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Senator Charges TCEQ Withheld Air Test Results

By Shelley Kofler, KERA News

Dallas, TX – State Senator Wendy Davis of Fort Worth wants an internal investigation of the state's environmental agency, the TCEQ. At issue is the agency's delay in releasing the results of Fort Worth air tests that detected benzene, a carcinogen. KERA's Shelley Kofler reports a top agency official is apologizing and trying to explain what happened.

The testing in question was prompted by concerned citizens. They worried gas drilling was releasing dangerous chemicals into Fort Worth's air.

In response, the TCEQ, collected air samples last December. In January, agency officials told the public it had found nothing of concern.

But shortly after that, the testing methods were called into question and state officials decided to reexamine the samples. When they did they found four samples with benzene at higher than recommended levels for long term exposure.

The TCEQ says it knew about the detection of benzene on Jan 22, but North Texas officials weren't told about it until nearly four months later- last week.

Davis: I think this was purposefully covert.

State Senator Wendy Davis thinks the TCEQ was trying to hide something for some reason.

Davis: All along they knew they had this issue and they did not make a decision to disclose any of this information until the information was leaked to the press.

TCEQ Deputy Director John Sadlier agrees the agency should have revealed testing information sooner.

Sadlier: There was a failing on our part. I should have reached out.

Sadlier explains the delay by saying he had inconsistent data and decided the agency needed to do a third round of tests before issuing a report.

Sadlier: So I send the field investigators back out because I'm unsure of my data. I actually asked them to take duplicate samples. We sent four of the cans to a commercial lab, we send four of the cans to Austin to be analyzed at the TCEQ lab. Then I'm able to compare that data to see if I have a lab error.

Sadlier says the third set of data showed no elevated benzene levels and the full analysis with all the samples was finished April 26. He apologizes for not contacting Fort Worth counterparts then.

But Senator Davis says the public should have been informed every step of the way: when the first testing was found inadequate; when the re-testing found benzene; when additional samples were analyzed.

Davis: We certainly aren't just looking at short term exposure standards here. We live here. We are concerned about the long term exposure levels and that information absolutely and immediately should have been shared with our community

The TCEQ's Sadler says the samples with benzene do not by themselves indicate a danger from long term exposure. He says the information at hand shows no immediate health concern. He promises more testing.

But Davis says the TCEQ has broken a bond of trust.

Davis: I intend to do a very thorough investigation of exactly what happened.

Davis doesn't believe the agency's telling the whole story.

In response to the air testing revelations Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief said: "We want answers, the public deserves answers, and we believe that the city's independent study will help us find those answers."

Fort Worth plans to do some independent air testing..