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EPA: Industry must disclose hydrogen sulfide emissions

A gas-drilling rig in Texas. PHOTO BY DAVID R. TRIBBLE.

Byproduct of drilling operations can have a slew of negative health impacts

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Taking a small step in the long-running battle over oil and gas drilling impacts to communities, the EPA this week ruled that energy companies must once again include releases of hydrogen sulfide as part of their required environmental disclosures.

Starting next year, hydrogen sulfide emissions must again be reported to the Toxics Release Inventory, a federal database that allows Americans to find out what hazardous chemicals are being released in their communities. Nationwide, communities have used the TRI to learn about chemical releases in their neighborhoods and to campaign for tighter regulations and health protections.

Hydrogen sulfide occurs naturally, but is also a byproduct of many industrial processes, including paper manufacturing, sewage treatment, or livestock feedlots. It is also found in oil and natural gas, which is considered “sour” if it has a high percentage of the compound. It may leak from drill rigs and refineries, but is often also deliberately burned off, exposing nearby communities to its harmful effects.

Common symptoms of exposure to long-term, low levels of hydrogen sulfide include headache, skin complications, respiratory and mucous membrane irritation, respiratory soft tissue damage and degeneration, confusion, impairment of verbal recall, memory loss, and prolonged reaction time. Exposure to high concentrations can cause unconsciousness and can be fatal.

Hydrogen sulfide was added to the TRI list in 1993, but reporting was suspended the next year under pressure from industry. Since then, communities and advocates have campaigned for its reinstatement. Earthworks was part of a coalition led by Neil J. Carman of the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club that worked for this reinstatement..

In 2005, Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) measured concentrations of hydrogren sulfide in the air in residential areas of three Alabama counties and found levels hundreds or thousands times higher than naturally occurring background levels. A year later, a study from a University of California, Berkeley researcher found similar results

In 2009, Earthworks and a number of organizations requested that EPA consider regulating hydrogen sulfide under the Clean Air Act and lifting the TRI list suspension.

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