EPA still working on Barnett Shale air pollution problem, agency says

DISH -- The Environmental Protection Agency is continuing to devote resources to dealing with concerns over air pollution problems related to natural gas drilling in the Barnett Shale, although progress is slow, the agency's regional chief said Monday night.

More than 15,000 gas wells have been drilled in the last decade in 17 counties. The oil and gas industry says the environmental impact is minimal, but residents have complained about everything from truck traffic to air and water pollution.

"I don't have a way-of-life act I can enforce," EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz said. "At the same time, the EPA is not toothless."

Armendariz said he is bringing the head of the EPA's enforcement division to North Texas for a tour.

Meanwhile, the EPA is writing rules on toxic fumes released from oil and gas production in response to an environmental group's lawsuit last year.

One option might be a federal rule requiring setbacks between industrial plants and residential areas. The EPA doesn't have specific authority to enforce such a setback, but it could require one as a way to mitigate the cumulative effect of gas drilling in areas that have other types of pollution, Armendariz said.

He said he is also working with industry groups to get a better inventory of the equipment that might release pollution. Armendariz met with a group of about 100 industry officials recently. "I made it clear to them: We can either do it cooperatively ... or we can do it through legal means," he said.

The EPA's headquarters in Washington is also studying the effects on drinking water of hydraulic fracturing, the technology that made it feasible to extract gas from the Barnett Shale. Armendariz said the study will likely include not just hydraulic fracturing but also the disposal of tainted water from the fracturing process.

"I would be very surprised if Dish and the Barnett Shale in general isn't going to be part of that study," he said.

Dish, a town of a little fewer than 200 people, sits next to a complex of compressor stations and pipelines. The town paid for tests last fall that found high levels of cancer-causing chemicals in the air.

The results were serious enough that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state agency involved in air pollution, stepped in.

The commission installed a monitor in Dish in April that provides hourly data on air pollution. In its first three weeks, the monitor hasn't detected any levels above state or federal guidelines.

Gas industry groups say those results prove their argument that the previous tests were inaccurate.

"When you have a continuous air monitor and the results are in the same range, hour by hour, day in and day out -- you can't argue with it," said Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council.

Dish Mayor Calvin Tillman said he believes that the pipeline companies cleaned up their operations after the monitor was installed.

Meanwhile, the town is preparing to test a residential water well. Resident Amber Smith said her family found sediment in their well water shortly after a gas well was fractured about 1,000 feet from their home. Their water had been clean for about seven years, she said.

"We just recently changed the filter, and five or 10 minutes later it was completely gray," she said.

MIKE LEE, 817-390-7539