EPA Hears Public Outcry: Natural Gas Industry Hears ‘More of the Same’

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EPA Hears Testimony on Proposed New Source Performance Standards and National Emission Standards for Oil & Natural Gas Hazardous Air Pollutants

The three member EPA panel hearing testimony in Pittsburgh, PA, during September. From left to right: Bruce Moore (Technical Expert), Fred Thompson (Hearing Chair), Kathleen Cox (Region 3). photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) heard 103 pubic testimonies for over 11 hours in Pittsburgh at one of three hearings held in September regarding proposed standards to reduce air pollution from the oil and natural gas industry.

Industry supporters testified that new regulations could effect the economic viability of what they allege is a clean source of domestic energy, providing jobs and reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Critics, however, testified to health problems from natural gas drilling and production facilities; along with many cases of polluted air, water, and land.

Critics at the hearing also condemned the EPA for regulating only when required by court order. The EPA is currently required by a court order to sign its latest proposed rules for air emissions by February 28, 2012. The order resulted from a case brought against the EPA by WildEarth Guardians and the San Juan Citizens Alliance concerning alleged failures to address air quality standards for the oil and natural gas industry under the Clean Air Act.

The EPA claims oil and natural gas sectors in the United States contribute 40 percent of known methane emissions, a greenhouse gas 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. Oil and natural gas are also “the largest industrial source of emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)” emitting over 2.2 million tons per year. VOC’s have been attributed to health impacts ranging from asthma to premature death.

According to the EPA’s recent document addressing air emissions, oil and gas sectors produce significant amounts of benzene, a known carcinogen, and a host of other deadly air toxins that cause irreversible health problems. A claim industry representatives have expressed is already addressed in the layering of regulations since the Clean Air Act (CAA) inception (1970).

Health and Safety Risks ‘Not Well Evaluated’

In response to the EPA’s air emission proposals, Kathryn Klaber, President of natural gas industry group Marcellus Shale Coalition, stated:

As this process moves forward, we look forward to providing EPA with fact-based information regarding our best practices and industry-leading operations, which are ensuring that the region’s air quality is not impacted. In fact, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection studies have determined that Marcellus activities do not present any ‘air-related health issues’.

However, in its Marcellus Shale Air Sampling Report, where it determined that ‘air-realted health issues’ were not a concern given the constraints of the study, DEP stated:

[F]indings only represent conditions at the time of the sampling and do not represent a comprehensive study of emissions. While this short-term sampling effort does not address the cumulative impact of air
emissions from natural gas operations in northcentral Pennsylvania, the sampling results
do provide basic information on the type of pollutants emitted to the atmosphere during selected phases of gas extraction operations in the Marcellus Shale formation.

An August 2010 assessment of risks to natural gas workers and their employees by the Laborers Health and Safety Fund of North America determined that “the environmental concerns with shale production” are “currently, not well evaluated” and “must be investigated and, if problematic, appropriately addressed.”

More of the same?

Kathryn Klaber talking with The Public Herald after her testimony to the EPA as president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

Klaber told Public Herald after her testimony on behalf of Marcellus Shale Coalition that “the 1970 Clean Air Act; the ’77 amendments, the 1990 amendments, every one of them layered more air quality regulations on. What they’re talking about today is simply one more regulation…It’s just more of the same.”

Amendments to the CAA were added in 1977 to address the failure of state and local governments to meet deadlines set forth in the CAA to design and implement air pollution reduction plans. Additional amendemnts made in 1990 addressed new problems, such as acid rain, ground-level ozone, and air toxins. However, despite the additions to CAA regulations over the years, the oil and natural gas industry has been exempt from aggregation, which according to document about exemptions by EarthWorks and the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, “is intended to regulate smaller sources that may actually be as harmful as larger sources due to the concentration of emissions,” therefore allowing “the oil and natural gas industry to pollute air while being largely unregulated under the CAA.” Many citizens testified in Pittsburgh to a need for air emissions from oil and natural gas to be cumulatively addressed by aggregation.

The EPA’s new proposed rules could decrease air pollution by 95 percent. Among the proposed rules are requirements to reduce VOC emissions when wells are drilled and prepared for production. Compression and processing operations that are currently unregulated would be required to capture VOC’s undetected by the human eye. The EPA touts that this would allow gas companies to increase production since most of the VOC emissions contain methane — allowing it to be contained and sent to market.

Alison Davis from EPA’s Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards told Public Herald during the Pittsburgh hearing:

“the rules that [EPA] proposed at the end of July actually include four different regulations, including a proposal to require that what is called flowback, that comes out of a well after it’s been fractured and it’s being prepared for production actually be captured because the flowback contains water, fracking fluids, but it also contains natural gas that can be treated and sent to a sales line. By capturing that gas we can dramatically reduce volatile organic compound emissions from the flowback process. We are talking about something that lasts from three to ten days, once the well is actually connected to the sales line and producing, those VOC emissions drop off quite significantly.”

Davis noted that contrary to the original deadline published in the Federal Register, written public comments may be submitted until October 31, 2011. At that point, “the team will take this back, along with written comments and what we hear at the next two public hearings and begin reviewing that as they determine what to put in the final rule.”

Klaber also told Public Herald that the proposed new regulations involve “a lot of technologies that haven’t been proven in this setting that you need to make sure you get right and not just wing it. This is a serious business that needs to be done right, so we asked for a 60-day extension of the comment period, and also that the effective date has more of a phase in.”

Jobs

According to industry advocacy groups for oil and natural gas production, introducing new regulations would kill jobs while preventing economic growth and stagnate America’s ability to compete in a global economy. But, in Marian Wang’s investigation for ProPublica about whether or not regulation actually kills jobs, she found “Regulations do destroy some jobs, but they also create others. Mostly, they just shift jobs within the economy.”

The article cites Richard Morgenstern, a senior fellow of the non-partisan think tank Resources for the Future, who also served in the EPA during the Reagan and Clinton administrations:

Almost a decade ago, Morgenstern and some colleagues published research on the effects of regulation [PDF] using 10 years’ worth of Census data on four different polluting industries. They found that when new environmental regulation was applied, higher production costs pushed up prices, resulting in lost sales for businesses and some lost jobs, but the job losses were also offset by new jobs created in pollution abatement.

Ground Zero

Pittsburgh and the southwestern region of Pennsylvania sit nearly at the center of the Marcellus Shale bedrock formation with statewide natural gas development moving northeast in 2008. In Wyoming, Colorado, and Texas where heavy drilling has occurred in the recent decade, air pollution has led to dangerous ozone levels and health impacts that are now being echoed in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth. As PA residents report their water, air, soil and blood tests it provides a growing similarity to natural gas contamination cases documented in other states.

Testimonies

Public Herald (PH) will publish excerpts and transcripts of these testimonies in the weeks leading up to the EPA’s February due date. Audio of the entire hearing can also be accessed in single-track format at EPA testimony for Pittsburgh, PA. The audio and video of testimonies given in Pittsburgh are listed below by speaker, who were each given five minutes to speak. PH will also be publishing transcriptions and audio podcasts of testimonies given by PA residents and advocacy groups. 

Citizen, Dorothy Bassett [audio:http://publicherald.podbean.com/mf/web/zquzpj/PHpodcastEPATestimony.mp3] Dorothy Bassett, of Washington County, PA, brought testimony of her first-hand accounts over the past year with people ill from air contamination due to natural gas development. She spoke quickly but did not finish before being stopped at the end of the five-minute time constraint.

“The first is the case of a family in Amella, PA. The family lived on a 10 acre strip of land that was surrounded by land owned by a neighbor. Their neighbor leased out her land resulting in a wide array of drilling and processing facilities right along the border of this family’s property. There were several wells, numberous compressor stations, a dew point control facility, a wastewater impoundment as well as condensate tanks. I first got to know this family in the winter of 2010.

Dorothy Basset submitting testimony to the EPA. You can hear her testimony by clicking on the image or in our audio player above. photo: Joshua B. Pribanic

In my first visit there I smelled the light, sweet smell in the air, a scent which I later learned was the smell of benzene. Within the two hours I spent outside I began to feel lightheaded, confused, and headachy. I later learned that this was a common way to feel on their property, and that it was a feeling that the family encountered on a daily basis. Over time the symptoms they experienced increased and included dizziness, vertigo, and massive nose bleeds. This was experienced not only by adults but by their two elementary school-aged children, who were also exposed. When an air testing expert went to their property, actually to try out his equipment, before he had even walked down the driveway, it was already reading off the charts on the level of benzene in the air. Ultimately, the family had to leave the property for their health’s sake.

Other friends of mine live near Cross Creek Park. Drilling has been going on in their area for over two years. They live downhill from a battery of condensate tanks as well as from three well pads. They’re having problems from polluted air coming off of these facilities. Moreover, since the well water is also contaminated, when they take showers they expose themselves to chemical fumes coming from the steam in the air. Even though they are no longer drinking the contaminated water, they and a number of their neighbors are having significant health problems.

One this one street, residents are experiencing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, bleeding from various orphaces, weakness and heaviness in the legs, rashes, and hair loss. My friend had a seizure a few weeks ago and was taken to the hospital. Her dog had a seizure at approximately the same time. Their dog was diagnosed with bone cancer and had to be put down. Her neighbor across the street has bone and skin cancers. A man down the street is bleeding from various orphaces. A woman up the street has two cats that are bleeding from their noses. The last time I was there, perhaps three weeks ago, there was a dense, slate-blue colored fog over the whole area. I began to feel lightheaded, headachy, drowsy and confused. A colleague who was there with me at the same time felt the same way and was also nauseated. One of the neighborhood children, my friend’s relative, was at home vomiting from the fumes.

Other people I know live near Lake Lynn, Pennsylvania. This particular family lives in a valley with a leaky Christmas tree gas well and several condensate tanks on the hill above them on one side, and with four or so compressor stations a half mile down the road from them, up a hill another side. The mother and grandmother trade off each night, with one staying up and the other sleeping, because they’ve had experiences where these facilities suddenly began to spew gases over their home. They are afraid they will be gassed in their sleep and won’t be able to get their children out. A scientist-friend of theirs said that they should also be concerned because the gasses are explosive.

Last fall they had a lot of problems with the clouded gas that would circulate through yard in the early evening when the air became cool, because when the air cools it tends to push some of the fumes from the gas processing facilities closer to the ground. The mother was outside and was hit by a wall of this gas. In addition to experiencing an instant headache and nausea, she also broke out with enormous hives all over any part of her body that was exposed to the gasses. These hives never went away, by the way, and turned into odd scars.

Although the chidren are restricted from being outside due to the fumes that settle in their area, they have blisters in their noses from standing out in the morning waiting for the schoolbus. Several of their children have high blood pressure, one of them has a paralyzed stomach. They have had air tests run that showed significant levels of volatile organic compounds in their air. Their blood tests also reflected this exposure.

On a thumb drive which I will leave with you, you will find a file showing the emissions coming off the compressor stations at Lake Lynn, Pennsylvania. I asked an environmental scientist to review this video. She commented, ‘There are a large number of point source emissions as well as fugitive emission sources. The chemicals most likely being released from these sources are volatile organics such as benzene, ethlebenzene, xylene, and tolulene, in addition a large number of hydrocarbons such as methane, ethane, etc. The health impacts described as being experienced are consistent with the chemicals normally emitted from such a facility.’

The emissions from this compressor station could be controlled by technical devices. None of these sites I’ve mentioned use even the existing technologies to control emissions. Instead, the more rural you go, the wilder it becomes, as people are exposed to fumes in both composition and volumes that would not be permitted by any other industry. Several of these families have had air and blood and/or urine tests done, and it is not uncommon to see the chemicals that are showing up in their air also appearing in their blood and urine.

Last year I had a conversation with Helen Humphrey, who is formerly of the DEP. She stated that one of the challenges with air quality in this industry, is that the legal limits for air born exposure to these chemicals exceed the limits needed to produce negative health impacts. Consequently, we can legally be exposed to levels of industrial chemicals that will harm our health.”

Dorothy Bassett’s full written comments will be included with all other submitted written testimonies with the EPA’s final publication, scheduled for February 2012.