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Despite Admission by Drilling Company, Texas Regulators Refuse to Act

DENTON, TX, Aug. 23 – State air tests in two communities in the Barnett Shale gas patch found strong evidence that a cancer-causing chemical — banned for most uses for more than 25 years — was used in hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells, according to a newspaper investigation. But despite the test results and the drilling company's admission that it used a banned biocide, state regulators have recanted their own findings and refuse to take action.

The Denton Record-Chronicle reported Sunday that air tests by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) found levels of 1,2-dibromoethane, or EDB, at least six times since December 2010 near natural gas facilities in the towns of Argyle and Bartonville. EDB, formerly used as a fumigant pesticide, was banned by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1983 for all but minor uses after it was found to cause cancer and reproductive damage. Four of the six detections were over TCEQ's safe level for long-term exposure.

Community residents say they are sure the chemical came from natural gas operations because they took their own baseline samples of the air, water and soil before wells were drilled and found no EDB. Last December, a representative of the company operating three of the sites, Gulftex Operating Inc. of Dallas, told the Bartonville Town Council they had discovered they were using a “biocide that was . . . banned in commercial uses” and would find an alternative, according to an audio recording of the meeting by the Argyle-Bartonville Community Alliance.

In response to complaints by the Alliance, TCEQ officials at first said there was nothing they could do because they believed the chemical came from historical use of EDB before the wells were drilled. Then, two days before the newspaper prepared to publish its investigation, TCEQ backed off from its own air tests, saying they couldn't be sure they had found any EDB in the air. An agency spokesman said the results “may be due to the sampling and analytical procedure itself instead of actually being present in the ambient air.”

“So their scientific testing is not very scientific?” asked Susan Knoll, a member of the community alliance. “If what they're doing is not accurate, then who in tarnation is supposed to protect us from what's happening in our community?” Detailed data from tests by the state and the alliance are on the alliance's website, and the group has appealed to the EPA for a federal investigation.

Sharon Wilson, an organizer with Earthworks' Oil & Gas Accountability Project, which works closely with the alliance, said the incident is another example of state regulators' inaction in the face of evidence of health risks of fracking.

“It looks like the TCEQ is trying to preempt a scandal by pretending it never happened,” said Wilson. “Or else, they are admitting their science is unsound and we really don't know what's in the air we are breathing in the Barnett Shale. This is a scandal, plain and simple. If TCEQ can't clean up their act, then we need a new sheriff in town.'

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