DFW Breathes Some of America's Worst Air, and Fracking May Be Partially to Blame

Categories: Environment

640px-Fracking_operation.JPG
Joshua Doubek
Assorted fracking equipment.

Of North Texas' 7 million residents, 1.5 million have asthma, lung disease, heart disease or diabetes. Simply by living here those residents suffer the risk of additional complications beyond those that would normally accompany their diagnoses.

According to a report by the Texas Tribune, the Dallas region has ozone levels that far exceed federally mandated limits. For a time, beginning in 2000 and ending in 2007, air quality in the area actually improved. It was still way outside off what the EPA considers healthy, but things were getting better, thanks largely to improved auto emissions standards. After 2007 what had been a steady decline in ozone stopped, right around the Barnett Shale-induced fracking boom.

A presentation made to the North Central Texas Council of Governments shows that the ozone monitors that most consistently show levels that endanger public health are located, almost exclusively, in Tarrant and Denton Counties, both of which have a high number of fracking wells -- something that is, of course, a source of consternation for many residents.

Last October, the Dallas County Medical Society petitioned the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to lower the levels of pollution allowed by the area's coal-fired power plants.

See also: Denton Didn't Ban Fracking Last Night, but Voters Will Get a Chance to in November

The commission denied the request based on the advice of staff. Brian Shaw, the commission's chairman, even suggested to doctors who testified that the ozone limits should actually be raised, according to the Tribune.

Doctors, scientists and activists believe the decision is reflective of the state's desire to protect the so-called "Texas Miracle" regardless of any future environmental cost.

"When you see Rick Perry start running for president," Jim Schermbeck of Downwinders at Risk says, "everything starts to change. [Regulators] start backtracking on positions that they had earlier and they start finding new ways to dismiss controls."

As the longest sitting governor in Texas history, Perry has had the opportunity to stack both the TCEQ and the bureaucratic layers below it with people who care more about politics than science, Schermbeck says. Those appointees seem unwilling to do anything that might bring the ozone levels down, instead relying on things like more efficient cars to bring North Texas air in line.

"The meme has always been, 'Oh, it's about cars,'" he says. "Not so much anymore. Cars are getting a 90 percent reduction in stuff out the tailpipe, whereas industry is not doing nearly as well."

The way to reduce the ozone levels at the most stubborn sites is to slow emissions from oil and gas drilling -- as well as the equipment they require -- and cement kilns, the heavy polluters Schermbeck's organization has fought for years, he says.

According to modeling reported in the presentation to NCTCOG, relying only on improved auto technology to improve air quality will leave the monitors in Tarrant and Denton counties with readings still over the federal limit in 2018, the year the state is targeting -- after failing by earlier goals of 1996, 1999, 2005, 2009 and 2013 -- to meet the standards.

The Barnett Shale Energy and Education Council told the Tribune that Barnett drillers act responsibly and that there is no solid evidence that emissions from their activities are harmful.

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