Today the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality released the results of a study of 94 monitoring sites in the Barnett Shale region. At 21 of the sites, the levels of the carcinogenic pollutant benzene were higher than TCEQ would like to see. But at only two of those was the level so high that immediate corrective action was required.
Al Armendariz, the regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency, told me last week that the public can be confused about whether it’s safe to live near natural gas wells, since a quick succession of news reports in recent months have delivered conflicting stories. The truth is that different portions of the Barnett Shale contain different hydrocarbons, and thus it’s entirely possible for one site to be dangerous while another is relatively harmless to health.
While there’s a lot of talk about potential danger from natural gas wells, or cement kilns in Midlothian, Armendariz says one just as great (or greater) threat to our health surrounds most of us every day: highways.
So would I be better off living near a natural gas well — away from the polluted air of the jam-packed interstates — or right near the intersection of LBJ and Central?
Here’s what he said:
I am concerned that we’ve got a lot of communities, a lot of schools and libraries, and parks even, that are near some of our major interstate freeways .. There is a lot of evidence that is coming out very recently that suggests that children that are exposed to high levels of things like carbon monoxide or NO2, even under our current standards, have higher rates of absenteeism and asthma.
You could live near natural gas wells that aren’t leaking, that are operated and maintained properly, and not be exposed to air pollution. Or you could be living near natural gas wells or other infrastructure that have high levels of benzene …
We certainly would have concerns about people living near either poorly maintained natural gas infrastructure or major highways, because both of those groups of people would be exposed to high levels of pollution.
Living near a highway, you know what you’re going to get: Bad air.
With a natural gas well, it’s more of a gamble. You could be a big winner out in the country, away from the smog of the big city. Or you could find yourself inhaling toxic levels of benzene.