KARNES CITY -- Like beacons, the flares in Karnes County draw attention to one of the biggest and most profitable oil and gas finds in the world.
Under the light belching from the towers, Mike Cerny takes a puff of medicine in what is now an empty inhaler.
Cerny and his wife say the inhalers and medicines the family takes now eclipse the royalties their property earns from fracking.
“When you see your son with up to three nosebleeds a day, something’s wrong with this picture,” Myra Cerny said.
At first, she thought it was “time” that was taking its toll on their bodies.
“But it was coming on too fast, the symptoms," Cerny said. "And others the same age -- I have a twin sister -- aren’t sharing the same problems.”
But with every bit of gas and oil being extracted, the family noticed changes in their health. The flares are supposed to burn off unwanted gases, but the family noticed clouds of black smoke erupting with the flames.
“We are totally surrounded," Cerny said. "And no matter which way the wind blows, we’re getting downdraft from one or the other."
Worried, the Cernys contacted the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
In August and September, investigators with the TCEQ visited two units near their home. The leaking hydrocarbons are invisible to the naked eye, but are picked up as black smoke with the TCEQ’s infrared cameras.
The Cernys said their fears were realized when the TCEQ found the operator, Marathon Oil, was out of compliance.
“When they’re burning black and not operating right, like we’ve seen here, you have up to 250- pollutants raining down on your head," Cerny said.
According to TCEQ documents, methane, propane, butane, and hydrogen sulfides were in the noxious mix. The benzene emissions alone were reportedly four times over the legal limit.
The Cernys said it was the exposure to Benzene -— a known cancer-causing compound -— that matched their symptoms.
“That’s when we put things together. Well, that’s everything going on with our health. And we knew it was surrounding us,” Cerny said.
“Once you inhale it, your liver picks it up. And it is really what happens in the body that makes it carcinogenic,” said Dr. Andrew Brenner, a neurooncologist at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.
He said chronic, long-term benzene exposure is dangerous and can lead to blood cancers.
“People get leukemias, or you can have damage to your stem cells and their bone marrow. That results in an inability to make their own blood cells,” he said.
The Cernys said they’re breathing that air around their home 24 hours a day. Now the family worries about their growing boy, Cameron.
“It’s like a CSI episode: You picture the chemical going in their fragile lungs and what it is doing to their body. And you wonder, 'How much longer do they have?'”
The TCEQ made two recommendations to Marathon Oil: the company installs an alarm or monitor to make sure the flare is working properly, and that Marathon reports emissions problems within 24 hours.
The oil company received no fines from the state agency.
“We want out of here,” Mike Cerny said.
The Cernys said they are not alone in their suffering.
However, other nearby residents were reluctant to come forward, telling KENS 5 they have family working the oil and gas fields. Complaining, they said, could cost them their jobs.
The Cernys believe the industry may have already cost them their health.
“Death,” said Mike and Myra Cerny simultaneously.
“That’s all I can think. Death,” the worried mother said. “Seeing our son die maybe before us. That’s all you can think.”