by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality in the Eagle Ford and Barnett shale oil and gas fields. The six fines levied by TCEQ noted in the original version of the story referred only to violations discovered in response to third-party complaints related to air quality. The story also misstated the amount of one of the fines levied against Aruba Petroleum.

Disclosure: Hugh Fitzsimons is a major donor to The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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