When an oil well blew out in Southwest Houston near Texas Parkway and the Fort Bend County Tollway in early December, authorities assured residents all was safe despite the strong smell of hydrogen sulfate gas in the air.
Now more than a week after the Dec. 6 blow out, the smell is still strong and a former state investigator who once worked with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) investigating odor complaints is calling foul.
“I don’t think we were told the whole truth,” said Dr. Neil Carman, the Clean Air Program Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club and former TCEQ investigator. “There was some misrepresentation. It only takes a single breath of hydrogen sulfate gas. It takes very little to cause adverse health effects. We haven’t done a good enough job in Texas,” he said.
Carman spoke Friday at the site of the blowout during a press conference organized by State Rep. Ron Reynolds. Reynolds, the ranking member of the House Committee on Environment Regulations, held the conference in a Missouri City field near the blowout.
Reynolds said he invited TCEQ and representatives from the Railroad Commission of Texas, which has jurisdiction over oil and gas exploration, production and transportation. Neither organization attended the press conference but both issued a statement. The commission said cleanup is 70 percent complete and well under control. They also stated there was no evidence of spills impacting the wells, waterways homes or lands, said Reynolds.
TCEQ stated the blowout caused a small rotten egg smell.
“It is odorous, not necessarily harmful, and has the potential to cause headaches and nausea,” the agency said in a statement.
“They have maintained that during this investigation when their staff noted odors, low levels of hydrogen sulfate have been detected below levels that would be a health concern or an immediate threat to public health and safety. TCEQ has also noted that odorous levels are not necessarily harmful levels,” said Reynolds.
Carman made his comments after Reynolds shared the response from TCEQ. Carman said that concerns about hydrogen sulfate gas are nothing new.
“In 1992, efforts to take concerns more seriously were opposed by the industry. Environmental proponents wanted to lower the acceptable levels to 10 parts per billion but it stayed at 80 parts,” he said.
Before working in the private sector for the Sierra Club, Carman worked 12 years as a field investigator in the Permian Basin located in West Texas and southeastern New Mexico and described by Chevron Gas as one of the most prolific oil and natural gas basins in the country.
“I worked 12 years for TCEQ. We tested and responded to citizen complaints about air pollution and the most common complaint was hydrogen sulfate gas. We knew in 1992. The EPA wanted to declare it a hazardous air pollutant. It is not officially recognized but it should be a toxic gas,” he said.
Carman also said it is possible the wells are too close to homes and more needs to be done to protect residents.
“People should be a least a quarter to a half mile away. It depends on what is in these wells. The agencies need to err on the side of caution,” said Carman.
Since his comments contradicted TCEQ, Reynolds said he will take those concerns back to the state agency.
“Public safety is paramount, the industry is secondary. We will follow up and follow through. These comments have not been independently verified. But he is a former TCEQ investigator and we take that very seriously,” Reynolds said.
Also present were representatives from the HAZmat team of the Houston Fire Department who responded to the original incident because it borders Houston; the Fort Bend County Fire Marshal; and David Carl Evans, the president of the Super Neighborhood Council in District 41, a consortium of 15 to 20 communities in Fort Bend County in southwest Houston and Missouri City neighborhoods.
As he spoke during the Friday press conference after hearing Carman’s comments, Evans said, “I’m concerned smelling this odor and wonder are we safe at this location.”
Evans said he has been getting calls, texts, and emails from residents asking, “what are they trying to do, kill us?”
According to their Facebook page, the Fort Bend/Houston Super Neighborhood is located in far south, southwest Houston and is generally located between the South Sam Houston Tollway/Beltway 8 and McHard Road, and between Hiram Clark Road and Fondren. Fort Bend/Houston is a collection of middle-class subdivisions developed in the 1960s and 1970s in northeastern Fort Bend County. Beginning in the 1970s, the area has attracted middle-class African-American families. Most of the housing in the area is single-family. New home construction has recently resumed in the southeastern part of this Fort Bend ISD community.
Evans said the Super Neighborhood Council in August adopted a clean air and water bill for the area.
“We want to make sure chemical plants are meeting the high standard of safety. We want to address the odors at the Blue Ridge Landfill and the Pearland Lift Station,” said Evans. “We have problems with air pollution and we want to assess the impact of contaminants and research the unaddressed odors. So I reached out to Ron Reynolds. I want to hold our elected officials accountable to the children and the elderly.”
Reynolds said he has served four consecutive sessions on the House Committee on Environmental Regulation.
“I am very aware and too often hear the horror stories of these dangerous gas leaks and chemical spills and the potential dangerous health effects that can happen following these incidents.
“Last session I filed House Bill 2753. This legislation would have required TCEQ to examine their rules on inspections and leak detection to see if improvements could be made, precisely to avoid these types of accidents and fugitive emissions. Unfortunately, my legislation did not pass, so I will be pre-filing this legislation again next November, and make it a must-pass priority for me,” Reynolds said.