Investigation finds oil companies leaking toxic gas, endangering residents

“State regulators are not effectively protecting Texans” from exposure to hydrogen sulfide, says Will Evans, a senior reporter for The Examination.

By Alexandra HartJune 14, 2024 3:33 pm,

Imagine the smell of rotting eggs: certainly not pleasant if it’s coming from the back of your fridge, but if you’re anywhere near an oil or gas, it could be a telltale sign of a toxic gas called hydrogen sulfide.

There’s limits on how much hydrogen sulfide companies are allowed to emit. But a new investigation from the investigative outlet The Examination and the Houston Chronicle found that thousands of Texans live near oil and gas wells that could be leaking excess amounts of the gas, putting their health at risk.

Will Evans, senior reporter for The Examination, joined the Standard with more from their findings.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity: 

Texas Standard: How is hydrogen sulfide gas produced? And what are the potential health effects? 

Will Evans: It’s produced naturally underground. And there’s certain regions that are just saturated with it. And it stays underground unless you drill for oil, and then it comes up with the oil – and it can be released then or, often, gets released when it’s being stored in these giant storage tanks with oil and the wastewater that comes up with it.

And it’s really not a problem unless you get exposed to it. And in high concentrations, it’s deadly. I mean, it’ll knock you down and kill you very quickly in very high concentrations. And it’s well known in the oilfield. Oil workers will wear the hydrogen sulfide monitors often to tell them when to get out of the area.

But a lot less attention is being paid to the communities who live around there. And they’re breathing in lower levels of this gas, day by day. And it can make you sick. 

So what are the regulations in place to try and prevent that? 

There are a number of regulations, but what we found is that the state regulators are not effectively protecting Texans from this gas. There’s a limit for how much hydrogen sulfide is supposed to be in the air at any time. But when the state environmental agency measures it going over that limit over and over again, they don’t do much about it. They kind of downplay that risk and say it’s not a concern.

We found families that have been exposed to much higher levels. In fact, sometimes the state’s own investigators will go out and they’ll evacuate because the levels are so high. Some state employees got sick from the gas right outside people’s homes. And still nothing was done about it.

So, you know, the inspectors will come out, if they see gas venting, if they see the gas coming out, they will tell oil companies to fix it. And the oil companies, by and large, will, do a repair, but it’s not a long-term repair. It happens over and over and over again, and there’s really no consequences for that. The regulators will come out over and over to the same leaking sites, and nothing really will be done to put a stop to it. 

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What’s it like to be one of those people who lives near those sites? What have they told you about the symptoms that they experience? 

The people I’ve talked to, they suffer from regular headaches, from nausea, from sometimes rashes and respiratory issues – coughing, asthma, things like that. Headaches and nausea are the most common, but they also really worry about what it’s doing over the long term to their kids, you know?

And we don’t actually know very much about what it does over the long term. We just know that the research shows that even long-term exposure to really low levels can affect you. 

One of the people you talked to for this story was a retired regulator, Sam Birdwell. He used to work for the Railroad Commission, which oversees oil and gas in Texas. What did he have to say about hydrogen sulfide? 

Yeah, he worked overseeing oil companies on this issue, on hydrogen sulfide, for many years; he worked at the Railroad Commission for 30 years. And he basically came to the understanding that the regulations weren’t tough enough; they needed to be updated and strengthened because, with the tools he had, he didn’t feel like he could adequately protect people.

He could go out and tell an oil company to stop, you know, releasing this gas, and there would be some quick fix, but then it would be happening again.

When I called him out of the blue, he told me that what really bothered him was, you know, seeing these families, especially elderly people and young children, who live next to this stuff, and he couldn’t prevent it because the state regulations, as they are, didn’t give them the tools that would really adequately deal with this. 

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