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Lawsuit Highlights Concern Over Air Quality and Shale Drilling

Brad Gilde is a lawyer representing Bob and Lisa Parr. (Mose Buchele)

When a Dallas jury awarded three million dollars to a North Texas family in their case against a drilling company, people wondered what it could mean for fracking and its opponents. But the case also highlights a growing health concern in Texas’ booming oil and gas fields.

For years, a lot of the debate around the drilling boom focused on its potential to pollute groundwater. Lately concerns over water seem to have been overtaken by a new worry, one exemplified in the recent multi-million dollar jury verdict.

“This lawsuit was really a lawsuit about air emissions from the totality of unconventional shale gas development,” Brad Gilde, a lawyer for the Parr family, tells StateImpact Texas.

In that lawsuit, the Parrs say that Aruba Petroleum’s natural gas operations near their Wise County ranch, outside of Fort Worth, made them sick.  At the trial, they brought in medical experts to show how contaminants used by drillers were found in their bodies.

In the last several months, a handful of reports have come out showing how drilling emits pollution in populated parts of Texas. One investigation by the Center for Public Integrity focused on South Texas. Another from the Alamo Area Council of Governments found that the oil boom was worsening air quality in San Antonio. Then there was a study from the University of Texas at Austin about air pollution in the North Texas shale region where the Parrs live.

“We need to acknowledge that there is a lot of uncertainty of the effects of toxic emissions on health, especially children’s health” says Rachel Rawlins, the author of the UT Austin study. “And given that uncertainty, we need to think about planning and setbacks and just doing our best in locating industrial activities in urban areas.”

She suggests giving local governments more power to regulate toxic emissions, increasing study of potential health impacts, and installing more air monitors.

That last suggestion seems to have the support of Lisa Parr.

“I think that should be one of the regulations for the industry. That if you’re going to have a multitude of wells, you should have an air monitoring system,” Parr says.

As far as the court case goes, a judge still needs to sign off on the verdict. If that happens, Aruba Petroleum is expected to appeal. One of its defense strategies has been to argue that there were so many gas well in the area, it’s hard to prove which ones might be responsible.