Texas' Commission on Environmental Quality reviewed Wolf Eagle's work and agreed that the contaminants could pose a long-term health risk to residents. This year, it followed up with air monitoring of its own in nearby Fort Worth. While the agency determined that contamination levels did not present a public health risk, emissions at five test sites violated state regulatory guidelines. The state documented high levels of benzene and formaldehyde—both carcinogens—in those spots.
"Evidence like that really gives our agency a bit of urgency in its work," said Al Armendariz, the EPA's regional administrator for south central states, based in Texas.
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One of the byproducts of the natural gas boom has been that environmental agencies set up to handle issues of permitting and waste disposal are grappling with questions of health and epidemiology, subjects in which they have little training or experience.
In Pennsylvania and Colorado, regulators are still taking the first awkward steps toward developing processes to track and investigate reports of illness related to drilling.
Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection has received 1,306 drilling-related complaints since 2009—45 percent of which alleged water pollution—but officials acknowledged they couldn't separate out how many involved health issues. Officials with the state Department of Health said they coordinated with the DEP on drilling-related health complaints but would not respond to questions for this story and denied ProPublica's request for complaint records, citing privacy concerns.
Pennsylvania's secretary of health has urged the creation of a registry to track health complaints in the state's drilling areas—at an annual cost of about $2 million—but so far, the governor has not acted upon the recommendation.
Records show Colorado's Oil and Gas Conservation Commission received 496 complaints between mid-2006 and the end of 2008. But officials there, much like their Pennsylvania counterparts, have no way to separate those related to health—even the ones passed on by the state Department of Public Health and Environment—from those concerning spills, or noise, or other disruptions.
In an internal government report, the commission separated out complaints related to odors for this period. There were 121. But there are limited public records reflecting what state officials did in response to these reports. Often, records show state officials pursued or fixed the source of an odor, but not whether they tracked any possible health effects connected to the odors.
"Those are allegations, they're complaints, they may or may not be valid complaints," said Debbie Baldwin, the commission's environmental manager. "Given the number of people in the state, the number of wells in the state and the amount of activity associated with oil and gas ... that's a small number."
It is unclear from available records whether the commission ever independently evaluated Susan Wallace-Babb's assertion that toxic emissions harmed her health. The agency's report shows that inspectors confirmed her story about an overflow and fumes and asked Williams, the company drilling near her home, whether dangerous pollutants had been emitted. The company said no, assuring inspectors "this is a non-incident," records show. In the segment of the incident report labeled "resolution," the agency also noted that the company suspected Wallace-Babb "may have been influenced by others annoyed with local gas-field operators."
In response to a request for comment, Williams referred ProPublica to a letter it submitted to the U.S. House Oversight and Government Reform committee after Wallace-Babb testified in 2007. In the letter, the company says that it placed a cap on an open tank near Wallace-Babb's home and conducted its own air monitoring for pollutants that would post a health risk, finding none. State and federal air monitoring also did not find levels of emissions that would clearly pose a health risk, the company said. "We had employees or contractors at the well site on a regular basis and none of them ever complained about feeling sick as a result of being near the tank," Williams’ letter states.