Oil companies leak toxic gas across Texas — making local residents sick

Tens of thousands of people live close to oil and gas wells where they risk exposure to hazardous levels of hydrogen sulfide. Regulators do little to protect them.

Infrared video shows gas laced with hydrogen sulfide leaking from tanks across from the Hinojos family home in Odessa, Texas on Sept. 13, 2022. (Source: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality)

This story is published in partnership with the Houston Chronicle.

Before dawn on a fall day in 2022, Texas air analysts approached a mobile monitoring van parked on the edge of Odessa, in West Texas.

They were hit with the stench of rotten eggs, the telltale sign of hydrogen sulfide. The invisible poisonous gas had seeped in, saturating the van. 

Breathing it in, the state workers grew sick: racing heartbeats, headaches, nausea. Their equipment had picked up what internal notes would later call “insanely high” levels of gas in the neighborhood.

The analysts fled.

Next door, Vanessa and Victor Hinojos were just starting their day with their two young children.  No one told them that hydrogen sulfide levels outside their home had soared to 82 times the Texas limit for a residential area.

And no one has stopped it yet. 

The Hinojos family home is located near a cluster of wells and tanks, operated in recent years by Cambrian Management, in Odessa, Texas.The Examination

Across Texas, oil companies are belching hydrogen sulfide gas into communities, near families and schools, with few or no repercussions, an investigation by The Examination and the Houston Chronicle has found.

The state has a limit for hydrogen sulfide in the air, but regulators broadly disregard it, downplaying the health threats, the investigation found. At two sites in the Permian Basin alone, gas levels exceeded the state limit 1,590 times since the state started measuring in 2020. 

Outside the Hinojos home, independent testing by the news organizations this spring detected hydrogen sulfide levels frequently soaring past the state limit. 

Known as H2S, the fumes escape from aging oil and wastewater tanks scattered within this community in the heart of the Permian Basin — one of the most productive oil fields in the world.

Extremely high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide can kill quickly, but less attention has been paid to those breathing in lower levels of the gas in their daily lives. Studies have linked chronic low-level H2S exposure to neurological and other health problems. 

The Hinojos family and other Texans living near facilities leaking the gas describe a litany of ailments, including headaches, nausea, eye and nose irritation, coughing, asthma and rashes. 

The Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates the oil industry, doesn’t map storage tanks or the locations of dangerous hydrogen sulfide concentrations. 

The Houston Chronicle and The Examination mapped for the first time more than 54,000 wells in Texas that are associated with high enough concentrations of the gas to be “immediately dangerous to life or health,” if the gas were to leak and people were exposed directly.

An estimated 78,000 people live within half a mile of those wells, according to an analysis of Railroad Commission data and U.S. Census population estimates by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. 

Eighty-eight schools are in the same footprint. 

“This is a major concern,” said Rui Wang, dean of the faculty of science at York University in Toronto and a leading researcher on H2S. “If the people live in the radius of a half mile, they will be affected by those leaks. If there is a serious leak, their health definitely is a concern.”

Even residents outside the half-mile radius could be affected, Wang said. The degree of risk that residents face depends on how much gas escapes, how far away they live, weather and wind direction.

A review of hundreds of investigation files from the Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which oversees air quality, shows that residents struggle to get help and when Texas inspectors find the gas venting into the air, companies seldom face penalties. 

Instead of making repeat offenders upgrade their facilities, inspectors return to the same leaking oil tanks again and again as problems persist for years.

“The impact to the general population should not be underestimated,” said Gunnar Schade, an associate professor at Texas A&M University who studies oil-field air pollution. “It’s so toxic and so dangerous.”

Schade called the high levels of hydrogen sulfide in residential areas “shocking” and said when a monitor picks up the gas at one level, that suggests that it’s swirling through the community at possibly much higher levels elsewhere. Nobody should be living close to the facilities, he said. 

Yet there are only three sites in the Permian Basin where the state continuously tests the air for hydrogen sulfide. 

One is at Odessa’s Murry Fly Elementary School, where a statue of a spurting oil derrick displays the school’s nickname, the Oilers. Measured near a playground with seesaws and slides, airborne hydrogen sulfide levels have broken the state limit 185 times since 2020. But the principal said he was never warned.

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Asked how it keeps residents safe, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said it uses its Air Pollutant Watch List to focus resources on areas with “elevated concentrations of air toxics.” But the agency hasn’t added to that list since 2007, ignoring the shale boom that has brought an explosion of oil and gas activity across the state since then. It doesn’t include the Hinojos family’s neighborhood or any other site in the Permian Basin. 

TCEQ spokesperson Victoria Cann said the agency investigates complaints, and “when violations are identified, a penalty may, or may not, be appropriate to assess.” She said the agency uses its monitoring system, the watch list and a permitting process “to ensure that ambient air toxic concentrations are at levels that are protective of public health and welfare.” Cann added that the agency communicates with “local industry” when monitoring stations find elevated readings and notifies emergency responders when there is an imminent health risk.

The Railroad Commision “takes its mission to protect communities and the environment very seriously, and any implication otherwise is false,” spokesperson Patty Ramon said in an email statement. “We continuously monitor facilities, especially those near schools or neighborhoods, to ensure safety.”

The commission conducts a large number of inspections at sensitive sites, including 70 near the Hinojos house in recent years, the statement said. When inspectors find violations, they work to make sure companies resolve them as quickly as possible, it added.

Flare burns near Hinojos family home
A flare burns near the home of Vanessa and Victor Hinojos as their children play in the yard on Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in Odessa, Texas. Photo by Elizabeth Conley for the Houston Chronicle

Meanwhile, the Hinojos family, from their toddler to the grandparents who live next door, continues to breathe in the neighborhood air laced with putrid gas. Some of them get regular headaches and occasional nausea and worry about the long-term effects. And they can’t get anyone to put a stop to it.

“There’s a whole neighborhood out there, a whole community, and we all suffer from it,” Vanessa Hinojos said. “It’s very concerning and frustrating and worrying.”

Safety lagging as H2S spreads

In his 30 years patrolling oil fields for the Railroad Commission, Sam Birdwell said he regularly found significant levels of hydrogen sulfide venting from oil facilities in residential areas, near schools, churches and houses. Sometimes his personal H2S alarm — set to warn him to leave the area — would go off at someone’s front door.

“Can you imagine being old and not being able really to get out of your home?” said Birdwell, who was the statewide hydrogen sulfide coordinator before he retired in 2020. “For someone elderly or people with newborns — that’s the kind of stuff that keeps me awake.”

Sam Birdwell
Sam Birdwell, 71, spent 30 years patrolling oil fields for the Texas Railroad Commission, where he was most recently the statewide hydrogen sulfide coordinator.Photo by Alyssa Hartley for The Examination

Birdwell is no environmental activist, and doesn’t want to be associated with any. He grew up rough on a ranch in Deep East Texas, and still, at 71, herds cows on the side. He learned the oil industry laying pipelines and roughnecking at the top of a drilling rig. He has no problem with pumping oil, but he believes it should be done right. 

Over the past 16 years, the shale boom has tapped vast new quantities of oil, making West Texas’ Permian Basin so prolific it pumps out more than 40% of the country’s oil. The region is naturally saturated with hydrogen sulfide. Fracking and injecting water to push out more oil also has helped spread hydrogen sulfide to new areas that didn’t have it before. 

While not all oil fields are bedeviled by hydrogen sulfide, the gas affects workers and communities in other oil-rich regions around the world, from Canada to Iraq to Kazakhstan. It also plagues other industries, such as paper mills, and can build up in any storage area with decaying material like manure or sewage.

In the Permian Basin, increased oil production has boosted the population, bringing more people to live close to wells and storage tanks. 

Technical solutions to capture or treat the gas are available but expensive, and companies often rely on flaring it instead, burning off the hydrogen sulfide but producing other kinds of unhealthy pollution. 

“In my 30 years of experience,” Birdwell said, “it’s always been down to a matter of money.”

Birdwell was in charge of regulations born of tragedy.

In 1975, an oil-field leak of hydrogen sulfide killed nine people, including two teenage girls, in the small West Texas town of Denver City. Some victims were found slumped over in vehicles, struck down as they tried to get away. 

The catastrophe prompted Texas to tighten its safety regulations governing the gas. Known as Rule 36, the rules require energy companies operating in high H2S areas to measure concentrations, train their employees, put up warning signs and, in some cases, monitor for leaks. 

The Odessa American, 1975
In 1975, an oilfield leak of hydrogen sulfide killed nine people, including two teenage girls, in the small West Texas town of Denver City.The Odessa American

Over time, Birdwell came to believe that the rule needed updating to protect the public.

“The rule itself needs some teeth and some muscle and blood in it,” Birdwell said. “We’re looking at damn near 50 freaking years without addressing that rule.”

Birdwell said he was hampered in his ability to stop companies from releasing toxic gas near people.

At most, Birdwell said, he could order short-term shutdowns and require companies to flare their gas for safety reasons. But the flares themselves would sometimes go out, releasing more gas freely billowing into the air. 

“You needed to be able to have the authority to say, ‘Thou shalt not vent right here, brother,’” Birdwell said. “If it’s anywhere near a populated area, you should not be venting hydrogen sulfide gas at all.”

Birdwell said he made the case for a rule update to the commission chairman, Christi Craddick, who tasked him with working on a proposed revision. He said he sent his recommendation to headquarters before he retired. Craddick’s office confirmed that she requested it but said they didn’t have records that they received it. 

“However,” Craddick said in a statement, “we continue to require operators to implement safety measures that protect employees and the public from potential exposure to H2S gas, or face enforcement actions.”

In a January Facebook post, Craddick, who is running for another term on the Railroad Commission, said, “2023 was another banner year for Texas oil and gas, thanks to the Railroad Commission’s commitment to reasonable regulation.” 

Residents’ repeated complaints go unaddressed

The files of Texas’ environmental agency are sprinkled with gas-related complaints from residents living near oil wells and tanks: “Strong odor from oil and gas facility causing nausea”; “Unusually strong h2s odor encountered around and inside the complainants home”; “strong smell of sour gas in the area that is seeping into the home and causing health effects.” 

But in Ector County, where the Hinojos family lives, the majority get dismissed after a single visit, according to available TCEQ records from the last six years. The agency commonly closes complaints if inspectors don’t detect the gas at the precise time they visit, even though levels fluctuate with weather, wind and oil operations, and are often worse at night when inspectors are not there.

Vanessa Hinojos, however, has not been deterred, repeatedly filing complaints for years. Over time, state inspectors have repeatedly found Cambrian Management, longtime operators of the facility across the street from her home, was leaking the toxic gas in violation of state regulations.

The Hinojos family has something of a dream house in Odessa. Inside, on a giant wraparound couch facing a TV and fireplace, they watch the Dallas Cowboys and play with their baby. Outside, the older kids, ages 12 and 13, swing on a wooden play structure and bounce on a trampoline next to the family’s dogs, chickens, goat and pony. Grandparents live next door, with a swimming pool for hot summer days.

But like many homes in Odessa, the house sits in the middle of an oil field. Across the street on one side, tall, weathered 500-barrel tanks store oil and water pumped from nearby wells, and on another, a torch-like flare juts up 35 feet into the sky, constantly burning gas in curling flames. 

A flare burns off excess gas, including methane and hydrogen sulfide, across the street from the Hinojos family house, on Wednesday, March 6, 2024, in Odessa, Texas.Video by Elizabeth Conley for the Houston Chronicle

“It’s a very strong, stinky smell,” said their 12-year-old son, sporting a Spider-Man T-shirt, before going outside to jump on the trampoline.

“It bothers us a lot,” said their curly-haired 13-year old daughter, whose schedule is packed with soccer, tennis and track. “Like sometimes the smell gives me headaches and stuff.”

Vanessa Hinojos’ family bought this patch of land in the 1990s, cleaned it up, planted trees and lived in mobile homes as they saved money to build. It didn’t smell like this back then, they said. It took years to put together the large, well-appointed houses they live in.  Now, they fear they need to move to protect their children’s health. 

In 2019, Victor Hinojos took an H2S monitor home, recording a video of it sounding from high levels of the gas across the street from their house.Provided by Victor Hinojos

Hinojos’ husband knows about H2S from working in the oil fields. But the smell is much worse at home, and he has better protection at work, he said. He took an H2S monitor home, recording a video of it sounding an alarm from high levels of the gas across the street from their house.

Vanessa Hinojos, a busy mom juggling her job at a bank with her kids’ activities and appointments, said she worries all the time: “What kind of damage is it doing to my children?”

She has reached out to the Railroad Commission and TCEQ numerous times since 2017 about the smells and her family’s suffering health, records show.

Sometimes, inspectors have come out and found H2S leaking from damaged tank hatches, a common problem because the corrosive gas eats away at seals as well as metal. Other times, it was streaming from an unlit flare. At one point, TCEQ fined Cambrian $7,600. When inspectors found violations, the company typically made repairs piecemeal.

But still, the gas kept leaking.

Sometimes inspectors showed up and didn’t identify a problem. More than once, inspectors fled as their monitors picked up alarming levels of H2S.

In September 2022, a TCEQ investigator responding to a complaint fled the scene so fast when his personal alarm sounded that he wasn’t sure how high the reading was.

“Those hatches were still leaking pretty bad and we had elevated levels of H2S still coming off site,” the inspector wrote to Alan Means, Cambrian’s owner, that October. 

“We are sending them back to enforcement for venting the flare again,” wrote Ryan Slocum, a TCEQ manager, in an internal email. “The tanks continue to leak. We have a meeting with the owner this afternoon to discuss the site at our office and to urge them into compliance. This site has documented many violations over the past month.”

Oil and wastewater storage facility in Odessa
This oil and wastewater storage facility long operated by Cambrian Management sits across the street from the Hinojos family house on March 6, 2024, in Odessa, Texas.Photo by Elizabeth Conley for the Houston Chronicle

Slocum asked for the mobile team to pay a visit on its trip through West Texas. As the team’s monitoring van passed the intersection near the Hinojos house one night, it suddenly hit a “dramatic spike” of H2S and “immediately evacuated,” according to the team’s notes. 

Soon after, another van picked up H2S levels near the same spot that prompted analysts to put on special masks and flee in an “escape vehicle” to avoid being exposed themselves.

“I get why y’all were so freaked!” their team leader messaged them afterward.

“Y’all stay safe,” an agency official emailed the team.

The Examination
Texas air analysts encountered a “dramatic spike” in H2S levels near the Hinojos home in October 2022, as shown in this image created by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s mobile monitoring team. The Hinojos house is labeled with a yellow circle by The Examination.Source: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

The next day — outside the Hinojos house — the van picked up the highest readings yet: 62 parts per million. The concentration of H2S was stronger than the maximum level allowed by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for oil-field workers. The analysts had stayed away, measuring the gas remotely for safety, and became sick with the fumes when they came back to the van. 

Cambrian determined that the underground pipeline from the tanks to the flare was leaking and would be replaced. Over the next few days, inspectors kept coming back and finding more H2S. At one point, they talked to people who live on the other side of the tanks who said the smell was “overpowering” but didn’t want to file a complaint.

An unlit flare leaks gas, as shown in an infrared video taken by state inspectors on May 19, 2023, across the street from the Hinojos family home in Odessa, Texas. Footage obtained by public records request. Source: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality

Eventually, in May 2023, the agency issued a “notice of enforcement,” which can lead to fines, though it’s still pending. Later the same month, responding to another Hinojos complaint, inspectors found the gas spewing, once again, from the tanks and one of the flares. 

This time the company said birds had nested there and broke the spark plug. Because the company came to fix the violations, TCEQ resolved it without a penalty. The agency currently lists the company’s compliance record as “satisfactory.”

Cann, the TCEQ spokesperson, said the agency didn’t take enforcement action that time because “health effects were not documented,” whereas in the earlier incident an inspector had gotten sick. 

Victor Hinojos texts
Victor Hinojos texts with a company representative on Jan. 28, 2024.Provided by Hinojos family

This year, Hinojos and her husband repeatedly exchanged texts with a company representative, asking for help. “Hey it’s been smelling really bad the last couple days and it’s shifted to our house,” she texted in January. Her husband sent a photo of the unlit flare. The company contact responded that he’d send someone back to the site.

In February, the smell woke her up with a bad case of nausea in the middle of the night. She filed yet another complaint with TCEQ.

An H2S monitor placed by a reporter in the Hinojos yard from March 7 to May 6 detected gas levels above the state limit on more than half the days recorded in that period.

Texas’ limit for residential areas is 0.08 parts per million averaged over 30 minutes.

On one April night, the monitor recorded concentrations of up to 81 parts per million just after midnight, well above the “insanely high” levels that sickened state workers earlier, and approaching the 100 ppm mark considered “immediately dangerous to life or health.” Readings from that half-hour after midnight showed levels 90 times higher than the state’s official limit.

After receiving questions from The Examination and the Chronicle, TCEQ reviewed its files and discovered that Cambrian had never complied with the agency’s 2021 order that came with the $7,600 fine. The company was supposed to provide proof that it was following the rules. The agency sent a follow-up letter in April 2024 asking the company to comply.

‘I never lost an ounce of sleep about somebody getting hurt’

Far from the smell of hydrogen sulfide, on a ranch in McCaulley that stretches for hundreds of acres, Cambrian’s owner, Alan Means, has found his “piece of paradise.”  

Wearing a flannel and jeans, with some tobacco tucked in his mouth, Means was busy one day in March building a blacksmith shop to work in for fun in his retirement. Means still co-owns the oil wells and tanks with a group of investors but retired from operations last year, he said.  Co-founded by Means in 2001, Cambrian has drilled and operated hundreds of wells in the Permian Basin.

Alan Means of Cambrian Management
Alan Means of Cambrian Management, which has drilled and operated hundreds of wells in the Permian Basin. As for residents living near Cambrian’s facilities, Means said, “We treated everybody as good as we could over there.” The Examination

Means admits that living near the smell of H2S is annoying, but he sees it as more of an irritant than a safety concern. 

“It stinks really bad,” he said. “If it didn’t stink, we wouldn’t get any complaints.”

He said people tend to blame an oil company when they feel nauseated, but that might not be the cause. It’s possible that someone with asthma might be affected by the H2S, he said, or it could be something else. “We treated everybody as good as we could over there,” he said.

The site near the Hinojos family has H2S gas that, when contained, has a concentration of 186,400 ppm – more than 200 times the amount that would cause immediate collapse with one or two breaths and death within minutes if the gas were to leak and someone were exposed directly. 

But because oil production is low, the volume of gas that could escape doesn’t pose a lethal danger to anyone in the community and dissipates quickly, Means said. The levels found by the TCEQ monitoring van, he noted, are well below the “drop dead concentration.”

“I never lost an ounce of sleep about somebody getting hurt, because I knew our volumes were so low,” he said. “They’d literally have to climb up the tank, drill a hole in the top of it and snort it.”

The company reported to the Railroad Commission in 2001 that a catastrophic release of gas from that production site could overlap public areas with potentially life-threatening levels of H2S. Means said that wasn’t a realistic scenario.

Schade, of Texas A&M, said the concentrations measured by state analysts and, later, the monitor in the Hinojos family yard were so high, they indicate leaks so large that if someone had been exposed closer to the source it could have been deadly.

“This is crazy,” he said of the levels. “My lord, do people have to die before this changes?” 

Acute exposure to hydrogen sulfide rarely kills community members. However, the gas occasionally kills oil-field workers whose jobs require them to be close to the tanks and wells.  

A warning sign near a tank in an oil storage facility in Odessa
A warning sign near a tank in an oil storage facility in an Odessa neighborhood, photographed on March 6, 2024. Photo by Elizabeth Conley for the Houston Chronicle

One night in October 2019, Jacob Dean went to check on some malfunctioning equipment inside an Odessa pump house, where water is pushed into the ground to produce more oil. The water, like the oil it mixed with, was laced with hydrogen sulfide.

When Dean’s wife, Natalee, couldn’t reach him after a few hours, she went looking for him. Leaving their children, then 6 and 9, in the car outside, she entered the metal building while on the phone with her in-laws. “Oh, my God,” was the last thing they heard her say. The couple’s bodies were found next to each other, killed by a cloud of highly concentrated hydrogen sulfide. 

Federal prosecutors have charged the company, Aghorn Operating, and its vice president with violating the Clean Air Act and the Occupational Safety and Health Act as part of a scheme to “enrich themselves by maximizing the production of oil at Aghorn while minimizing costs.”

In the ongoing criminal case, prosecutors have alleged that the company also put the surrounding community at risk: “The hazardous plume traveled beyond the facility at levels sufficient to adversely impact public health.” People living up to a mile away could have been exposed to enough gas to cause health problems, the government estimated. 

Odessa building where oilfield worker and his wife died from hydrogen sulfide exposure in 2019
A light shines on an Odessa building where, in 2019, oilfield worker Jacob Dean and his wife, Natalee, died from hydrogen sulfide exposure. Federal prosecutors blame the deaths on the oil company, Aghorn Operating, which has pleaded not guilty.Photo by Elizabeth Conley for the Houston Chronicle

They cited a report by an Environmental Protection Agency toxicologist warning that reported effects of chronic, low-level exposure to the gas include fatigue, incoordination, poor memory, hallucinations, personality changes, shortness of breath and increased visits to the emergency room.

(There are no federal air quality standards for H2S. Under pressure from the industry, the EPA took the gas off its list of “hazardous air pollutants” decades ago, leaving regulation to the states.)

The company and its executive have pleaded not guilty, stating in court filings that “there was no ‘knowing’ release of gas” and rejecting the idea that anyone beyond the facility’s fence line was seriously endangered.

Local independent operators like Aghorn and Means buy old wells from bigger companies after the wells are no longer as profitable. “We’re all bottom feeders. We’re all carp,” Means said. “But it made a living for us.”

Cambrian used to pipe excess gas from its wells to a processor, Means said. Then, in 2017, the company that operated the pipelines, DCP Midstream, now part of Phillips 66, stopped taking any more, citing a “high level of operational risk.” So Cambrian started flaring all the gas, leading to the continuous billowing flame outside the Hinojos house. 

In its application for a flaring permit, Cambrian said the alternative — shutting down the site — would “result in economic waste since oil will go unproduced.”

In the meantime, sometimes parts fail, there’s a leak and the company fixes it, Means said. “You’re going to have issues. I mean, I wish it was fail proof.” Over the years, Cambrian has replaced tanks and upgraded the flares, he said, but retrofitting the whole thing would be costly. “Financially, it’d be difficult,” he said.

Means said he operated the site until last year, and that his company has transferred day-to-day management to Octane Energy. Cambrian’s name is still on the paperwork, but that will eventually change, he said. “It’s kind of a bastard deal that I’m trying to get out of,” Means said.

Octane’s managing partner, Jared Blong, said “poor planning” allowed residential communities to sprout up on known H2S-rich oil fields. 

He said modern facilities do a better job preventing leaks but agreed with Means that retrofitting aging tanks doesn’t always make economic sense. 

“That upgrade may never actually pay for itself,” he said.

Blong called his relationships with regulators healthy and collaborative and “focused on solutions as challenges inevitably arise.”

‘I’m surprised they allow those fumes so close to school’

Pump jack near Noel Elementary School
A pump jack towers over the grounds of Noel Elementary School in Odessa, photographed on March 6, 2024.Photo by Elizabeth Conley for the Houston Chronicle

On a March afternoon, the foul odor of rotten eggs wafted through another Odessa neighborhood shared by modest, one-story houses, mobile homes and oil tanks. Like the ones near the Hinojos family, these storage tanks are also part of Cambrian Management’s oil business. Neighbors said they’ve been living with the noxious smell for many years. One pulled out a copy of a complaint he had filed with the state more than a decade earlier.

A breeze carried the smell toward the campus of Noel Elementary School, about 800 feet from the tanks. It’s an oil-field school, named after a local oilman, with a dark gray pumpjack on campus looming over the playground’s swings and basketball hoops. The company doesn’t operate that pumpjack during school hours. But reporters could smell the characteristic H2S odor outside the school building.

Some people in the community write it off as a fact of life in the oil patch, or don’t even notice it. Principal Jennie Chavez said the only smells at the school have come from sewage issues with old plumbing. In her eight years at the school, she said, there haven’t been any problems or complaints. She said her understanding was that H2S doesn’t smell.

Noel Elementary School principal Jennie Chavez
Noel Elementary School principal Jennie Chavez, photographed at the school on March 6, 2024, said she hasn’t smelled any hydrogen sulfide there or received any complaints.Photo by Elizabeth Conley for the Houston Chronicle

“I’ve lived here my whole life and I actually grew up a few streets down,” said Chavez, wearing red earrings and pants to match a shirt celebrating the Texas college her son attends. “As far as long-term effects, I mean, nothing’s happened to me.”

There have long been concerns in the neighborhood around Noel Elementary, though. Debra Perrin, whose sister, parents, grandparents, and aunt and uncle were killed in the 1975 hydrogen sulfide disaster spoke out in 1983 to say she was particularly worried about the area near the school. “Haven’t enough lives been lost already?” she wrote to the local paper. When the issue came up in a City Council meeting back then, a councilmember said oil fields are “what made Odessa grow, and we can’t say we’re going to stop the growth because oil wells are in the way.”

H2S alarm at Noel Elementary School
Noel Elementary School in Odessa has an H2S alarm in the office, photographed on March 6, 2024. The school principal said she doesn’t know what concentration of the gas would set it off. Photos by Elizabeth Conley for the Houston Chronicle

The school has an H2S alarm system, but Chavez said she doesn’t know what level of gas would set it off. Systems like this can log the levels of gas they detect, but the school’s model doesn’t, so nobody knows to what level of H2S the students are exposed.

In January 2015, a parent called 911 because of the strong smell of H2S at the school. Ten days later, a TCEQ inspector found that an unlit flare at Cambrian’s facility was releasing gases into the air. 

In 2016, a motor on the pumpjack near the playground exploded at night, but no one was injured, according to city records. Later that year, the warning lights on the H2S alarm went on. School staff ushered students into the gymnasium during a brief “shelter in place.” Students returned to class after air quality readings came back normal.

At the time, a district official told the Odessa American that overcast days tend to set off the sensors because the gas stays low, but that it dissipates rapidly. Means, Cambrian’s owner, said in a recent interview that he remembers the alarm was triggered by gas from the sewer system, not his oil facilities. There is no record of a state inspection of the nearby Cambrian facility in the days immediately following the school’s “shelter in place.”

The month after the shelter in place, someone in the neighborhood complained of “strong odor alleging headaches and congestion” and TCEQ found gas “free flowing” from Cambrian’s unlit flare. Inspectors also detected a strong H2S odor but their handheld device did not register it, according to the report.

Air monitors to detect hydrogen sulfide outside of Noel Elementary School
Air monitors to detect hydrogen sulfide outside of Noel Elementary School in Odessa on March 6, 2024. The system doesn’t log the H2S concentrations it detects.Photos by Elizabeth Conley for the Houston Chronicle

Chavez said she wasn’t at the school for any of that. During her time there, the H2S alarm has gone off only when the system malfunctioned, she said. 

Between 2015 and 2021, state inspectors found Cambrian’s facility near the school venting gases in the neighborhood in violation of state regulations at least 14 times. Neighbors complained repeatedly – worried about their baby, a high-risk pregnancy, and their family’s “dry burning eyes,” according to inspection records. The Railroad Commission occasionally shut down production at the site until repairs were made, only to find more problems later. The only fine came from TCEQ in 2018, for $4,025, along with an order to “ensure the leaking tank at the Plant is operated and maintained in good working order.” In 2023, the agency found that Cambrian hadn’t complied with the 5-year-old order and still didn’t have authorization to operate there. The agency is investigating the situation, a spokesperson said.

To the west of the school sits another set of wells and tanks, visible across a field of cactus and mesquite. Those belong to Aghorn Operating, the company facing criminal prosecution in the deaths of Natalee and Jacob Dean. 

The Railroad Commission found the site in violation of state regulations for releasing H2S on several occasions. Prosecutors in the Dean case cited those leaks and others as part of a conspiracy to cut costs and put “operational convenience” above human health, despite having many facilities near homes, schools and other public areas. 

The company “regularly released or ‘vented’ H2S as an accepted way of operating at some Aghorn facilities, by failing to light flares or repair non-functioning flares, or by failing to prevent or repair leaks in tanks, tank hatches or other Aghorn equipment,” prosecutors said.

Noel Elementary School students leave school
Noel Elementary School students leave the school at the end of the day on March 6, 2024 in Odessa, pump jack towering over the campus in the background.Photo by Elizabeth Conley for the Houston Chronicle

At the end of Noel’s school day, students weighed down with backpacks file past the fenced-off pumpjack to a line of buses. Waiting outside to pick up her third grader one afternoon, Megan Chavez said she wishes the children weren’t exposed to H2S.

“I’m surprised they allow those fumes so close to school. Maybe not now, but maybe later in their lives they might have health risks,” said Chavez, sitting in a Toyota Camry with a cross hanging from the rearview mirror.

Chavez noticed the “nasty smell” as soon as she moved to Odessa two years ago for her husband’s oil-field job. Her kids notice it too but don’t know what it is, she said. “They’re poisoning us,” she said. “I have no choice. We have to live here. They have to go to school.”

Eight miles away, another Odessa elementary school does have the ability to track its hydrogen sulfide exposure. In 2020, the year the state environmental commission put a monitoring station at Murry Fly Elementary, it picked up H2S above the state limit 75 times, according to state records. It happened 17 times in the first three months of 2024, preliminary data show. 

Principal Sam Martinez said he didn’t know about the H2S readings, or even why there was a monitoring station there. “I’m not aware of any problems with that gas in the area,” he said. The school district has no records it was ever notified of elevated H2S levels by state officials, according to a spokesperson.

Some 800 feet from the school parking lot, a cluster of storage tanks and an injection well bear signs warning “Caution: Poison Gas.”

I have students that I care about, that I love, and they breathe that air every day,

Lisa Rayburn, a fifth grade teacher in Fort Stockton

The environmental agency did not provide records indicating whether it conducted a follow-up investigation to determine the source of the gas affecting the school. TCEQ downplays violations of the state’s limit, issuing memos stating that  “adverse health effects would not be expected due to exposure to these concentrations.”

“Odorous levels are not necessarily harmful levels,” said Cann, the TCEQ spokesperson. Health effects related to the smell, she said, “should go away when the individual is no longer smelling the chemical.”

The highest level recorded at the school was more than four times the state limit. But the agency claims that hydrogen sulfide has been shown to cause health effects only at levels 25 times the limit. It cites the findings of a limited 1990 study, though one of the paper’s authors disavows that interpretation, telling The Examination that lower-level exposure can be hazardous. Academics call the agency’s claim misleading, and a recent review of scientific research found health problems linked to very low levels of the gas.

Even the agency’s own staff take a more cautious approach, evacuating when gas levels are much lower than what the agency claims is harmful.

Some residents looking to the agency for help say they’ve been let down. Lisa Rayburn, a fifth grade math teacher in Fort Stockton, said she experienced nausea and cramping when she was overcome by the rotten egg smell on a recent drive down a highway in the area. She said she hasn’t received a response to her February complaint to TCEQ. The agency said it closed the complaint because there didn’t appear to be a source of H2S that the agency would oversee in that area.

Lisa Rayburn
Lisa Rayburn, a fifth grade teacher in Fort Stockton, photographed on March 5, 2024. Rayburn said she felt sick from the rotten egg smell on a recent drive in the area.Photo by Elizabeth Conley for the Houston Chronicle

Rayburn said she sometimes smells the gas at school and worries about her students.

“I have students that I care about, that I love, and they breathe that air every day,” she said.

Far from the Permian Basin, one school in particular weighed heavily on the mind of Birdwell, the former Railroad Commission official. In the North Central Texas town of Breckenridge, South Elementary School also butts up against a smattering of wells and tanks.

Turning down a little gravel road, Birdwell pointed to the school’s running track on one side and the stained tanks that he’d found venting H2S on the other side. “You don’t keep those buttoned up, and it can get pretty severe back up in here,” he said.  

While at the commission, Birdwell patrolled with an infrared camera that showed otherwise-invisible plumes of methane, which leak out along with H2S. He visited regularly and found the tanks or an unlit flare venting hydrogen sulfide in six inspections from 2016 to 2019. “Gas was observed to be pluming toward the South Ward Elementary School play ground,” he wrote in one report. “Tracking right over the campus proper,” he stated in another.

Birdwell said he’d make operators repair the tanks, but it wouldn’t last: hydrogen sulfide would eat through seals “like crap through a goose.”

After Birdwell retired, other inspectors kept finding problems at the site, operated by a local company called Petex since late 2020. Four inspections in 2021 found multiple, persistent leaks and the Railroad Commission temporarily revoked Petex’s permission to operate there – though the company kept pumping even then, according to an inspection report. 

A 2021 state investigation revealed leaking tanks near South Elementary School, in the North Central Texas town of Breckenridge.Source: Railroad Commission of Texas

Local commission staff recommended “Appropriate Legal Penalty Action” against Petex for repeatedly failing to clean up an oil spill at the site. The company finally cleaned it up after that, so the commission declined to issue a penalty.

In 2022 and 2023, inspectors found Petex venting H2S there again. Each time, the company fixed it, at least temporarily.

Petex has another connection to the school: Its chief operating officer, Nic McClymond, whose family owns the business, is president of Breckenridge’s school board. McClymond didn’t respond to questions.

The company didn’t respond to detailed questions, but Petex production engineer Leo Medina said the company checks on the site each day. “You always worry about those things, but that’s part of the reason a pumper goes out there on a daily basis,” he said. 

The school’s principal referred questions to the district’s then-superintendent, Bryan Allen, who declined to comment. 

Driving through Breckenridge, wearing his old Railroad Commission hat, Birdwell passed dilapidated trailers and houses with peeling paint near the elementary school. “These folks can’t afford to just pick up and go somewhere else,” he said. He passed the “Boomtown Breckenridge” mural celebrating the area’s 1920s oil boom, and headed out to the ranches outside of town.

He pointed out violations in his no-nonsense way as he passed oil facilities: this gate should be locked, that flare is broken. 

Out in the country, acres of dry dirt are crisscrossed by pipelines, pumping water into the ground and oil out of it.  

Hydrogen sulfide wasn’t a problem when Marka Giebler’s ancestors built their Breckenridge ranches generations ago. Her great-grandfather gave land rights to oil producers in 1916 with an X as his signature, she said, and the family has been living next to oil wells ever since. 

Decades later, oil companies began injecting water underground to push out the oil, leading over time to the spread of hydrogen sulfide. Giebler said H2S gives her headaches and rashes, and affects family members, too.

“It’s very serious. I think it has affected all of our health,” she said. “We’ve had oil companies that have told us, ‘Just move.’ We’ve been here generations. It’s our place.” 

She and some family members have pushed back and filed complaints. But Giebler said they were scorned by relatives, friends and community members – many of whom get royalties from the oil or work in the industry. “My own family told me, ‘Shut up, you’re going to get everything closed down,’” Giebler said. “When you live in an area that’s so dependent on an industry, it’s so hard to get anyone to help.”

Tom Brown contributed reporting. Special thanks to Tom Brown and the Fund for Investigative Journalism for prompting The Examination to investigate H2S in Texas.

The Examination

Will Evans

Will Evans is a senior reporter for The Examination.

Caroline Ghisolfi

Caroline Ghisolfi

Caroline Ghisolfi is a data reporter for the Houston Chronicle.

The Examination

Amanda Drane

Amanda Drane is an energy reporter for the Houston Chronicle.