Texas' environmental commission serves its customers well. Too bad they're not the public.

TCEQ is exposed- thanks to the Observer's Forrest Wilder!

...both its critics and friends will agree on this: TCEQ is no EPA. While the federal agency is a favorite punching bag of right-wing Texas politicians like Gov. Rick Perry, you don’t hear warnings ringing out about the evils of the TCEQ. That’s because, in decision after decision, the Texas agency that’s supposed to protect the public and the environment has sided with polluters.

Perry, who appoints the three TCEQ commissioners, and the TCEQ bosses say they’ve strived to balance economic growth with protecting the environment. It doesn’t feel that way to the agency’s fierce and numerous critics.

“The problem with some of my colleagues’ balancing is they always balance it toward economic development and don’t let the environment have an equal consideration,” says Larry Soward, a former TCEQ commissioner who now works with environmental groups on strategies to improve the agency....

This quote sums up the state government's approach to protecting the health, safety and welfare of all Texans:
 “It’s never been worse,” says Jim Schermbeck of the clean-air group Downwinders at Risk. “Perry makes Bush look like a Greenpeace smokestack-sitter.”

Here is the part of the story about TCEQ's love of the Barnett Shale

Since 2005, a drilling frenzy in the Barnett Shale—an extensive geological formation with trillions of cubic feet of natural gas—has overtaken much of urban and suburban Fort Worth. It’s been a bonanza for gas producers, local government coffers, and residents receiving royalty checks. But there’s a backlash, fueled by fears of groundwater contamination, pipeline explosions, and evidence that at least some of the 14,000 wells drilled so far are leaking dangerous toxins into the air.

Last September, the tiny town of DISH—frustrated by the lack of action on TCEQ’s part—announced the results of a bombshell air-quality study it spent 10 percent of the town’s annual budget to commission from outside experts. Air samples from residential areas near gas-compressor stations contained high levels of benzene, and other carcinogens and neurotoxins—much higher than TCEQ health-based standards. Evidence in hand, DISH Mayor Calvin Tillman, a conservative who’s become the bane of North Texas gas interests, called on the industry to clean up its act or get out of town.

The fallout from the DISH study prompted TCEQ to do its own testing during three days in December. On Jan. 12, Deputy Director John Sadlier presented the much-anticipated results to the Fort Worth City Council.

“Everything you hear today will be good news,” Sadlier told the packed council meeting. The commission staff, he said, had visited 126 sites in the Fort Worth area and found no evidence of benzene or other cancer-causing chemicals. “Based on this study, the air is safe,” Sadlier told the council.

Later, Mayor Mike Moncrief, who comes from a prominent oil and gas family, pronounced himself “grateful” for the results. Since that burst of good news, Fort Worth city officials, including Moncrief, have generally resisted calls to impose more stringent rules on gas drilling. “Sadlier’s comments only emboldened the council’s belief that the air quality is okay,” wrote Don Young, a drilling reform activist in Fort Worth.

If council members had squinted, they would have seen a disclaimer stamped at the bottom of each page of Sadlier’s PowerPoint presentation: “This data is for screening purposes only and may include samples that did not meet the established quality control acceptance criteria,” the disclaimer read.

As drilling activists discovered, the state’s study was rubbish. The testing was done on cold days, when benzene tends to be inactive. The inspectors took samples only if the levels measured 140 times the Metroplex average—far above state health standards. Only eight samples were collected.

Confronted with these facts, commission PR staffers stuck with the original message. “We were trying to do that really fast,” TCEQ spokesperson Terry Clawson told the Fort Worth Weekly. “If you are going to do testing and use certified labs and have it legal quality, that takes a long time.”

TCEQ used those results to “prove” that benzene wasn’t a problem. And an internal investigation prompted by an anonymous fraud complaint revealed that upper managment, including Sadlier and Executive Director Mark Vickery, knew the study was flawed. In fact, they ordered that the eight canister samples “be analyzed using a more sensitive laboratory technique.” The results came back on Jan. 22, 10 days after Sadlier’s rosy depiction at the Fort Worth meeting. Four of the eight samples measured benzene at levels above what the state considers safe for long-term health. Still, the fraud investigation states, Sadlier was “not confident in accuracy [sic] of the results from the field” or the fresh lab findings, and ordered inspectors to return to Fort Worth for more samples.

It was a nice gesture. Too bad he didn’t tell anybody outside the agency. The report notes that at the time the investigation was concluded, on Feb. 22, “neither Fort Worth officials nor the media have been alerted.”

They still haven’t. “Where the heck are the results of the follow-up sampling they did?” asks Sharon Wilson, a drilling reform advocate who lives near Decatur. “That was never released.”

Wilma Subra, a Louisiana chemist who has conducted her own analysis of Barnett Shale emissions, says the investigation raises questions of transparency. “The public got one message, but what you’re reading me is a totally different message,” she says. “Not letting the public and media know of the exceedances is of great concern. This information is critical to the community.”

When it comes to air-testing, TCEQ frequently fails. In July 2009, an explosion and fire rocked Citgo Petroleum Corp.’s Corpus Christi refinery, severely burning one worker and sending 4,000 pounds of deadly hydrofluoric acid across Nueces Bay. Hydrofluoric acid is no joke; it’s considered one of the most dangerous substances in American refining, capable of causing severe damage to the skin, eyes, heart, lungs and bones.

The U.S. Chemical Safety Board called the Corpus accident a “significant near-miss” disaster after a six-month investigation. Communities near the refinery, long exposed to releases from nearby industrial facilities, worried that they could be exposed to a chemical cloud from the July release. TCEQ seemed oblivious to the severity of the situation. Nearly three hours after the fire started, Region 14 head Susan Clewis was settling down for a movie. “Apparently there is a fire at Citgo,” Clewis wrote in an e-mail. “I’m walking into the Harry Potter movie.” She noted that Larry Elizondo, a Citgo spokesperson and Corpus city councilman, had “refused to give” a regional TCEQ employee information on the incident.

Seven hours after the fire started, TCEQ decided to do some air monitoring. “With the media attention this event is getting, I think it would be best to conduct air monitoring,” wrote Kelly Ruble, a Region 14 employee, in an email. “The old saying ‘negative data is better than no data.’” The air monitoring equipment TCEQ used—finally—was incapable of testing for hydrofluoric acid.

In another crisis moment this March, when a gas well owned by Devon Energy Corp. exploded in rural Wise County, injuring two workers, Vickery asked Sadlier if air monitoring was needed. Sadlier responded: “I don’t believe so—the fire is out. We spoke to EPA—they contemplated sending the START unit but ended up doing nothing (which I prefer).”


scubawithdogs said...

Very informative with a lot of useful information. Thanks and keep active and vigilent.

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