“Los Vecinos” ask: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Twenty-five neighborly neighbors met at the Edinburg Public Library, March 8, 2016.

“Better Neighbors” is a project of “Texas Impact,” Texas’ oldest and largest statewide interfaith network. Christian, Jewish and Muslim members promote local awareness and action (www.texasimpact.org).

Their mission: focus on poverty, justice and the environment. They coordinated with Mario Bravo of the Environmental Defense Fund and Sergio Mora of the Rio Grande International Studies Center. Franciso Chavero, Jr., and others with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, (TCEQ) were in attendance and contributed to the discussion.

Bravo began with a power point about the “Eagle Ford Shale’ region (SSW of San Antonio to NNE of Austin) and its similarities to impending threats of fracking here in south Texas. Some of the dangers we can see or smell. Many are hidden. The meeting was designed to make people more aware and to instruct in ways to report violations and threats to the environment from oil and gas related operations to the proper state agencies.

Some of the more obvious problems relate to storage tanks not venting properly and/or to air pollutants from insufficiently burning flares. The most dangerous is colorless Sulfur Dioxide, but threats exist from Carbon Dioxide, Nitrogen Oxide and Hydrogen Sulfide (H2S). Many participants, naturally, were feeling overwhelmed by information about the various chemicals and/or about the use or color of warning flags at flare sites. An example was Green for low presence of H2S, Red for high presence of H2S in the ground, with threat of shock, coma or death upon contact.

Bravo (EDF) explained nine million metric tons of methane (natural gas) are leaked from oil and gas activities in the US each year. Approximately one third of that comes from Texas. Because methane is much more potent a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, stipulating the oil and gas industry must reduce methane leaks can have a large impact on climate change in a short amount of time. In addition, many other gas pollutants are released with leaked methane.

Therefore, reducing those leaks helps keep air healthier for those living near oil and gas activities. The industry can reduce leaked methane by 40 percent at the low cost of just one cent per thousand cubic feet of natural gas. However, Texas regulators say they are not going to regulate methane, which is why it is important for the EPA to step in and take action.

Participants responded to the challenge to be more aware and more involved; e.g., contacting local State representatives and/or local law enforcement if/when they suspect a violation or danger to health. Thankfully, contact numbers of relevant agencies were made available for reporting concerns:

Useful agencies and numbers are: Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), District 4, 361-242-3113; Texas Commission for Environmental Quality (TCEQ), District 15, Harlingen, 956-425-6010; and (Federal) Office of Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Corpus Office, 361-888-3420. Most agencies are supposed to respond within 24 hours; often that does not happen.

The Railroad Commission has little or nothing to do these days with railroads and everything to do with oil and gas production. (The RRC was invited to attend this conference but sent no staff). Beca, of the Sierra Club, discussed SC’s proposals (name change for the RRC and more transparency) to the “Sunset” Commission. State Senator Jesus “Chuy” Hinojosa serves on that Commission; he should be contacted by constituents with concerns and input. Hinojosa is seen as friendly to environmental interests.

On the other hand, the State of Texas is often hostile. Governor Abbott is suing the Environmental Protection Agency. The dominant majority in the legislature (and the RRC) are not known as to be friendly to environmentalists. Many of those officials favor big oil and gas drilling. Most of the members of RRC come from those corporations.

One participant likened the problem to the “fox guarding the chicken house.” In addition, a new law has been passed (House Bill 40) reducing municipal authorities the power to regulate oil and gas drilling (including fracking). These attitudes (and the lack of a sufficient number of monitors in the field) do not bode well for health and safety.

This meeting was one of several EDF leaders have made all over the state. Many agreed environmental organizations need help. Yet, these citizens are not daunted. They search for volunteer lawyers and medical professionals to join them; an official or unofficial “ombudsman” could help. What bolsters their confidence is the increasing awareness—nation-wide—of problems and solutions. For example, residents of the Denton/Dallas area join Oklahomans as they experience increasing earthquakes, related to fracking.

At the Edinburg Library, concerned citizens learned ways to respond; e.g., take photos of possible violations; contact the Sheriff’s Department, to provide a “second opinion” until RRC, TCEQ or OSHA officials can investigate. A few successes exist: Professor Scott Nicol praised valiant citizens and City Council of Edinburg as they prevented fracking near school and residential neighborhoods close to Jackson and West Canton. Yet, problems abound; Professor Lynn Vincentnathan spoke of chemical damage to water and health in the McAllen area.

Others interested in these issues have options for more information (Environmental Defense Fund: EDF.org). The San Antonio Express-News has covered the “Eagle-Ford Shale” fracking issue well. What remains is for citizens—as many as possible—to become more involved.

Most realize environmental problems (global warming, etc.) are vast. Yet, many accept they can and must “start at home.” One “take-away” lesson from the session was, sadly, Texas government cannot always be counted on to protect health and public safety. People often must rely on themselves. Good neighbors must take care of their own neighborhoods.