Errors from Start to Finish in Center for Public Integrity’s Barnett Shale ‘Investigation’

Today, the Center for Public Integrity — an organization funded by the anti-fracking Park Foundation — published an investigative report on health issues in the 25-county Barnett Shale region of north Texas. As with previous CPI stories on fracking, the allegations in the Barnett Shale report are based on misleading presentations of facts and widely-refuted research — all of which was carefully designed to suggest maximum harm from development.

The problems stem partially from CPI’s insistence on quoting from environmental activist groups that oppose or are critical of fracking, without adequately disclosing those viewpoints. CPI actually shares funding sources with the activist groups it cites in most of its coverage of fracking, conveniently hiding that information from readers. The result is what appears to be several independent voices corroborating CPI’s claims. But as the Washington Free Beacon reported earlier this year, the tactic is actually just a clever way for activist organizations like the Park Foundation to fund an “anti-fossil fuel echo chamber.”

As Dan Gainor of the Media Research Center told the Free Beacon:

“What they do is have one group write on an issue, another quote them or link to them, and so on. It keeps going until they create this perception that there’s real concern over an issue and it bubbles up to top liberal sites like Huffington Post and from there into the traditional media.”

Predictably, much of what was included in CPI’s Barnett Shale report does not stand up to scrutiny, and at times even contradicts itself. Below, we take a look at just a few examples:

CPI: “Texas regulators and politicians have shrugged off such [health] complaints for years. The leap from suspected environmental exposure to definitive proof of harm is a difficult one, and they insist they’ve found no cause for concern.”

FACT: The reason regulators have found “no cause for concern” is not because the complaints were “shrugged off,” nor is it simply because officials “insist” that to be the case. Texas regulators, primarily the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, have spent countless hours – using untold amounts of taxpayer resources – responding to allegations and making sure that problems, if they exist, are fixed.

For example, an investigation of a Wise County residence in 2010 arose after local citizens filed a complaint with TCEQ about the presence of certain chemicals. The investigation concluded that “short-term adverse health effects such as respiratory irritation and central nervous system depression related to these chemicals usually occur at concentrations greater than those reported.” TCEQ nonetheless recommended “emissions reduction” at the facility in question. A few weeks later, TCEQ followed up and found that volatile organic compound (VOC) emissions “were either not detected or were detected below levels of short-term health and/or welfare concern.”

In the aggregate, based on more than a decade of air monitoring, TCEQ has found that shale development is not a significant threat to public health:

“Just as the TCEQ found in the Barnett Shale in North Texas, monitoring data provides evidence that overall, shale-play activity does not significantly impact air quality or pose a threat to human health. This conclusion is based on several million air-monitoring data points for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and other air pollutants that the TCEQ has collected since 2000, in both the Eagle Ford and Barnett shales. While improperly operated facilities can result in temporary, local, unauthorized emissions, there are no indications that these emissions are of sufficient concentration or duration to harm residents of the Eagle Ford or Barnett shales.”

TCEQ data also show that, even as Barnett Shale gas production skyrocketed between 1999 and 2009, ozone levels – which can be linked to asthma and other health problems – actually declined by about 15 percent throughout the region:

barnettshalechart

Ozone values in the Barnett Shale region have declined at the same time that natural gas production has grown significantly. Source: TCEQ

Again, those conclusions aren’t based on TCEQ “shrugging off” concerns. They’re based upon millions of measurements taken from air monitors and other investigations throughout the state over many years.

Finally, it’s worth noting that last year, a peer-reviewed study in the Barnett region concluded that “shale gas production activities have not resulted in community-wide exposures to those VOCs at levels that would pose a health concern.”

CPI: “Measurements taken near sites that residents identified as problematic in five states found spikes in air toxics such as benzene, which can cause leukemia.”

FACT: A claim as inflammatory as this – that oil and gas development “can cause leukemia” – is only as credible as the research that supports it. In this case, the research cited is dubious at best.

First of all, the methods employed in that study were highly questionable. For example, the researchers enlisted volunteers (not scientists) to take air samples with Tedlar bags, which health officials in Colorado have said “may potentially have high background concentrations of some VOC’s and hydrogen sulfide.”

The data were also based on what are called “grab samples” – essentially snapshots in time – which health officials have also suggested are inappropriate for determining long-term risks such as cancer. As the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment wrote in 2011:

“Grab samples are not representative of long-term (lifetime) exposures from a single source and thus should not be used as estimates for long-term cancer/non-cancer risk.” (emphasis added)

Meanwhile, a peer-reviewed study that examined several Pennsylvania counties found “no evidence that childhood leukemia was elevated in any county after [hydraulic fracturing] commenced.” In Colorado, regulators set up air monitors at a well site in response to citizen and environmental group complaints about air quality. Their conclusion:

“The monitored concentrations of benzene, one of the major risk driving chemicals, are well within acceptable limits to protect public health, as determined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The concentrations of various compounds are comparatively low and are not likely to raise significant health issues of concern.” (emphasis added)

Secondly, the study only received the attention it did because it was published in a peer-reviewed journal. But the individuals selected to review the paper have all supported bans on hydraulic fracturing. Is it any wonder, then, that the final “peer-reviewed” product would suggest that shale development is harmful to the public?

Specifically, the reviewers included Sandra Steingraber, who serves as an adviser to Americans Against Fracking. She has campaigned across the country with Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox to call for a ban on fracking. Her hatred of the industry is so ideological and absolute that she even criticized an oil and gas company for helping to find a cure for cancer.

The two other reviewers don’t quite reach that level of hardcore activism (who could?), but their views on shale development are decidedly negative. One of them, Robert Oswald from Cornell University, co-authored an animal health study several years ago, in which he stated that “a ban on shale gas drilling is essential for the protection of public health.” He also helped gather signatures in the town of Ulysses, NY, back in 2011 as part of a petition drive to ban hydraulic fracturing.

The third reviewer, Jerome Paulson, has also taken a position against development. According to a story in 2012, Paulson “has called for a moratorium on all drilling until the health effects can be analyzed.” He also says a moratorium on fracking is a “reasonable” approach.

The author of the research cited by CPI is David Carpenter, a member of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, which has demanded that Governor Andrew Cuomo “adopt a concrete moratorium” on fracking in the state.

None of this was disclosed in CPI’s report, leaving the reader to believe that “science” suggested hydraulic fracturing was harmful to health – not that opponents of fracking still don’t like fracking, which of course isn’t news (or science).

CPI: “A Colorado study found more babies born with congenital heart defects in gas-well-intensive areas than in places without wells.”

FACT: CPI must have been fed a summary of this study directly from one of the many environmental groups with which it shares funding, because that’s the only way it could have missed – or perhaps ignored – what Colorado’s Chief Medical Examiner said in response to the report’s findings.

Dr. Larry Wolk, a former Colorado Pediatrician of the Year and executive director of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, immediately refuted the findings in that report, which relied on data from his agency. Observing that “a reader of the study could easily be misled to become overly concerned,” Dr. Wolk went on to say:

“As Chief Medical Officer, I would tell pregnant women and mothers who live, or who at-the-time-of-their-pregnancy lived, in proximity to a gas well not to rely on this study as an explanation of why one of their children might have had a birth defect. Many factors known to contribute to birth defects were ignored in this study.” (emphasis added)

A few months later, CDPHE completed its own investigation of 22 reported anomalies in unborn children, which looked at more than a dozen potential factors – including proximity to oil and gas wells. The agency concluded: “Our investigation looked at each reported case and concluded they are not linked to any common risk factors.”

CPI: “The Barnett spreads across 5,000 square miles, an area more than twice the size of Delaware. The 26 air-monitoring stations there can’t quantify typical conditions near 16,000 wells and more than 6,000 compressor engines, tanks and other equipment, let alone determine where the highest emissions are.”

FACT: The air-monitoring stations described are run by TCEQ, which told CPI: “Monitoring millions of measurements each year, the TCEQ has found no cause for alarm.” But CPI refused to acknowledge that point with any weight, shifting immediately to claims that the state actually “doesn’t have enough information to make broad judgments about safety,” and that “the vast majority of the region goes un-sampled.”

But according to other parts of the same CPI report, that’s not entirely accurate.

As CPI describes later on, there were “more than 1,370 air complaints” in just a four county area of the Barnett Shale since 2009. TCEQ policy clearly outlines that the agency contacts the source of every complaint, as long as it is not made anonymously. CPI’s report did not say how many of the 1,370 complaints were anonymous, nor did it explain that complaints fall into two categories: “complaint only” and “complaint with information or evidence,” the latter of which is more likely to generate a formal investigation. As with any set of comments submitted to a government agency, some citizen complaints to TCEQ are not intended to elicit a response.

Still, as TCEQ notes, “if the situation is an immediate threat to public health or the environment, we will respond within 24 hours after we receive your complaint.” Some have criticized TCEQ for taking longer than that, but it’s still clear that TCEQ investigates individual sites as part of its statutory duties. These investigations, if they involve emissions, often include new air sampling at the specific site to determine if any violations have occurred.

Don’t just take our word for it, either: CPI’s own report describes many instances of TCEQ taking individual samples at sites throughout the region – samples that are in addition to its extensive air monitoring network in the Barnett.

For example, CPI described a 2010 TCEQ site investigation that “detected the same chemicals in the air near the gas pad, though not at levels the agency deems concerning to health.” Later in the report, CPI referenced “a Barnett monitoring project in 2009,” and TCEQ’s “mobile monitoring effort” in Fort Worth in 2010, which included a follow-up investigation, also by TCEQ. CPI also described “TCEQ tests taken around sites not far from Taylor Ishee’s home in Argyle,” adding that TCEQ actually “tested the air on 21 occasions within about a mile and a half of [Taylor’s] home.” There were also multiple TCEQ investigations of Bob and Lisa Parr’s residence in 2010 and 2011, which are covered in CPI’s report.

What this means is that TCEQ supplements its “millions of measurements” taken each year in the Barnett Shale with numerous individual air samples and analyses. That’s what you would expect of a government agency that has to spend taxpayer dollars in the most effective way possible, and it is how the agency is able to balance the need for regional air quality monitoring with effective, site-by-site investigations.

Interestingly, CPI and the anti-fracking groups that frequently criticize TCEQ never mention exactly how many permanent air quality monitors would be required for the data to be adequate. They merely suggest that “more needs to be done,” which is so vague as to be logically irrefutable and completely meaningless.

CPI: “Two residents of the Barnett were so fed up that they started a nonprofit called ShaleTest to take independent samples of air and water. ‘The average person in Texas would not know if TCEQ just simply dissolved and went away,’ said co-founder Calvin Tillman, who stepped down as mayor of the tiny Barnett town of Dish in 2011 so he could move his family off the shale. ‘They’re there to protect the oil and gas industry, not to protect the people being harmed by the oil and gas industry.’”

FACT: According to ShaleTest’s website, the organization is “proudly affiliated with Earthworks,” one of the most aggressive anti-fracking groups currently active in the Barnett region. That affiliation was not disclosed in CPI’s report. Earthworks was the chief funder of the campaign to ban fracking in Denton, and has cheerfully supported “de facto drilling bans” throughout the Metroplex. None of this was disclosed to CPI’s readers, either.

CPI’s report on the Eagle Ford Shale back in February was essentially a copy and paste job from an Earthworks report published a few months earlier. Both Earthworks and the Center for Public Integrity receive funding from the Park Foundation, which has stated that its mission is to “fuel an army” of organizations as part of its “work to oppose fracking.”

Calvin Tillman, meanwhile, has crisscrossed the country – from Ohio to Michigan to California – to criticize hydraulic fracturing. He has appeared in forums alongside anti-drilling activist Josh Fox, in whose anti-fracking movie, Gasland, Tillman starred.

tillman-josh-fox

ShaleTest’s Calvin Tillman, center, participates in an anti-fracking forum alongside Gasland filmmaker Josh Fox (left) and Earthworks activist Sharon Wilson (right). Source: Dallas Observer

His advocacy against fracking, however, has been found to be without merit. As an NPR headline from 2012 read: “Town’s Effort To Link Fracking And Illness Falls Short.” The town was Dish, Tex., of which Tillman had served as mayor. When Tillman’s organization, ShaleTest, released a report suggesting health impacts from fracking in the Barnett Shale, state experts said his methods were “not scientifically appropriate,” as they compared short-term readings against long-term exposure values.

None of Tillman’s advocacy against the oil and gas industry, including his scientifically dubious reports, was mentioned by CPI.

CPI: “In 2007 the TCEQ raised the amount of benzene it considers an acceptable level of exposure for permitting purposes, doubling it to 54 parts per billion for brief periods and increasing it 40 percent for longer durations, to 1.4 parts per billion. For air-monitoring purposes, the agency’s brief-exposure guideline is even higher, at 180 parts per billion. The World Health Organization’s guidelines say ‘no safe level of exposure can be recommended.’ As far back as the 1940s, research separately produced for the American Petroleum Institute and Shell — later introduced in court proceedings — also concluded that no amount of benzene was safe.”

FACT: It is true that “no amount of benzene” would ever be considered “safe,” but that tells us nothing about relative risk. In the same WHO document that CPI referenced, we find this passage, for example:

“Levels of benzene are higher in homes with attached garages than in those with detached garages. Levels are increased in homes close to petrol filling stations. Benzene may be released to indoor air from unflued oil heating and from the use of benzene containing consumer products in residences. People spending more time indoors, such as children, are likely to have higher exposure to benzene.”

CPI’s suggestion, however, is that the mere presence of benzene near an oil and gas site is cause for alarm. Should benzene levels be kept low? Absolutely. But leading readers down the road that “no safe level of exposure” exists is to suggest that people should never fill up their gas tanks, should not have homes with garages, and should not even let their children play indoors.

Even the WHO acknowledges that a long-term exposure of 5.33 ppb – more than three times larger than TCEQ’s long-term value – correlates with a cancer risk of about 1 in 10,000. A previous assessment from the World Health Organization observed that “mean ambient air concentrations of benzene” in urban areas is between 1.6 ppb and 6.3 ppb, which shows that background benzene levels in urban environments are actually higher than the long-term threshold set by TCEQ.

Given that CPI’s report on the Barnett was about examining what it described “the longest-running experiment” in urban drilling, the omission of these facts about ambient benzene concentrations in urban areas is difficult to understand.

CPI: “Even after the TCEQ increased its benzene guidelines, it found the carcinogen at levels that exceeded them. During a Barnett monitoring project in 2009, agency employees discovered benzene above that yardstick in nearly a third of the 64 sites where they arrived to test for it. Most of the problem samples exceeded the guideline for exposure over an extended time. Tests at two of the sites came back so high they were above the 180-parts-per-billion level deemed safe for brief exposure — including a 15,000 parts-per-billion measurement at a well pad. Thirty-four other chemicals there exceeded TCEQ’s short-term guidelines, too.”

FACT: The first sentence in the TCEQ document referenced by CPI reads:

“All chemicals monitored at the majority of monitoring sites were either not detected or were detected below levels of immediate health concern.”

CPI adds that “most of the problem samples exceeded the guideline for exposure over an extended time,” a curious description of the results, since it’s difficult to factually describe sites as “problem areas” if the readings were actually below the relevant health threshold.

As for that 15,000 parts-per-billion measurement, TCEQ added a key qualifier, which CPI omitted:

“However, this sample was collected on-site, directly at the source, and the general public would not be expected to be exposed to these chemical concentrations from this source.” (emphasis added)

CPI: “The agency [TCEQ] told the Fort Worth City Council in 2010 that a mobile monitoring effort showed no benzene in the air. Not explained was the fact that the measurement techniques weren’t sensitive enough to make that determination. A TCEQ follow-up with more sensitive equipment found benzene above the agency’s guidelines for longer-term exposure at four locations, but no one hastened to alert city officials.”

FACT: CPI cites a TCEQ internal review of that air monitoring project as the source for this anecdote. CPI quoted from that review, specifically its finding that the monitoring results that were published, “while technically accurate, could be considered to be misleading.” The message CPI conveys is that TCEQ knew its techniques weren’t adequate, but that they were “not explained” to the City Council.

But that’s not what the review found. As the TCEQ chief auditor’s office wrote:

“We found no evidence to show that Monitoring Operation’s management was aware that the information could be misleading at the time it was presented to the OCE Deputy.” (emphasis added)

It’s also unsurprising that no one “hastened” to alert city officials of the benzene measurements, because they were all below the short-term health threshold. Why would TCEQ try to create a panic over emissions measurements that aren’t scientifically a cause for alarm?

CPI: “Determining a safe level of exposure, as it happens, is extraordinarily tough — fraught with bizarre twists worthy of science fiction. Take the endocrine system. It controls important functions such as growth, reproduction and energy levels, and it can be affected by very low levels of chemicals, including ones used in fracking, said Carol Kwiatkowski, executive director of the nonprofit Endocrine Disruption Exchange. Kwiatkowski said her group doesn’t trust that government safe-level standards for endocrine-disrupting chemicals are actually safe.”

FACT: The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), far from being simply another “nonprofit” organization, is a well-known critic of oil and gas development, particularly fracking. Its website likens natural gas production to a “cancer-like network” that will ultimately cause “desertification.” It describes the gas industry as “steamrolling” over the land. The group even claims that the industry operates “without restraints from the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, and CERCLA,” a demonstrably false claim. The U.S. Government Accountability Office has stated that those and at least four other federal laws all apply to shale development.

Still, it’s not surprising that TEDX would be quoted in a story about shale development, since the organization has suggested that manipulating the media is a key strategy for advocating against oil and gas development. At a March 2012 forum hosted by another anti-industry group, TEDX president Theo Colborn said:

“Somehow, some way, we need to get drilling and all the other sources of the pollution into the headlines, along with fracking. We’ve got to work on the media on this.” (23:25)

It’s unclear whether CPI was happy to oblige with that request, or simply did so without knowing TEDX’s strategy.

CPI: “Frequently when investigators arrived, whatever the residents had smelled was gone — at least, the investigators couldn’t smell it. Only three of the samples near wells were taken at times when the closest one could have been in the midst of drilling, fracking or the ‘flowback’ that follows, when air-emission spikes are likely. And none of the tests were on the Ishees’ property. What wafted their way, and in what range of concentrations, is unknown.”

FACT: After spending most of the report attempting to undermine TCEQ’s scientific basis for not classifying short-term events as long-term exposure, CPI then unwittingly provides us with proof as to why TCEQ doesn’t do that. Long-term exposure suggests a constant presence over a prolonged period of time. But as this example shows, a snapshot in time is, as the TCEQ has stated, “not scientifically appropriate” to compare against long-term health thresholds.

CPI later quoted from David Brown with the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, which has teamed up with environmental groups in North Carolina to produce anti-fracking TV ads, a fact omitted by CPI. Brown described “very high [emissions] exposures for short periods of time,” adding that “a person can get a tremendous dose in an afternoon.”

Many of the operations associated with oil and gas development are temporary. Hydraulic fracturing takes place over the course of few days, and drilling can take weeks or months. During those periods, it’s important to keep emissions and nuisances to a minimum, but that’s also why health experts have developed a range of health thresholds based upon the exposure windows.

None of this is to say that emission spikes, temporary noise, odors, or other local impacts should be ignored. But that’s also why TCEQ has a policy of responding to individual complaints on a case by case basis, because conditions can change or be different from site to site.

Assuming that emissions associated with a particular hydraulic fracturing operation will persist for 30 years is absurd, and yet many activist groups in the Barnett region – whose opinions were leveraged for this report – suggest that’s exactly what we should do. Science and data should be our guide, but that requires keeping scientific integrity intact — even if it doesn’t support a particular argument against drilling.

CPI: “That definitive-proof problem hampers residents who want legal redress. Health impacts by their very nature are hard to prove, said Ilan Levin, a Texas-based attorney who is associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project, a nonprofit research and advocacy group. ‘So, of course very few people bring suits for injuries,’ he wrote in an email. ‘Of those who do, the vast majority settle and sign gag orders.’”

FACT: The Environmental Integrity Project, which also shares funding sources with CPI, is well-known for producing anti-fracking reports that cannot withstand scrutiny. We do give credit to CPI here for at least acknowledging that EIP is an “advocacy group,” but it’s yet another example of CPI leveraging the opinions of a known anti-fracking group and presenting them as credible and unbiased information.

The use of claims about “gag orders” and non-disclosure agreements is well-worn territory for activist groups, mostly because it allows them to invent claims about development that can never be disproven. With a non-disclosure agreement in place, activist groups can literally claim anything they want about what may or may not have happened. Do they have any evidence? Of course not — but that’s never stopped them before.

Conclusion

The Center for Public Integrity presents itself as a “nonpartisan, nonprofit investigative news” organization, according to its own website. But the Center’s repeated emphasis on covering only the alleged harms of development – and ignoring the environmental benefits of the U.S. shale boom – raises serious questions about its objectivity. The fact that CPI’s reports include considerable conflicts of interest, which are not disclosed to readers, only adds more suspicion about the real intent of CPI’s coverage.

Unfortunately, the Center’s Barnett Shale report is just more of the same, leveraging one-sided opinions and debunked research to tell the story it wants to tell. North Texans likely will not be fooled by CPI’s carefully scripted narrative, but we certainly hope others across the country won’t be suckered into thinking an anti-fracking advocacy piece should ever be confused with actual news.

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