Nordheim, Texas -- Some families living in a rural area southeast of San Antonio are demanding answers. Margaret Vargas, a resident of the DeWitt County town of Nordheim, Texas, wants to know if they've been exposed to harmful chemicals following an explosion at an Eagle Ford Shale well.
- Natural gas well exploded November 1
- Created large plume of smoke
- Concerns about chemicals in air persist
Riding down ranch roads with her grandchildren used to feel different for Vargas.
"I was excited about bringing them out here to the country to breathe fresh air, and that's not what they're going to be breathing," she said.
She's reconsidering living on her property. An early morning fog hides the reason why. When The fog cleared, Vargas's concern was visible for miles.
"I can sense it in my nose and in my throat. Sometimes it will burn," she said.
A blowout at a Devon Energy natural gas well - about three miles from Vargas's farm - caused a large plume of smoke. Local law enforcement evacuated a two-mile radius in the hours after the blast. The blowout happened November 1. Twenty days later, it's still burning.
According to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, an air monitor 18 miles away showed elevated levels of the carcinogen Benzene in the three days after the blowout. The TCEQ says the measurements are well below what it calls the “short-term health comparison level.” Vagas wonders what those levels are at her home. She says she’s not getting any answers.
"Tell us the things we need to know to keep our exposure to a minimum," she said.
In a statement, Devon Energy says: "Progress is being made on cleanup of nearby roadways, properties and infrastructure and environmental assessment and remediation remain a top priority."
The TCEQ says it has not detected levels exceeding what it says are "short-term health exposure outside the two-mile evacuation zone."
"Let us make the decision of whether we think it's safe to continue living in this area," Vargas said.
A spokesman for Devon Energy tells us as of earlier this week, some families were still living in motels. The company is offering assistance for lodging and meals but this community just wants to know what's in that smoke. The smoke stopped shortly after the interview with Vargas, but she says her concerns remain.
Below are the full statements sent by the TCEQ, Texas Railroad Commission and Devon Energy.
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Statement 1:
"The well blowout incident in DeWitt County that began on Nov. 1 is currently ongoing. The well is under the jurisdiction of the Railroad Commission of Texas; however, TCEQ is providing support to the local authorities and is conducting handheld air monitoring in the area with equipment called UltraRaes and MultiRaes. This handheld equipment provides instantaneous readings for various compounds, including volatile organic compounds, benzene, lower explosive limit, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and radiation (gamma). TCEQ has not detected any levels exceeding short-term health exposure (levels of concern) outside of the two-mile evacuation zone.
"On Nov. 1, Devon Energy Production Co. submitted an initial notification to the TCEQ of an emissions event (Incident No. 323949) associated to the well blowout via the State of Texas Environmental Electronic Reporting System or STEERS. The initial notification estimated that more 12,000 pounds of natural gas will be released. Since this well was not regulated by TCEQ, a STEERS account had to be created. Once the STEERS account is finalized, the report will be publicly available at the following link, https://www2.tceq.texas.gov/oce/eer/. If the emissions event falls within the jurisdiction of TCEQ, a final report will be required to be submitted within two weeks from the end of the event.
"Additionally, the responsible party has a contractor conducting air monitoring within a five-mile radius of the well.
"As the primary state agency responding to the event, any questions relating to the well-control incident and its repair may be directed to the RRC. TCEQ is supporting local authorities efforts by conducting air monitoring outside the evacuation zone."
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Statement 2:
"Preliminary data from the Karnes County air monitor indicate elevated levels of benzene and xylene in the period following the Devon Energy incident in DeWitt County. The highest level of benzene recorded at that monitor from Nov. 1 through Nov. 5 was 7.94 parts per billion at 2 a.m. on Nov. 2, well below the short-term health air monitoring comparison value of 180 ppb.
"The wind directions noted at the Karnes County monitor at the time of the elevated readings were not consistently from the direction of the well blowout. Wind speeds were calm at about three miles per hour, leading to stagnant conditions. It is possible that the blowout influenced the pollutant readings at the Karnes County monitor; however, it is not possible to determine how much of those readings were attributable to the blowout about 18 miles away versus other oil and gas activities in the area."
Texas Commission on Environmental Quality Statement 3:
"As previously stated, Devon Energy has a contractor conducting air monitoring within a five-mile radius of the well, which includes the area within the two-mile zone. This data is being provided to the TCEQ and is being evaluated by TCEQ toxicologists. Based upon the agency’s air monitoring comparison values, the detected peak concentrations did not pose an imminent health threat but could have potentially been odorous and could have caused mild temporary effects, such as headache, eye irritation, and/or nausea. Other state and local officials also have access to the data. TCEQ does not have the data posted publicly; however, it is publicly available upon request."
Railroad Commission of Texas Statement:
"Protection of public safety and our environment is the Railroad Commission’s highest priority. Our San Antonio Oil & Gas District office has an inspector on site, and reports the well was brought under control at about 10:45 a.m. today. The Commission will continue to monitor the site, and once it is safe to do so, an RRC inspector will inspect this well for compliance with Commission Oil & Gas rules found at the link below:
"Information on our webpage regarding blowouts is the most up-to-date data available.
"The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality regulates air quality, so please reach out to them with your questions regarding air quality."
Devon Energy statement:
"A few families in the immediate area of the incident remain evacuated, and Devon continues to assist them by providing lodging, meals and other needs. We’re working as expeditiously as possible to enable these families to return home as well.
"The flow of hydrocarbons from the well has been successfully diverted to a controlled containment area, where the stream is ignited in a secure environment a safe distance from the well itself. This enables crews to prepare the well to be plugged.
"Devon continues to work closely with local and state authorities to manage the incident, focusing on public safety, environmental monitoring and protection.
"There have been no injuries at the well site and work has proceeded safely.
"Access to the area within a 2-mile radius of the well location is restricted for safety.
"Good progress is being made on cleanup of nearby roadways, properties and infrastructure, and environmental assessment and remediation remain a top priority."