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Con: Flaring is not properly monitored and releases harmful pollutants into the air

By Sara Sneath
March 16, 2014 at 10:02 p.m.
Updated March 15, 2014 at 10:16 p.m.


Harry Zimmermann, 64, of Cheapside, has been fighting allergies since December. He thinks his persistent head cold might be the result of flaring.

"When the air is stagnant, you can smell the gas," Zimmermann said.

He hasn't collected any air samples, but he's had his water well tested several times for contamination. It's come back clean every time, he said.

"I check my goldfish every day. So far, he's been doing all right," Zimmermann said.

Neil Carman, a former Texas Commission on Environmental Quality inspector, said he is concerned about the potential health effects of flares.

"I think it's a problem," said Carman, who is now the clean air program director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.

If vented gas is pushed through a flare within a given speed and heat, the flame will destroy 98 percent of harmful organic compounds, such as the cancer-causing compound benzene, said Steve Thompson, the EPA associate director for air/toxics and inspection coordination branch.

He said the EPA sets regulations on flares that, if met, would burn 98 percent of toxins, turning them into carbon dioxide and water.

But smoke coming off a flare is a sign that a flare is not achieving 98 percent destruction of harmful compounds, allowing those compounds to emit into the air, said Carman.

"The material that is not burned is very toxic," Carman said.

Without 98 percent destruction, it is possible for benzene, a known carcinogen, and newly formed chemicals called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons to be emitted.

"These PAHs are highly toxic substances," he said. "When you see smoke, you are going to find these PAHs."

The potentially legal gas hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs, changes into a less harmful substance when burned, but if not burned all the way, hydrogen sulfide can cause headaches and in certain quantities can lead to respiratory paralysis and asphyxiation, Carman said.

Flaring at oil and gas well sites does not have to be reported to the TCEQ unless emissions are of a "reportable quantity," which is different for each chemical compound, said Andrea Morrow, a TCEQ spokeswoman.

Since 2010, five air emission events have been reported to TCEQ in DeWitt County. A reportable air emission event is any event that in a 24-hour period results in an unauthorized emission of a reportable quantity or in excess of the reportable quantity. Only one of the sites was issued a notice of violation, and none of the sites were fined, Morrow said.

Texas Railroad Commission allows operators to flare gas while drilling a well - for up to 10 days after a well is complete - during a well workover operation or, in some cases, during a pipeline shutdown, Ramona Nye, Texas Railroad Commission spokeswoman, wrote in an email.

The majority of commission flaring permit requests are for flaring at oil well sites, according to the commission's website.

Permits to flare from gas wells are not typically issued, according to the site.

"It just goes to show there are loopholes in the regulations," Carman said.

It is unclear how far emissions from flares can travel, Carman said. Because of this, it's questionable if and how unburned flare emissions affect those who live nearby. He said there is technology like infrared thermal imaging cameras that can be used to detect whether or not a flare is burning at 98 percent destruction, but they are not required at well sites.

"Through EPA enforcement and inspection programs, we can identify many instances where flares have been improperly monitored and operated," EPA spokesman Joe Hubbard said.

As a result of the violations, the EPA released an "enforcement alert," a four-page document outlining how to flare within regulations.

"Innovations to technology improve all the time, and industry is learning constantly and finding more effective methods to deal with waste gas rather than flaring," Hubbard said in an email.

A possible alternative to flaring is a flare gas recovery system, which captures the gas, making it possible for the company to either sell the gas or use it as an energy source, Carman said. He said some facilities have been using systems that capture gas for about 30 years.

"We shouldn't really be burning any of this stuff; we should be capturing it. By not burning it completely, we are wasting a resource and turning it into something more harmful," Carman said.

Pro: Flaring is safe way to prevent harmful air pollution

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