Fort Worth clears way for air pollution testing at drilling sites to begin this month

FORT WORTH -- A highly anticipated series of tests for air pollution around natural gas drilling sites in Fort Worth will start this month.

The City Council approved a $600,000 contract Tuesday with Eastern Research Group to conduct the tests and prepare a report due in March. The council approved a separate $50,000 contract at the end of July with Eastern, which was intended to fund preliminary testing work.

City officials say some of the tests will be unprecedented and could provide the best picture yet of how drilling in the Barnett Shale gas field affects the area's air pollution problem.

"This study is going to be a lot bigger than Fort Worth or Tarrant County," Mayor Mike Moncrief said. "They're going to be looking at this in other parts of the country where there are other shale plays."

The contract calls for the company to test every phase of gas development -- the drilling itself, well completions, hydraulic fracturing and pipeline operations.

Eastern will use infrared cameras and toxic-vapor analyzers to screen 75 percent of the gas installations in the city -- wells, storage tanks, compressors and aboveground pipeline components -- said Michael Gange, the city's assistant environmental director.

Between 35 and 50 of those sites will be chosen for further testing, including canister tests to determine the exact chemical composition of the emissions and tests with instruments that can determine the rate of flow of the emissions, Gange said.

At the same time, the company will conduct ambient monitoring to determine the background levels of emissions in the region.

The results of the ambient tests and the on-site tests will be used to draw computer models of how the emissions disperse in the air. Those could be used to determine how far wells should be set back from homes and businesses.

"When we have pad sites that may currently have one well, what happens when we have five?" Gange said.

Both sets of tests are scheduled to start at the end of August. The timing is key because some studies have indicated that emissions from drilling might play a role in the development of ozone, which usually forms in hot months.

The city ordered the tests to help settle disputes over how much pollution gas drilling causes.

Fort Worth is home to about 1,200 natural gas wells. The gas industry and regulators at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality have repeatedly maintained that drilling is safe.

The environmental agency didn't begin doing tests until late in 2009, though, about the same time that tests by private landowners and the small town of Dish revealed higher-than-normal levels of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, and other toxic substances.

In May, the agency revealed that it had suppressed test results that showed higher-than-normal levels of benzene at well sites in Fort Worth.

City officials originally considered hiring a company that was already conducting tests for an industry trade group. Numerous residents said that approach would be biased. That led the council to appoint a committee of residents and gas industry representatives to draw up the parameters of the study and select a contractor.

The committee will review the test results, and Eastern is also scheduled to provide progress reports to the council.

Mike Lee, 817-390-7539