Citizens of the Shale By Dawn Cobb | Managing Editor March 27, 2011
n a 23-county region sitting atop the gas-rich deposits of the Barnett Shale, concerns of water contamination, airborne pollutants, noise and lifestyle changes have coexisted with new job opportunities, rising incomes for communities and their residents, and significant advances by some companies in safeguarding the environment. Five graduate students, the current Mayborn Fellow at the University of North Texas Mayborn School of Journalism and professor George Getschow, formerly with The Wall Street Journal and a Pulitzer finalist, worked side by side with the editors and staff of the Denton Record-Chronicle to look at the increasingly complex and controversial issues surrounding rampant gas development in our region. Reviewing the complex issues of Barnett Shale gas extraction has taken months of research. The Denton Record-Chronicle made its initial open-records request of the Texas Railroad Commission for the project last summer, planning for its annual participation in Sunshine Week, a nationwide exercise of open-records laws by newspapers and other journalists observed during the month of March. The initial request resulted in a database of 21,593 gas well inspection records from January 2007 to July 2010. The data provided a foundation for the Mayborn students and the Record-Chronicle staff to probe further, conducting numerous interviews with operators, regulators, local officials, ranchers, homeowners, environmentalists, researchers and others who have a stake in the shale’s development. Both the students and our staff made follow-up requests, gathering thousands of additional pages of inspection records, reports, correspondence and more databases, in order to tell these newest stories of the shale. What evolved was not a black-and-white picture, but a multi-dimensional view illuminating concerns among residents unac-
customed to watching giant rigs drilling above lush, green lawns and next to $200,000-plus homes, and an industry that finds itself for the first time dealing with city regulations governing what companies can and cannot do and a growing chorus of neighbors protesting their presence in their communities. All of the frenetic drilling in the Barnett Shale set in motion a collision course from the beginning — between industry and individuals, with the movement of the gas drilling into more populated areas, using horizontal fracturing techniques to extract gas. This collision in the Barnett Shale between the state’s historic pursuit of oil and gas and its burgeoning population along Interstate 35 is at the heart of this series. And, in this case, the most prolific gas reserves happen to be located along Texas’ most populous corridor. Our five-day “Citizens of the Shale” series explores the far-flung impact of gas development — from residents’ concerns about their health and changing way of life to industry practices for safeguarding the environment. Research also focused on the Texas Legislature’s efforts to keep up with a fastmoving industry with limited state manpower and resources — especially during a budget-crunch session with looming deficits. Among the thousands of documents reviewed for this series, some were selected to post online for perusal along with the series. The information is there for readers to consume and contemplate. This series will not answer everyone’s questions. Our sole mission is to provide in-depth information about the ongoing gas development in North Texas to help residents and the industry become more knowledgeable about each other’s concerns and viewpoints, and to examine whether the state is doing enough to protect the welfare of its residents.
Denton Record-Chronicle/Barron Ludlum
Rebekah Sheffield and her husband moved to Dish in 1996, with dreams of restoring a 100-year-old farmhouse. Today, their home, shown March 17, is surrounded by the town’s many natural gas production facilities.
Industry fueling region’s transformation By Lowell Brown and Dawn Cobb | Staff Writers March 27, 2011
he land is our land, not gas land.” Those words appear on a sign staked defiantly outside a home in Flower Mound, a hotbed of natural gas drilling and production activity. The message may work as a rallying cry, but it’s not true. For better or worse, North Texas — like a growing number of urban areas across the country — is a land deeply changed by gas extraction. In Flower Mound, a town known for its careful urban planning, prairie is disappearing under gas wells, compressor stations and a maze of other industrial equipment. In Dish, residents including the firebrand mayor are moving out, weary of the toxic fumes that leak from a network of gas compressors and pipelines so vast that the tiny town is often called the Grand Central Station of the Barnett Shale. As wells and production equipment continue popping up alongside subdivisions
across the region, more and more people in cities such as Denton, Argyle, Bartonville and Fort Worth are learning what it’s like to have gas drilling as a neighbor. An industry that once operated largely out of view is now in their backyard, beside their children’s school, next to their church. For some, fears of explosions, noxious emissions and tainted groundwater no longer seem so distant. What residents have experienced so far with rampant gas development is only the beginning. In one example of the many gas drilling companies operating in the North Texas area, Devon Energy Corp. sees much in the future of drilling the Barnett Shale. To date, the Oklahoma-based company has drilled 4,300 sites, with options on 7,500 more. Every day, Devon has 12 to 13 active rigs. The company employs some 550 people in North Texas. However, in recent years the market has not supported the gas industry’s initiatives. With gas futures now at $3 per Mcf (thousand cubic feet) to $4 per Mcf, it is not
economically feasible for most companies to drill. Prices will need to hit the $5 per Mcf mark to make gas drilling selfsustaining, says Chip Minty, a spokesman for Devon. Local economists say that while the impact is substantial in North Texas, it is only part of the economic picture, albeit a profitable one. The market here does not rise and fall on gas futures. But some residents claim their health just might. Across the country, the gas drilling industry is under increasing scrutiny. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a massive study of the industry’s environmental effects. News reports from gas fields in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Colorado describe stories of sickness and ruin. Other reports from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas question whether underground drilling waste disposal is responsible for a rash of small earthquakes. A recent New York Times series revealed how lax regulation allowed radioactive drilling waste into rivers that supply drinking water to cities including Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
The Oscar-nominated documentary Gasland pushed the industry further into the glare of popular culture. Today, the Denton Record-Chronicle, in partnership with the Mayborn School of Journalism at the University of North Texas, begins a series of stories exploring what it means to live in the midst of a modern gas boom. From a living room in Dish, to a drilling platform in Wise County, to the offices of state regulators in Fort Worth, the stories detail the many ways the industry is leaving its stamp on the region and its people.
Atmosphere of concern Citizens of the Shale, Part 1: Residents of Dish feel change in air By Elizabeth Smith | For the Denton Record-Chronicle March 27, 2011
ISH — A mother directs her four children about the living room, helping each to comb through an assortment of papers, books, blankets and clothing. One child closes a cardboard box and carries it upstairs to a spare bedroom,
already stacked high with boxes and plastic bins filled with shoes, craft supplies and keepsakes. The door to the adjacent room — the library — remains shut, the books since removed from shelves and poured into boxes that fill the room. More boxes spill out into the upstairs hallway.
In one of her rare trips upstairs to her boys’ room, Rebekah Sheffield notices a bottle collection that sits on the shelf. “I thought I told him to pack those up,” she huffs. Since July, the Sheffields have been packing to leave their home in the country. They look forward to the day the house will be left in the rearview mirror. But outside, no moving truck waits in the driveway. No “For Sale” sign sits in the grass. The family has neither sold their home nor bought another. They have nowhere to go. Downstairs, boxes line the kitchen and sit atop shelves encircling the dining room. Nearly every crevice in their home has been filled with moving boxes, each neatly stacked and labeled with its contents. The Sheffield family is packing up 15 years’ worth of belongings, collecting the items that can be stored away and keeping the necessities out, for now. They want to be ready. They hope to move far away from Dish, far enough to escape the pollution. *** The first wells were drilled across the street from the Sheffields’ home in 1998, two years after the family moved to Dish. The tiny town of 201, about 10 miles southwest of Denton, first gained notoriety in 2005 when town leaders changed its name from Clark to Dish in exchange for a decade of free satellite television for residents. The battle between L.E. Clark, the man who helped incorporate the town in 2000, and the mayor at the time, Bill Merritt, brought national attention, with the dueling officials roasted on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. But the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary Gasland shows another Dish — a place transformed from a peaceful, rural community to the Grand Central Station of the Barnett Shale. *** Each day, Dish officials estimate, about 1 billion cubic feet of gas travels through three metering stations, more than 20 major gas gathering pipelines and 11 compression plants that have been shoehorned into the town’s two square miles by energy companies. The Sheffields are among many residents who have lodged complaints with local, state and federal officials about the noise and odors coming from facilities so loosely regulated that toxic emissions, whether the release is intentional or accidental, go unreported and uncounted. When the wind blows from the compressor stations to the southeast and emissions
are high — leaving a strangely sweet odor hanging in the air — those are the days Rebekah Sheffield and her family feel the worst. Her husband, Warren, frequently checks the readings of a new state air ambient monitor online. When the wind is blowing from the southeast, he often finds that the ambient air levels of the 46 toxic compounds being monitored are higher than normal. “We know that we just can’t stay — for our health,” Warren Sheffield says. “Every day here we feel worse. Every day we’re a little bit sicker. We’re going to have to do something.” But with their house in disrepair and the prospect of finding a buyer unlikely, the Sheffields say they feel trapped. *** Rebekah and Warren Sheffield moved to Dish in 1996 after buying a century-old farmhouse. The couple says they dreamed of restoring it by hand and raising their children. It was a place where she could breathe in the fresh air — until the gas wells were drilled across the street. Rebekah Sheffield first noticed changes in her body the following year when she reacted to fragrances, particularly perfumes and detergents, she says. A whiff of someone’s perfume sent her stumbling to the floor. She fainted at ballgames, in the grocery store, even while sitting in the pew at church. Her physician, Dr. Tod Heldridge, prescribed a battery of allergy medications, though they did little to lessen her symptoms. When her condition worsened in 2003, she consulted a neurologist, but tests found no brain lesions or tumors. In 2004, she sought out an allergist, but no combination of pills or nasal sprays substantially quelled her symptoms. The next year, she saw another specialist to treat her constant state of vertigo, but tests were inconclusive. Rebekah Sheffield’s instability was very real to her husband, who grew frustrated that he could not catch his wife when she fell. Finally, in her early 30s, she purchased a wheelchair. Rebekah Sheffield learned the hard way that soaps and detergents will give her chemical burns up to her elbows. In place of shampoo, conditioner, shaving cream and deodorant, she must create her own toiletries using a combination of natural products including cornstarch, baking soda, lemon juice and sugar. Unable to determine either the specific cause or an effective treatment for her condition, Heldridge diagnosed her with multiple chemical sensitivity. The medical community does not accept the diagnosis as a legitimate medical condition, with debate both over its existence and if symp-
toms are triggered from exposure to chemicals. “Nobody really knows why this happens,” said Heldridge. “If medicine does not recognize the cause for something, doctors will doubt it’s real. It’s an easy way to say, ‘I can’t figure it out.’” Because there is no accepted definition, the descriptions for the kinds of symptoms and types of chemical exposures can vary. Chemicals in the environment and in everyday materials such as cleaning supplies and fragrances may cause a reaction similar to that of an allergic reaction, triggering headaches, rashes, asthma, muscle and joint aches, fatigue and memory loss. “If you can expose them to chemicals over and over, there’s something there,” said Heldridge. “We’re just not smart enough to figure out what’s causing it.” As Rebekah Sheffield’s reactions increase, the things she cannot do far outnumber those things she can, even daily and leisure activities. She schools her two younger children at home and tries to provide for all four. Yet her fatigue makes her the dependent. The youngest child gives her medicine with a glass of water. On Wednesday nights, her husband must return home from work soon after the kids leave for church. The family cannot leave her for more than 30 minutes in case of a reaction. She avoids the hair salon, lest a shampoo or spray triggers a reaction. She went months without a haircut after her hairstylist was no longer available for home visits. Finally, last fall, she braved the salon on a Tuesday morning. She was lucky — she was the only customer at the time. The self-identified bibliophile stopped reading because she couldn’t concentrate and focus on the small text. The moving boxes labeled “unread books” remain untouched. *** Rebekah Sheffield says she tried to learn to live with her condition, thinking she had no other options. Meanwhile, town officials had arranged for the Texas Department of State Health Services to come investigate effects the gas industry’s emissions could be having on the residents’ health. In 2009, town officials spent 15 percent of the town’s annual budget on an independent air quality test that found benzene, xylene, naphthalene, carbon disulfide and other chemicals at elevated levels. With those findings, the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, a national, nonprofit watchdog group, surveyed Dish residents for health effects. Of the 31 who participated, they reported 165 different medical conditions, and 61 percent of those
health effects — including frequent sinus infections, nosebleeds, headaches, persistent coughs and irritated eyes — could be associated with the toxic compounds found in the air. State health and environmental officials agreed, initially, to work together. In the end, only the health department came. Rebekah Sheffield was one of 28 residents who participated in the state’s study. That study took blood and urine samples in January 2010 and looked for the presence of volatile organic compounds associated with shale gas drilling and production. In a rare public appearance, Sheffield went to the public meeting at Dish Town Hall to discuss the state’s findings in May. State toxicologist Dr. Carrie Bradford told the audience that levels of the volatiles in the blood samples were not greater than the levels found in 95 percent of the general population, and therefore, not consistent with a communitywide exposure. As she answered questions from residents, Bradford repeated that the levels could be linked to occupational exposure or other household products. She told the crowd it was difficult to link environmental exposure to health effects. “The data we collected was biological data, but we cannot use the biological data alone to determine health effects,” Bradford told the crowd. Sheffield waited in line behind other residents for her turn to question Bradford. Some residents vented their frustrations about the quality of the study, others worried about livestock’s exposure, and some were upset that children were excluded from the study. Sheffield rolled up to the microphone in her wheelchair. She removed the gas mask from her face, swatted the air from under her nose and began to speak before her husband could lower the microphone for her. She argued that she believed the gas industry to be the cause of the levels found in her blood and urine, and her illness. As a stay-at-home mother with four children, she told Bradford, she is not exposed to the sources the study suggested, such as cigarette smoke and gasoline. “Why are you able to say that you don’t know where this comes from when every other possible source of my problem has been eliminated?” she asked. “You tell me how the miner’s canary over here is not getting sick from exposures because there’s nothing else for it to be now.” *** After considering the gas well near her home, the others down the street and the compressor site south of town, Rebekah
Sheffield said the pieces all started to fall into place. She turned her eyes to a list of emissions — at the top of those toxic compounds was formaldehyde, a known carcinogen. State environmental officials conducted a special study of formaldehyde emissions in June, after an industry-funded study found formaldehyde near compression facilities in Arlington comparable to the compression facilities in Dish. Some research shows formaldehyde could form when methane breaks down in the atmosphere. She became convinced that formaldehyde was partly responsible for her condition. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality tested for formaldehyde among other compounds at 12 locations near compression and well sites. Two locations were found to have formaldehyde at 4.8 parts per billion, including the well site directly across the street from the Sheffield home. “I had been getting sick slowly over the years, and it took a lot of reflecting over the next several months to make the connection,” she says. “But there were gas wells all over the place, and I felt yucky all the time. But I was worried about taking care of the kids and grocery shopping. We were too worried about my health to be thinking about the rest of it.” When Sheffield showed the map to her physician, he told her that the only real treatment he could prescribe is avoidance. The only way to avoid exposure was to leave town and leave her home. The couple’s ambitions to repair, bit by bit, their white two-story farmhouse — already many years in disrepair when they bought it — were stifled by the costs of her medical care. Instead of replacing the siding and flooring or painting the walls, the Sheffields have spent thousands on doctor visits, tests and medications. They also spent money ridding the home of anything that could agitate her condition, including everyday items that contain formaldehyde and other chemicals. They tore a dining room storage cabinet containing particleboard from the wall. They replaced an ironing board with a particleboard base with one of solid wood. They replaced the foam mattress on her
bed — where she spends many hours recuperating from fatigue — with one made of bamboo fiber and costing $2,000. In 2008, they installed a whole-house water filtration system. Her symptoms improved greatly, but at a cost of $7,000. Now, they say, prospects of selling their home — with dozens of repairs left undone, in an area of possible contamination, with no money saved for a permanent move and no prospective buyers — are poor. Beyond all that, Rebekah Sheffield says that the most painful aspect of her illness is the increasing isolation. She does not attend regular church services for fear of an allergic reaction to fragrances or chemical off-gassing from the carpet and pews. After fainting in front of a group of children, she quit her job at the church nursery and stopped assisting with her husband’s class. For the same reasons, visits to museums, the symphony, restaurants, the movies, even visits to her sister’s house, are off limits. She uses extreme caution when she goes out along with her family, taking her wheelchair and gas mask. “One by one, every pleasure I’ve had in my life is being taken away from me,” she says. “We can find ways to work around it to minimize the effects of illness, but I’ll never again be able to experience those things illness-free. When do I get to assemble with people? I miss that.” Rebekah Sheffield’s children and husband say they have noticed negative health effects, too. They’ve become easily winded and even vomited after exercising outside, their skin becomes itchy with hives while walking down the road past the gas well site, and they’ve had nosebleeds while
inside the house. Nineteen-year-old Sarah Sheffield is beginning to show symptoms similar to her mother’s. Seventeen-year-old Robert suffered a seizure — his first — in February.
a 30-inch transmission line just west from the end of their street — the Peggs say they fear the worst. With pipeline explosions like the one near Marshall in 2005 and last year in San Bruno, Calif., the Peggs remain on their *** toes. In case of an explosion, they have a plan in place, including packed bags and When Chuck and Geri Pegg moved to an evacuation route, but Geri Pegg has North Texas in 2007 to be closer to family, nightmares about getting out of the garage they found the one-acre lot they were look- in time. ing for in Dish. They built their retirement “It’s not a way of life we ever thought we home just a were going to few hundred have,” she feet northeast says. of the large Upset that compressor they didn’t site, unaware know sooner, of the shale Geri Pegg gas industry’s keeps track of growing preswhat goes on ence. around town Their back now, filling a porch, a cusbrown paper tom 80-foot sack with extension that newspaper runs the clippings length of their about gas Denton Record-Chronicle/Al Key house, was to drilling and Chuck and Geri Pegg stand in front of their home on Chisum be their attending the Road in Dish on March 21. leisure spot, monthly town but Geri Pegg meetings. says the 18The couple wheelers that drive to the pipeline storage wonders if they should sell their home to facility next door constantly blow dust onto someone else. They are reluctant, too, of the porch. On days when the dust is bad, giving up on their retirement dream. they don’t go out. Geri Pegg says she would gladly sell their The couple says they knew it wasn’t their home if the gas companies offered to buy imagination when, during a weeklong fam- it. But until an offer comes, they wait. ily gathering, two guests suffered from severe nasal congestion, sneezing and *** coughing. After the town’s air quality study — one sample of which was taken at their When Calvin Tillman came to Dish in place — they realized the situation was 2003, he found the quiet rural setting he’d much more serious than a dusty porch. pictured for his family and for his horses. Samples taken near their storage barn just The gas wells that were already in town behind their home found 10 toxic comdidn’t bother him much. He’d grown up pounds at high levels, including benzene, a among the oil fields of Oklahoma. Wells known carcinogen, and carbon disulfide, a were a part of the landscape. But the comneurotoxin. pressor site across the street from his On some nights, the Peggs stand on their house in Dish was not what he’d imagined. back porch and watch the fumes rise from After becoming mayor in 2006, Tillman the compressor station with the moonlight became an outspoken advocate for safer as the backdrop. The rumbling of the com- drilling practices, speaking at local meetpressor stations is a constant noise. ings, working with elected officials in Sometimes the rumble is just loud enough Austin, and touring the Marcellus Shale to be heard over the wind and the light area in Pennsylvania and New York to edutings of metal wind chimes, they say. Other cate citizen groups on the risks and how to times, the rumble is much more like a train protect themselves. pulling an endless line of boxcars. Often at these meetings, Tillman is Their property shares a fence line with armed with a jar of murky water, drawn Lucky B Ranch, a neighboring horse ranch. straight from the well of Dish couple About 20 feet from that fence line and Amber and Damon Smith. He gives the buried a few feet down is a 16-inch gas clear bottle a little shake and asks if anyone pipeline, which runs past their home to the would like a drink. compressor site. With another two Tillman and town commissioners pipelines — one 24-inch gathering line and approved ordinances to regulate what the
In October, Tillman partnered with other activists to form the nonprofit ShaleTest after rural Pennsylvania landowners told him they signed gas leases without thinking about long-term consequences. The nonprofit group helps provide environmental testing to low-income families. ShaleTest can help residents who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford testing. It costs thousands of dollars to know what chemicals, if any, are in the air, soil and water around a home. Associated Press file photo/Tony Gutierrez “If this is the way they’re [gas compaDish Mayor Calvin Tillman loads boxes into a portable nies] going to do business, they might as storage unit outside his home in February. well put a chain-link fence around the entire Barnett Shale and put a padlock around it and don’t let anybody live here,” town can, and worked with operators to Tillman says. “We’ve got to clean this up.” follow the ordinances and control emisStill, many Dish residents say they don’t sions. Early last year, the Town Council need to know which chemicals are present passed a 90-day moratorium on drilling to know that something’s wrong. permits to revise its original ordinance. On the night following Thanksgiving, Faced with new rules that require emisTillman received several phone calls and sions tests pre- and post-drilling, drillers text messages from residents alarmed go outside city limits now, Tillman says. about a strong odor. According to data The community’s limits on the ability to from the TCEQ air monitor, ethane levels control industry practices leave him conjumped from 111 parts per billion to 678 cerned about residents, both families who ppb and remained high throughout the have lived in Dish for years and newcomnight. ers, including young families who don’t Tillman again wrote to residents in an eknow the recent history, he says. mail, saying he, too, feared for his safety. Most small-town mayors promote their “I have difficulty in finding out exactly cities, as does Tillman, but he and other what level is explosive, but fear we may town leaders are honest about the dilemfind out the hard way,” he wrote. ma. Underneath the banner announcing Some residents have filed suit, naming all Dish as the small-city winner of a the companies that operate near their statewide fitness challenge on the town’s homes. According to court documents, Jim website, links provide information on air and Judy Caplinger filed suit against quality and how to file complaint forms Atmos, Energy Transfer and Enbridge in with TCEQ. July 2007, adding Chesapeake and Tillman is likely the only mayor with a Crosstex to the list of defendants a year personal blog tackling the negative effects later, alleging that the companies “knew or of the industry. Since April 2009, he’s pub- were substantially certain that locating the lished on baddish.blogspot.com and sent Compressor Stations in such proximity to periodic e-mails to about 50 residents to the Caplingers’ homestead would cause communicate new developments. Tillman interference and invasion by noise, noxious reiterated those concerns with his appearfumes and related elements of nuisance.” ance in Gasland. Those concerns hit home when his two young sons awoke in the middle of the night with nosebleeds and there was a strong odor in the air. TCEQ’s formaldehyde study soon followed — the same one that helped Rebekah Sheffield connect the dots about her exposure — but no violations were found. After months of considering, reconsidering and considering again, Tillman and his wife put their home on the market in September. Part of the counter-offer was a condition that the buyers watch Gasland. They sold their home in February and moved to Aubrey. He’ll no longer be mayor of Dish, but Denton Record-Chronicle/David Minton he’ll stay involved with those who need Dish Mayor Calvin Tillman and his wife, Tiffiney, put his help, he says — and he’s starting to their home up for sale after their sons started having get involved in other ways. heavy nosebleeds.
The Caplingers settled out of court in October 2010. Other lawsuits are ongoing. After asking for input from the community, Tillman and the town commissioners voted for the town itself to pursue litigation against area operators. Dish may be the first town in the Barnett Shale area to do so. In an e-mail sent to residents, Tillman wrote, “I really would prefer not to have to do this and was optimistic that we could avoid this, but I am afraid we have a ticking time bomb in our back yard and the consequences to no action may be devastating.” The goal is simple, he says. “The goal is where we can go to sleep at night and not be concerned about what we’re breathing or whether we’re going to blow up.” *** TCEQ and state officials continue to state that more testing must be done and urge residents to complain if they smell an odor and to log their health effects. The back-and-forth with state regulators has left residents frustrated. As Tillman continues to crusade and the
Peggs continue to dream of safety just over the hill from the compression stations, the Sheffields continue to pack the contents of their home into boxes. After months of packing, the family has learned to live among the boxes — arranging, rearranging and shifting them from room to room to create more living space. They sold an antique piano to get more space in the dining room. Rebekah Sheffield and her husband are eyeing a permanent relocation to Fannin County and away from the Barnett Shale. Although those 75 miles could mean a new life, she doubts that leaving the toxic fumes that made her ill will lessen her condition, she says. “Even if we move, I still have to face the fact that this is a lifelong problem that I’ve got now,” she says. “You can’t get un-multiple chemical sensitivity-ed.” If she could sell or rent their home to another family, Rebekah Sheffield says she couldn’t submit another family to the area in good conscience. If she had it her way, she says she would donate her home to Dish as a library or historical site. Until then, the Sheffields will keep packing their belongings and their lives into moving boxes that may never be moved.
Defending the Mound Citizens of the Shale, Part 2: Town fights to preserve its slice of paradise By LaJuana Hale | For the Denton Record-Chronicle March 28, 2011
LOWER MOUND — Ever since this former frontier settlement was incorporated 50 years ago, town officials and residents took pride in protecting their slice of rural paradise along Grapevine Lake. Town leaders fashioned one master plan after another to protect surrounding ranches, open landscapes, clusters of live oaks and other “ecological resources” from the threat of urbanization as the town flourished, eventually becoming one of America’s fastest-growing cities in the late 1990s. The town even installed a wrought-iron
fence around the town’s namesake — a 50foot-high mound brimming with wildflowers — to protect the area. But a new intruder looms — bulldozers plowing up the old prairie to make way for gas wells, compressor stations, storage tanks, drilling pits and pipelines. Some residents who have witnessed rampant oil and gas development in other regions of the country fear that Flower Mound could become an industrial eyesore. Fearing the worst, some town officials and a growing number of residents are fighting back — with protests, lawsuits and
Denton Record-Chronicle/Barron Ludlum
Williams Gulf Coast Production screened this natural gas processing plant, located on Scenic Drive in Flower Mound, to look like a barn.
drilling moratoriums. Town officials, wary of safeguards promised by state and federal officials, recently set up their own regulatory apparatus intended to protect people from the environmental hazards that can come with nearby gas drilling and production. But the question that lingers for many residents is whether it’s too late. They wonder whether the rolling, tree-lined piece of prairie upon which they built their homes, their schools and their lives may be lost to heavy industrialization. Some residents are moving out, a study found some real estate values are dropping, and those left behind fear the Flower Mound they knew is disappearing by the day. *** Garrick and Kirsten Palmer moved to the western side of Flower Mound eight years ago to enjoy the beauty of nature. They’d sit on their front porch in the mornings, sipping coffee, enjoying their panoramic view of pastures dotted with cattle. At night they sat outside and watched their two sons play as the scent of freshly baled hay filled their lungs. But they don’t sit on their porch anymore. Every few months, a new gas well sprouts in the formerly quiet field across from their home. The noxious odor of industry now overpowers the smell of fresh-cut grass. The Palmers keep their windows closed because drilling dust clogs their air filters, lines the window frames and covers their cars. When Kirsten Palmer steps outside for her morning jog, she watches the white emissions billowing from the rigs, and then checks the wind direction. She runs away from the smoke. She most laments how drilling has drowned out nature’s melody.
“We don’t hear the birds sing anymore,” she says. Instead they hear industrial trucks blowing their horns as they rumble by in the early morning and the incessant creaking and groaning of gas drilling rigs across from their home on the Cummings pad site. The rigs run 24 hours a day. When the noise stops, Garrick Palmer says they expect the worst. “Remember after 9/11 when it was so quiet outside because the airplanes quit flying?” he says. “When they have a spill, they shut down operations and it gets quiet.” Last year, the drilling company — The Williams Cos. Inc. of Tulsa, Okla. — had three spills at the Cummings site. In both March and August, barrels of flow-back water — the chemical-laden wastewater that comes back after the shale is hydraulically fractured — leaked from storage tanks. Later in August, 40 barrels of drilling mud were spilled at the drill site. At the time, Williams officials touted the company’s good environmental record and said the spills were unacceptable to them, too. Gas drilling came to Flower Mound so quietly that town officials aren’t sure when the first well was drilled. Between 1999 and 2002, they were caught up in dealing with the influx of thousands of newcomers. Town leaders responded by creating plans and passing ordinances to control and manage the growth. Their response, dubbed “SmartGrowth,” was hailed by city planners across the nation as an example of how a city can successfully maintain its character and quality of life even with explosive growth. Flower Mound’s first oil and gas ordinances weren’t passed until 2003, and they did little to stop gas companies from mov-
ing swiftly to tap into the rich deposits of gas trapped beneath the shale. Today, the town has approved 77 gas wells, of which 59 are already in production. Many more are on the drawing boards. In addition, gas companies operate four compression stations in Flower Mound and have permits to build three more. *** Though she’s been out of uniform for five years now, retired Army Lt. Col. Virginia Simonson still fights for what she believes in, and she often uses the word “injustice” when she speaks of what is happening in her town. In the spring of 2010, Simonson and a group of residents, calling themselves Flower Mound Shares, campaigned for three new Town Council candidates who promised to impose a moratorium on drilling. The moratorium was enacted on May 28, but it did not nullify permits that had already been approved. The day before the moratorium went into effect, Titan Industries got its permit for one of the most controversial drilling sites to date. The permit was for the gas drilling pad located on Hilliard Field, near the intersection of FM2499 and FM3040. Titan is interested in 20 wells on the land, but the well site is nestled in the heart of downtown, with two schools, a Tom Thumb grocery, hundreds of upscale homes, and even historic Flower Mound nearby. A resident of the more urbanized eastern half of town since 2002, Simonson says she and her husband, Keith, didn’t notice when the drilling started on the rural western side of town. “Just like many other people who have other things going on in their lives, I didn’t pay attention. … This is Flower Mound, perfect community. They don’t let any kind of bad thing happen here,” she says. When she learned of plans to build a centralized saltwater collection facility near her home, she feared her community would begin to look like the refineries in New Jersey she remembers from her childhood. Soon after, she started reading through everything on the town’s website. “I could see they really had some good plans,” she says. “Then I started to understand there was a total disconnect between master planning, ‘SmartGrowth’ philosophy and the way they were permitting gas wells.” So Simonson and Parkesh Prameswaran, who lives with his wife and children near the Hilliard drill site, decided to take action. They sued Titan and the town because they believe the town’s oil and gas ordinances violate state zoning laws. Prameswaran’s biggest concerns are his
two children’s exposure to emissions. His 8-year-old son goes to Bluebonnet Elementary now, and his daughter, now 4, will start there next year. Both Bluebonnet and Shadow Ridge Middle School are roughly half a mile from Hilliard Field. “It is like an experiment being performed on kids so that 10 years later we know this is what happens. I don’t want my kids exposed to that,” he says. But the lawsuit was dismissed Oct. 4 by a state district judge who ruled that she lacked jurisdiction and the town’s ordinances did not violate state law or any other Flower Mound ordinances. Simonson acknowledges that losing the battle over Hilliard Field was a huge blow. For a long time, she wrestled over whether to fight or flee. Eventually, she came to a decision, summed up on a sign sitting in her front lawn: “The land is our land, not gas land.” An appointed board has been reworking Flower Mound’s oil and gas regulations during the drilling moratorium. At an October Town Council meeting, Simonson and other citizens petitioned the town to consider adopting procedures used in neighboring Southlake, where a series of public meetings are held before a gas well is approved by the town. Flower Mound’s current policy is to approve wells administratively, which means no public or Town Council input is required. The town manager allows drilling if the well site is within the town ordinances. Simonson and other residents believe that public input is needed before wells are placed in populated areas and that well sites should follow zoning regulations. “We don’t put pig farms in the center of Flower Mound,” Simonson says. “We don’t put giant paper pulp factories in the middle of Flower Mound. We zone that. ... But we don’t do that for gas wells. For me, it is a fairness issue.” She says her husband, who was deployed in Iraq most of last year, is proud of what she’s doing. So she plans to keep on fighting, but now she wants to direct her energy more toward the state and national level. “You either fight for what you believe in or let the status quo stand,” Simonson says. “You have to decide what decisions you can live with. “For me, if I’m going to try to live in this town, I was going to do everything I could to stop the industrialization of Flower Mound so it won’t become a community that I don’t want to live in.” *** Not all residents are protesting gas drilling in Flower Mound. Some are cele-
brating. On the western part of town, residents with significant acreage have leased or sold mineral rights and built new homes. Mineral rights owners are typically paid two different ways. They are paid up front per acre for leasing rights. Royalties follow after a well is drilled and proven economically successful. Williams, one of the larger gas drilling companies in Flower Mound, has paid millions to North Texas residents. In 2009, Williams paid approximately $25 million in royalties to 2,000 landowners in seven different counties in the Barnett Shale, according to spokesman Kelly Swan. Another company, Titan Operating, has provided $12.5 million in lease bonuses to 1,498 Flower Mound land owners, according to spokeswoman Susan Medina. Though some towns have made significant income from gas drilling, Flower Mound has not embraced it as a revenue source. Instead, what money the city makes from drilling goes back into monitoring and regulating. Town spokesman Michael Ryan says, consequently, “It is pretty much a wash as far as revenue goes for the city itself.” In the past few months, the town has decided to increase the amount of time and money spent on regulating the industry. Officials have purchased new emissions testing equipment and added a full-time staff position dedicated to the regulation, management and supervision of gas wells. If any illegal emissions are found, the town contacts the appropriate agency. “I think we have recognized the fact that we can’t rely on any other entity — be it the state or federal government or the industry itself,” Ryan says. “A lot of people want to ask the industry to do self-regulation. I think that is one thing that sets Flower Mound apart. We realized that we can’t rely on somebody else to protect our residents.” Even state legislators have recently made a push to increase monitoring in Flower Mound. State Sen. Jane Nelson, R-Flower Mound, asked the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to locate a permanent emissions monitor there. In late November, TCEQ installed a monitor near the intersection of FM1171 and Shiloh Road and nearby gas production sites. The monitor tests the air hourly for benzene and other volatile organic compounds, and makes the results available online. After a gas leak at a dehydration unit on Shiloh Road on Dec. 30, residents reminded each other on a public Facebook group to check the air monitor data online. *** On one wintry Saturday morning, pro-
testers stood in the cold, waving signs across from Hilliard Field. Watching the belching white smoke float over their houses, they show up with their children, parents and grandparents with handmade signs declaring “Ban Fracking Now” and “Drilling is Killing.” The quiet, polite crowd vows to return every Saturday so others will see and hear their concerns. Many motorists pass by, honking their support and giving a thumbs-up, a wave or a smile. Occasionally someone will make an obscene gesture, but protest organizer Sue Ann Lorig says by far most of the feedback is positive. Lorig is protesting because she wants the hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to stop, at least until the Environmental Protection Agency finishes its study of the drilling process’s effects on health, water quality and the environment. The results are due to be released in 2012. “Why can’t we wait for those results before proceeding?” she says. “There is no hurry, but once the harm is done, we can’t undo it. We can’t unfrack the wells. We can’t remove the toxins from the water.” Lorig says she worries about the documented cases of health problems in the town. One group of 10 women formed the Liberty Elementary Moms Breast Cancer Support Group. Most of the women are younger than 40. A spate of childhood leukemia cases has gotten the community’s attention, too. Many of the leukemia and breast cancer cases are clustered near Liberty Elementary, where the earliest gas wells were drilled and fracked in Flower Mound. “We don’t know yet whether they are associated with gas drilling, but we do know that there is an extremely high rate of health problems, and we are concerned that there could be a relationship,” Lorig says. Some of these people have spoken up publicly about their beliefs that shale gas production is the cause of the disease. Last year, the Texas Department of State Health Services studied these cancer clusters, finding that between 1998 and 2007, all cancer types except for breast cancer fell within the expected range. According to the study, the higher breast cancer rates could “likely be attributed to the limitations of the data and the likelihood that women [in the clusters] get mammograms more often than women in Texas overall.” However, none of the cancers among the women in the support group were found by mammogram. They were too young for routine screening. Instead, they were found by physicians during examinations. The results of the study for the years of 2007 to 2009 contained even higher cancer totals. The study stated that the cases
of leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and breast cancer were “somewhat higher” compared to 1998-2007. On Nov. 8, worries about the health dangers of gas production materialized in Lorig’s former Flower Mound home almost a mile away from a gas production facility. Lorig says she noticed that her nose was burning, and she was sneezing a lot. Her 15-year-old daughter was dizzy and had a headache. The next day, when she and her daughter drove by the facility, they noticed a strong odor and their symptoms grew worse. Alarmed, she called the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is charged with monitoring and protecting the state’s air and water. TCEQ found total volatile organic compounds at her home were 46 times greater than levels found in typical ambient urban air.
the drilling may be tough on the nearby real estate market because of its central location. “We go to great lengths in Flower Mound to preserve what things look like, yet we put what is very unsightly at the entrance to our town,” Wise says. Flower Mound commissioned a study from Integra Realty Resources to find out how much drilling has affected home prices. The August 2010 study concluded that residential homes valued over $250,000 that were immediately adjacent to well sites can lose 3 percent to 14 percent in value. Wise says the true loss is often far greater, and nobody wants to buy homes near gas wells, not even for a 10 percent price cut. “Some people, even if you gave it to them for a dollar, still wouldn’t buy it,” she says.
Today, some Flower Mound residents are trying their best to get out — including Darlene and Gary Bray, who live near Hilliard Field. When they went househunting in Carrollton, their real estate agent said the four previous appointments had been with Flower Mound residents. After selling their mineral rights, they learned the hard way what it’s like to live with gas drilling within a community. Gary Bray, who owns a construction company, says the driller requested four variances at Hilliard Field — for a shed, a well, trees and a creek — all too close to the drilling site. To solve the issue, town officials allowed the driller to tear down the shed, plug the well, cut down the trees, and move the pad site away from the creek and closer to the road, Bray says. “Ordinances are made to protect natural habitat,” he says. “How can you cut down the trees that it was made to protect?” The couple now regrets the deal. “We were fat, dumb and happy,” Gary Bray says. “We would have never signed if we had known all this was going on,” Darlene Bray adds. Town spokesman Michael Ryan said Flower Mound leaders have heard residents are considering leaving the Hilliard drilling area. “We are challenged with balancing the needs of all of our residents,” he says. “Unfortunately, in this situation, sometimes there are conflicting needs.” The drilling at Hilliard Field has also been a concern for Flower Mound real estate agent Kris Wise. Residents of neighborhoods around Hilliard have contacted her because they worry the drilling will impact their property values. She thinks
The Palmers, who live across the street from the Cummings drill site in western Flower Mound, had planned to sell their home in a few years when their children went to college, but now they are afraid that may no longer be possible because of all the industrial development in their area. They never imagined any of their current problems two years ago when the first gas companies came knocking. The couple was hesitant to lease their mineral rights at first because their home was much closer to the drilling than most of their neighbors. They were told that not signing the lease would only cause them to lose the bonus money. They understood that the drilling would happen with or without them. Not seeing a clear benefit to keeping their rights, they were one of the last in their area to sign the lease. Then, they just hoped it would be over soon. “We had heard, ‘We are good neighbors, we are good neighbors to the community. It will be there just a short bit and go away.’ But the wells have been there over a year,” Kirsten Palmer says. Though the gas wells across the street are 900 feet away, now these corporate neighbors are going to be even closer. The plot of land beside the Palmers’ home has been sold to Williams, and the company has begun building a compression station there. The station’s plans include three compressors, several water tanks and a metering station. An industrial road to the new facility now runs adjacent to the couple’s land, along the full length of their property line. That has brought graders, dump trucks and other construction equipment
30 feet from their home. During construction of the roadway, Garrick said his whole house vibrated like an earthquake. “Construction is not clean business and it’s not quiet,” he says. Flower Mound’s ordinances do not allow this type of development so close to homes. Although the Palmers are Flower Mound residents, this piece of neighboring land fell in Bartonville’s extraterritorial jurisdiction, leaving it open to all types of industrial projects not allowed in either town. After the compression station permit was filed with Denton County, Bartonville leaders relinquished the land from the town’s extraterritorial jurisdiction in August, hoping that Flower Mound, with its tougher gas drilling regulations, would pick up the land. Ryan, the town spokesman, said Flower Mound officials sat down with Bartonville a couple of times to discuss how to clean up borders in the unincorporated property between the towns because that land was close to urban environments. He said they were concerned that it would be “very easy for someone to come into unincorporated Denton County, where the regulations are a lot less strict, and put some kind of compression station or injection well.” Bartonville repealed the land release and has since annexed the land. The town is also pursuing a moratorium on any new drilling and production activity in that area. But the gas company has filed a lawsuit against both towns, and a judge agreed to let them continue to develop the land. While the cities and the gas company fight it out in court, the Palmers are left to wonder what will happen to their country
A gas well flare is shown May 7, 2006, on FM1171 and Scenic Drive in Flower Mound. Denton RecordChronicle file photo
way of life as construction gets under way. In a letter to the family, a Williams representative wrote that “the noise is similar to that of a residential A/C unit.” The couple remains skeptical that the noise and air quality won’t affect their family, but they don’t really want to leave. *** As Kirsten Palmer walks outside and stands by the backyard pool of her dream home, she points to the stand of trees that will be cut down to make way for the compressor station. “You feel almost forced to sell, but where are you going to go? Drilling is everywhere,” she says. They haven’t even checked with a real estate agent. They love the area and their home. Since they bought their house, they have remodeled it twice and added a second story. “Had we known this stuff was happening, we never would have made that kind of investment,” Garrick Palmer says. “It’s one thing to go buy a house, and it’s another to pour your heart and soul into it and then know you’re not even going to be able to sell it.” Instead, they just want it all to go away. Since that doesn’t seem likely, they have decided, like so many other Flower Mound residents, the best way to help their family is to become activists. “I used to think that was a bad word,” Garrick Palmer says. “I never planned on becoming an activist after I turned 50.” But he feels like now they have no choice but to protect themselves. “We’re fighting for our life,” he says.
Just below the surface Citizens of the Shale, Part 3: Drilling muddies waters over resource rights By Pennie Boyett | For the Denton Record-Chronicle March 29, 2011
n Parker County, Tom and Barbara Vastine say their well water seemed to change last summer, smelling different than normal. So they started buying bottled water for drinking and cooking. Natural gas wells aren’t visible from their home, but they are not far away — over the hill to the southwest, up the road to the north. They thought that might be the source of the problem. When they noticed a truck delivering water to the house across the road, that was when Tom Vastine realized: “Maybe I need to talk to the neighbors.” It turned out the neighbors also think their water smells foul, but no one seems to know what’s causing the problem. Bleach in the well will stop the smell for a short time; then it comes back. The Vastines discover that the Parker County Health Department will test the water for them, but they haven’t taken a sample in yet. They’re waiting a few more days, knowing the latest bleach treatment should wear off soon.
*** A fine grit circled the bathtub in Damon and Amber Smith’s home two years ago, not long after drilling began northwest of their home in the town of Dish. Soon, the Smiths’ well water appeared cloudy. The couple installed a filter system, which helped for a while. A year later, their water pressure dropped and the filter system kept getting clogged with a gray substance no matter how often it was cleaned. The neighbors’ water has remained clear — drawn from a different well at around the same depth of 530 feet. Officials from the Texas Railroad Commission, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Environmental Protection Agency have tested the water repeatedly. Early tests done in May 2010 revealed the presence of toxic compounds including barium, lead, arsenic and
chromium. Tests done a few weeks later did not indicate the presence of toxic compounds. EPA scientists even ran a camera down the well shaft to try to see where the gray substance was coming from. The results were inconclusive. The Smiths started drinking bottled water after they received the results of the first test. They continue to do so. “All I want for them is to fix my water and leave me alone,” Damon Smith says. *** For the seventh time in one day, Kenny Klement answers the telephone about a well gone dry in Cooke County. The retired dairy farmer, who is a member of the board of directors of the North Texas Groundwater Conservation District, has been fighting for water rights for at least 30 years. He’s worried that more wells will go dry on the county’s end of the Trinity Aquifer, a major underground water supply in North Texas. “Most people here are all for it,” he says of gas drilling. “But even people who are for it say the companies need to figure out how to reuse water.” TCEQ ordered the creation of the district in order to better monitor the draws everyone, including the gas industry, makes from the Trinity Aquifer. In an area long known for agriculture, oil and gas production grew in prominence starting in the 1920s. The agricultural industry and oil and gas producers coexisted without too much friction until new technology transformed how gas is extracted from underground shale. For each well, millions of gallons of water — harvested from aquifers, lakes, stock ponds — are brought to a well site, mixed with sand and chemicals, and sent below ground to force the shale to release natural gas in a practice called hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The result of the process is that neither the land where the gas wells
Dallas Morning News file photo/Sonya N. Hebert
Dish resident Charles Smith pours dirty water from a home water filtration system at his son Damon’s home in Dish in June 2010. Homeowners Damon and Amber Smith believe their well water is contaminated with pollutants from a nearby gas well.
are located nor the water is available for agriculture. Is fracking safe? No one really knows. Many of the claims on both sides are anecdotal. That’s why Congress ordered the EPA to study the practice. The federal agency allocated $1.8 million in 2010 to study the impact of hydraulic fracturing on water quality and public health, and has budgeted $4.3 million for 2011. The study will consider water quality, water quantity and waste disposal, and evaluate spills, leaks and contamination caused by activities related to gas production other than fracking. Ten to 20 contaminated sites will be selected for in-depth investigation. A panel of 23 scientists not affiliated with the gas industry, including David Burnett of Texas A&M University and Dr. Danny Reible of the University of Texas, will review the methodology for the research. Findings of the massive study, inaugurated with a meeting in Fort Worth attended by more than 600 people, are expected to be released in 2012. “It’s a difficult thing to do the forensic analysis of water well contamination. Usually you’re limited by the resources you have,” says Philip Dellinger, chief of the Ground Water/Underground Injection Control Section of the EPA, which monitors disposal of the industry’s wastewater, at Region 6 in Dallas. He’s confident the study will settle the issue of whether fracking is safe or not. “If this is safe, let’s put the fear to rest. If not, let’s make it safe,” Dellinger says. *** With water, Texans have always been
concerned about two things: supply and quality. Texans know water to be a precious resource. Since a seven-year drought in the 1950s, they have schemed to bring water from other states, including a plan to build a giant canal across Louisiana that would carry water from the Mississippi River and a current court battle with Oklahoma concerning rights to water in the Red River Basin. “Every six to nine years, there will be a drought,” says Randall Davis, general manager of Argyle Water Supply Corp. “It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.” If North Texas goes 18 months without significant rainfall — as happened between 2004 and 2006 — the area is in a drought, he says. In 2006, “every water utility in the state was begging people to slow down,” Davis says. “We have a water crisis here, long term.” How much water does it take to satisfy North Texans? On a winter day when few water their lawns, the Bartonville Water Supply Corp. uses three-quarters to a million gallons of water a day. The corporation has 2,200 meters, mostly for residences, so it provides water for 6,000 to 7,000 people. On a hot summer day, when residents are irrigating their landscaped acreage, the corporation pumps about 3 million gallons out of its seven wells. If the wells can’t provide it in sufficient quantity, the corporation buys surface water from Upper Trinity Water Resources District, which gets it from Ray Roberts and Lewisville lakes. As of the end of November, the Railroad Commission reported more than 14,000
gas wells in the 23 counties of the Barnett Shale and more than 3,000 permitted locations. In January 2011, the commission recorded 175 permits to drill and 86 gas drill completions. No one measures the exact amount of water it takes to produce gas from these wells. The oil and gas industry uses a combination of groundwater, surface water and water purFor the Denton Record-Chronicle/Spike Johnson chased from utilities. Kenny Klement is a member of the board of directors of the North Texas Some use brackish water, Groundwater Conservation District. which is lower in salinity than salt water and has few uses, and some buy Crownover, R-Denton. wastewater. As a result, Bill Mullican, At Devon Energy’s Fountain Quail Water water consultant for the North Texas Management facility about six miles west Groundwater Conservation District, says of Texas Motor Speedway, up to 10,000 no one fully knows where the water comes barrels (420,000 gallons) of wastewater a from or how much is used. day can be processed so that 80 percent “Because of the nature of water law in becomes distilled water reused for drilling Texas, these activities are exempt,” he says. and fracking, and the remaining 20 perTexas law gives landowners control of cent is heavy brine, which can be used for water under the rule of capture, which other oilfield activities. allows them to pump as much water as Devon started water recycling in 2005 to they choose without liability to surroundreduce the amount of water taken to dising landowners. Even the law that gives posal sites, says Jay Ewing, more control to the groundwater conserva- completion/construction manager for tion districts exempts most uses related to Devon Energy in Bridgeport. The water is mining. trucked in from wells within a 15-mile Geologists estimate that it takes about radius of the site in Denton and Wise 250,000 gallons of water to drill a gas counties, but it leaves the site in pipelines. well, and another 1 million to 7 million galFountain Quail, which started in Canada, lons to frack it. The water that comes back has operations in the Fayetteville Shale, up the well bore is laden with salt, cheminear Conway in north central Arkansas. It cals, heavy metals and naturally occurring is permitted to release water into the surradioactive material. In North Texas, the face water supply, which would include wastewater can be disposed of by injecting rivers and lakes. it 8,000 to 10,000 feet below the surface into a porous limestone formation called *** the Ellenberger. But this water is no longer part of the water cycle. It cannot be used The Texas Railroad Commission continagain. ues to repeat its stance that there are no Less frequently, the water that is brought confirmed reports of water contamination up is distilled and used again for drilling resulting from hydraulic fracturing. and fracking. Any solid residue filtered out The EPA disagrees. goes to landfills. While more expensive The first stories about the risks of gas than injection, this treatment can be more drilling contaminating water came from practical in some cases for the operators, the West — Pavilion, Wyo., where the EPA particularly in other parts of the country confirmed in August that its water wells where injecting disposal water is not an contained toxic compounds. There have option. been reports of contamination in Colorado, On March 11, state Rep. Jim Keffer, Rin North Dakota, in Oklahoma and in Eastland, filed House Bill 3328, which Pennsylvania. would require companies to disclose the The reports have become more frequent, composition of fracking fluids. The bill, more detailed and closer to Texas, until which has since been referred to the December when the EPA ordered Range Energy Resources Committee for review, Resources to take immediate action to prohas several co-signers, including Rep. Tan tect homeowners living near one of its Parker, R-Flower Mound and Rep. Myra operations in southern Parker County. The
drinking water from two wells had extremely high levels of methane and other contaminants, including benzene. On Dec. 7, Range was ordered to deliver potable water to the residences, sample soil gas around the residences, sample all nearby drinking water wells, provide methane gas monitors to alert homeowners of dangerous conditions, develop a plan to remediate areas of the aquifer that have been contaminated, and investigate the structural integrity of a nearby natural gas well to determine if it is the source of contamination. On Jan. 18, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a complaint against Range Resources to enforce the order. Range has offered to provide the residences with drinking water and installed monitors, but has not complied with the other requirements of the order. The complaint asks the court to direct the companies to comply and to pay a civil penalty of up to $16,500 per day of violation. Scientists testifying for Range claimed the contamination came from a different formation than the Barnett during a hearing at the Railroad Commission in Austin. The commission agreed March 22, absolving Range of responsibility as far as the state of Texas was concerned. Recently, a customer brought a water sample to the Bartonville Water Supply Corp., saying that the water had been tested and the test revealed a secondary contaminant, MBAS — methylene blue active substances — which can be used in the for-
mula for drilling mud. Because it is used to break surface tension in water, MBAS can also be used in products not related to petroleum production. By itself, it is not dangerous, but it can cause a bitter taste, suds or an odor. Jim Leggieri, general manager of Bartonville Water Supply, had the water in all seven of its wells tested, once by a state laboratory and again by an independent lab. His counterpart, Randall Davis, had Argyle’s five wells tested. No petroleumrelated contaminants were found in any of the wells. “Our water is fine,” Leggieri says. “I’m not saying that the potential isn’t there. The more gas wells drilled, the more injection wells, the more those chances increase.” He is looking into insurance in addition to the pollution insurance that the water supplier is required to have. “The insurance would not be for what we might do to someone, but what someone might do to us,” he says. When a company proposed drilling 15 wells across the street from two Bartonville Water Supply wells, Leggieri met with company representatives. They said they would place pipe, called casing, through the freshwater formations and then pressure-cement it, a term for putting cement between the pipe and the soil so that water cannot move up through the drilled hole. Leggieri said his customers needed more than that. He asked the company to put the water supply corporation on its insurance as a beneficiary. It refused. Eventually the project was abandoned. “I don’t believe any oil and gas company wants to intentionally pollute the water supply or the air, but it’s not foolproof. It’s not guaranteed,” he says. The EPA announced in February that Bartonville and Flower Mound were on a list of four areas being considered for its study of hydraulic fracturing. *** Contamination can happen several ways, says Dr. J.P. Nicot of the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas. Nicot is working on two studies: water sources in the Barnett Shale for the Department of Energy, and water use in all the Texas shale formations — Barnett, Eagle Ford and Haynesville — for the Texas Water Development Board. When contaminated wastewater is taken away from the drilling site in a truck or a pipeline, it can spill or leak. Although fracking water is less than 1 percent chemicals, he says, the
danger would be caused by the quantity of water involved. Another source of potential contamination would be a bad cement job in the well bore. “Some claim you can get a direct connection from the shale through fracking to the top. That might be more likely in the Marcellus, which is shallower than the Barnett,” Dr. Nicot says. “My gut feeling is that it doesn’t seem like something geologically possible.” His reaction to the report of contaminated water wells in Parker County is that science hasn’t had time to talk. Industry and environmentalists don’t want to compromise, and the scientists are caught in the middle. “You want to take your time as a scientist. The more political, the more time you need to take to avoid being biased,” he says. Texas has ample regulations, Nicot says. The problem is that state regulators “can’t levy fines with any impact. We need better enforcement and bigger fines.” *** In Cooke County, Kenny Klement hopes that metering by the groundwater conservation district will provide information about how much water is being taken by the gas drillers, and that information can go to state regulators and representatives. “The Legislature is going to have to do something,” he says. “They’re going to have to stop them from using the fresh water out from under us.” He looks at the rolling
Denton Record-Chronicle file photo/Barron Ludlum
In June 2010, Damon Smith shows the dirty water filter he changed just five days ago at his home in Dish. Smith said his wife, Amber, first noticed the water’s gray appearance in March 2009 after a gas well was drilled near the family’s home.
hills near where he and his sons farm and remembers building terraces and picking out rocks from the land. “To me, this is God’s country.”
Hard work ahead Citizens of the Shale, Part 4: Regulation stymied by limits, differences By Sarah Perry | For the Denton Record-Chronicle March 30, 2011
hen Susan Knoll, her husband, Michael, and their teenage daughter moved into their $1 million, 4,500square-foot brick home in Bartonville three years ago, Knoll couldn’t imagine a more idyllic place — her dream home surrounded by trees on 2 acres with a pool and three fireplaces. But today, Knoll says, a gas well dug behind their property has cast her family into what she describes as a scene out of a
Stephen King novel, complete with noxious water, foul air, numbing headaches and grasshoppers falling dead from the sky. “This was supposed to be the home before the nursing home,” Knoll says. “We built this home to live in forever, and before we have any long-term health effects, we have to move. But where do you move where there isn’t going to be drilling? Now people sit in our backyard and get bloody noses.” Knoll was horrified when one morning
For the Denton Record-Chronicle file photo/Spike Johnson
Proper cementing is critical to gas well drilling and gas production. Substandard cement jobs can lead to a host of environmental and well-control problems, such as the blowout of an oil well in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010.
she turned on her garden hose to put some of her family’s well water into a glass pitcher. The water was spewing foam and steam and smelled of sulfur. As the foam subsided, Knoll took a candle lighter and touched the flame to the water. After a few minutes, she dipped a hand in the pitcher. A waxy substance dripped from her hand. It looked like contact lenses had formed on her fingertips. Last summer, Knoll had her water tested by a private company. A chemical called methylene blue active substance was found in her water — a lubricant used in natural gas drilling that can cause water to have a soap-like feel. Knoll says that since drilling behind her property began in April, she’s complained to the Texas Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality dozens of times about odors, gas leaks and loud noises. The agencies have visited her property but have found no violations. The Railroad Commission tested the pools of water that mysteriously appeared on her property but did not test her well water. The agency found nothing wrong. Knoll isn’t alone in her complaints about operational practices of the gas companies that are drilling in the Barnett Shale. Dozens of citizen groups have formed in North Texas in the last several years, claiming that the Railroad Commission and TCEQ aren’t regulating gas drilling properly. While states such as Pennsylvania
and New York are clamping down on hydraulic fracturing or refusing to grant new permits because of environmental and health concerns, no one appears to be pulling back the reins of hydraulic fracturing in the Barnett Shale. The Railroad Commission has 87 investigators to police the wells in Texas, the fewest number of regulators per well in the country. From January 2007 to July 2010, Railroad Commission records — obtained in an open-records request — show 21,593 inspections in the Barnett Shale region. Inspectors in the Kilgore district launched a special initiative in 2008, knocking out 812 lease inspections during one week in October, according to commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye. On average, however, the commission inspects about 155 facilities in the Barnett Shale region each week. The Railroad Commission also came under fire from the Sunset Advisory Commission, a state-appointed committee that reviews agencies every 12 years. The November 2010 report found that the agency rarely uses enforcement actions against violations it finds. In 2009, the agency performed about 128,000 inspections. Regulators found more than 80,000 violations, but 96 percent of the violators were not fined. Moreover, the sunset commission found the agency doesn’t track repeat violators, so it “cannot be certain that operators are not committing repeated violations.”
Inspectors found 18,000 water protection violations in 2009, yet the agency took enforcement action on fewer than 1 percent. The agency received 681 complaints from residents related to oil and gas production. In investigating those complaints, inspectors found nearly 2,000 violations. Only 91 resulted in enforcement action. “When the public sees so few enforcement actions for violations found from its complaints, the public’s confidence in the Commission’s enforcement process is undermined,” the report stated. The sunset commission also claimed the agency’s credibility is undermined by its promotion of the industry products it is supposed to regulate. Three agency employees distribute grant money that promotes the use of propane as an alternative fuel, according to the report. The agency awarded more than $17 million in state and federal grants in 2009 for purchasing or modifying propane-fueled vehicles. According to the report, “sunset staff could find no other state agency that promotes a product it also regulates.” *** As he sips on a cold Miller Lite, “Bob” leans back in a restaurant booth and lifts his baseball cap, revealing a thick mop of silver hair and piercing blue eyes. Bob, who asked that his name not be used for fear of being banned from working in the gas drilling industry, started working in the growing field in 2007. Since December 2009, he has hauled flow-back water for two operators. Bob says that the water, which is supposed to be stored in tanks until it’s disposed of in an injection well, is routinely spilled on the ground at night because inspectors aren’t around. The workers fall asleep while the water is pumping into the trucks, and sometimes the tanks overflow. “It happens all the time,” he says. When the water spills, the workers don’t tell their bosses, so the spill is never reported. “You’d get fired real quick,” he says. He pauses, grins and pounds his fist on the table. “But I never have put water on the ground!” One of the problems with wastewater is that no one other than the gas companies knows for sure exactly what’s in it. Operators are not required by federal law or Texas law to disclose the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the high-pressure pumping of water laced with sand and chemicals that breaks the rock and releases the gas. Because the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t know what’s in the water, it can’t be certain how dangerous the chemicals are that spill onto the ground. Michael
Overbay, a geolo“If you don’t gist for the EPA, know what’s in says it all depends on the it, you can’t size of the spill know what the and whether or environmental not there are impact is.” usable aquifers — Michael Overbay, a under the geologist for the ground. But, “if Environmental you don’t know Protection Agency what’s in it, you can’t know what the environmental impact is,” he says. The EPA is conducting a study, to be released in 2012, on the effects of fracking on groundwater, and asked nine companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the process. There have been reported spills as recently as August in Denton County. In March, July and August of 2010, Williams Production reported three flow-back spills at sites in Flower Mound and Argyle. In March, about 80 barrels of water — approximately 3,500 gallons — spilled onto the ground at 2:30 a.m. Williams notified Flower Mound at 10 a.m. Bob estimates that he’s worked on 50 wells. In November, he quit his job and went back to his work at a factory where he says he had more job stability, even though he was laid off. But during those three years, he says, he never saw an inspector from either the Railroad Commission or TCEQ. “I saw company men, and that’s it,” he says. *** In Westworth Village, a small town five miles west of Fort Worth, there is a parcel of land that has been untouched by development. On 45 acres, some of it inherited from her grandfather, Deborah Rogers runs an organic farm and raises goats and chickens. Horses graze in the grass, and from her front room, palm trees can be seen swaying in the wind while her turkeys trot through the lawn. But stare long enough through the floor-to-ceiling windows, and a break is visible in the trees. In the clearing, there are five gas wells. In May 2009, Rogers came home from a meeting to find 100 trees clear-cut right next to her property line. She thought someone was building a home. A few days later, she learned that 12 gas wells were planned. About one-quarter of a mile from her land, another site was under construction and wells were actively being drilled. On the fifth day, when one of the wells was flared, she lost two baby goats and seven baby chicks. One of the chicks fell over dead in front of her. She began to suf-
fer from severe headaches and nosebleeds. Desperate for answers, she hired an independent firm to test her air. She met with TCEQ staffers, who referred her to the Railroad Commission, who referred her back to TCEQ. Rogers finally met with the TCEQ toxicologists, and she says they told her not to worry. According to the report TCEQ sent Rogers in August 2009, “persistent exposure” to the levels of carbon disulfide found on her property could cause headaches and nausea. But, the report concluded: “Although two of the reported concentrations and all three of the potential maximum concentrations exceed the TCEQ short-term ESL, we would not expect adverse health effects to result from exposure to these concentrations.” When she showed the results to Al Armendariz, who is the regional director of the EPA, he wrote a letter expressing concern that the levels of carbon disulfides found on her property were 300 times greater than levels normally found in urban areas. Carbon disulfide can cause “nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, headache, mood changes, lethargy, blurred vision, delirium and convulsions … in humans acutely exposed by inhalation,” Armendariz wrote. And confirming Rogers’ worst fears, “the enhanced toxicity of carbon disulfide via ingestion might be a concern to grazing animals or to people who accidentally ingest soils or other material that have been contaminated by carbon disulfide.” In the last 18 months, Rogers has called TCEQ dozens of times, but each time, the agency finds no cause for concern. Meanwhile, she suffers severe nosebleeds and fears for her health. She’s spent $35,000 on testing. In May 2010, Rogers called TCEQ once more. She smelled the odor of gasoline with a “lemony scent” and was suffering from a blasting headache and nosebleeds. She became dizzy. Chesapeake was drilling the wells right next to her property line. TCEQ sent out investigators two times and used toxic-vapor analyzers to screen the air but didn’t find levels high enough to put out Summa canisters. Rogers took her own sample and sent it to a lab for testing. The results: Carbon disulfide was found at the level of 10.8 parts per billion. She sent an e-mail to TCEQ administrators. “Clearly the toxic vapor analyzers are not very good at detecting emissions in ambient air,” she wrote. “Chesapeake is now drilling another well next to me and I will be placing more canisters out. … I know you are all trying but I don’t care how you look at it, this is wrong and changes must occur.” She never received a response.
In September, she smelled the odor again when another well was being drilled. This time, she didn’t call TCEQ. She took her own samples, and a few weeks later got the results. The lab report showed carbon disulfide at 18.1 ppb and benzene, a known carcinogen, at 62.4 ppb — a level far above not only long-term screening levels, but short-term, too. She sent the results to TCEQ, and an investigator came to her house within an hour. But the drilling rig was gone, and new test results showed no benzene. The investigator didn’t test for carbon disulfide. She says the investigator asked her to sign an affidavit, agreeing to post the test results online. Rogers refused, saying she would only agree if they included her test results that were done at the time of drilling. TCEQ said no. “It breaks my heart,” Rogers said in December, leaning against her couch and staring at her palm trees and turkeys through her window. “I can’t tell you what it’s done to me. I was brought up to think that a piece of land is the most precious thing you own. I don’t care about this house. They had 20 acres of land. The pad site is 8 to 10 [acres], and they bulldozed everything. The birds are gone. This place used to be covered in birds. Sparrows were everywhere. The rabbits are gone. I know it sounds silly, but it means something to me. “All the entities that are there to protect you — none of them could be relied on and it’s absolutely demoralizing,” she said. “TCEQ is supposed to protect us. You call them and they don’t do a damn thing.” *** TCEQ monitors compounds in the air by setting effects screening levels (ESLs) for short-term and long-term health effects. If a chemical doesn’t exceed those levels, TCEQ does nothing. Even when the chemicals are exceeding set levels, “it does not necessarily indicate a problem, but a more in-depth review is conducted,” according to the 2010 Effects Screening Level standards. At an air quality study committee in March 2010, the chief toxicologist of TCEQ said that he was most worried about benzene, and had not seen supporting data that revealed sulfur-containing organic compounds as a health problem. Neil Carman, the clean air program director for the Sierra Club, is most concerned about how the effects screening levels are set by TCEQ. Carman spent 12 years as an investigator for TCEQ and investigated industrial plants in West Texas. “True toxic risk to hundreds of thousands of citizens is not known or adequately addressed by TCEQ,” he said in an e-
mail. The ESLs are set too high and are not state air standards, but merely suggested guidelines for companies, he said. If pollution does exceed the suggested ESLs, oftentimes TCEQ still says there’s not a problem. In some cases, TCEQ has used enforcement action to force companies to Denton Record-Chronicle file photo/Barron Ludlum decrease polluMatthew Baker, assistant director of the Field Operations Support Division of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, shows how hourly air samples are tion, but “not analyzed by a permanent air quality monitor in Dish, in April 2010. often,” he said. “A lot of states use this health issues such as vomiting and approach,” Carman said. “It’s really an headaches, and sick animals. TCEQ has 10 approach to help industry put out a lot of investigators who handle the complaints, pollution. When you have standards, they but that is a small slice of the duties each are more enforceable.” investigator has. In addition, they’re When investigators are testing the air, charged with inspecting air quality around the wind can play a factor in accuracy. If 14,000 gas wells and 49,000 pieces of prothe wind shifts, the pollutants also can shift, so investigators must be in an almost duction equipment in the Barnett Shale area. perfect spot to collect accurate data, Each investigator would have to visit Carman said. about four wells every day to see all the When you’re talking about cancer-causwells in the 24 counties making up the ing agents such as benzene, the only safe level of pollution is zero, he said. Any level Barnett Shale area. But TCEQ doesn’t like to think of the gas wells as singular entities above zero means people are at risk of — the agency prefers to look at how many exposure to carcinogens. Children, whose sites investigators have visited. On average, bodies are still developing, are more susTCEQ visits about 50 sites a month. These ceptible to exposure. “The agency uses a lot of averaging in the sites can include up to 20 wells apiece. Tony Walker, the regional director of calculation of ESLs,” Carman said. “Our TCEQ, says the agency has a risk system to bodies are not designed to average. With help decide which wells it should investiover 30 years now of investigating air polgate. At the beginning of each fiscal year, lution in Texas, I see the agency as a failTCEQ prioritizes wells based on the operure.” ating company’s compliance history, the wells’ location to churches and schools, *** and the potential air emissions. If a company has received violations, then TCEQ The TCEQ regional office is located in a strip mall off Interstate 820 in Fort Worth. will monitor its wells more closely, Walker said. Inside, an administrative assistant greets Of the wells investigators visit, about 5 visitors with a smile. On this particular percent are found to have violations, day, she pauses to answer the phone. Walker said. It’s a low percentage because “How may I help you?” companies, in general, want to be compliAnother pause. ant. “Is this regarding gas wells or another “I’ll just say, well, I’ve been involved in source?” this quite a while,” Walker said. “The idea “OK. Stand by.” In the past year since TCEQ instituted its is that regulated entities try to be in compliance. They know the way they do busi12-hour response policy for complaints ness is based on that.” associated with drilling in the Barnett Investigators for the Barnett Shale don’t Shale, the office has received more than 300 calls, according to Alyssa Taylor, who’s have to be familiar with the natural gas in charge of inspections for the region. The industry, Taylor said. She usually hires people with a science or engineering backcomplaints have included loud noises,
ground; the candidate must be a team player and be able to speak to the public. After investigator Luke Jones was hired, he learned how to operate equipment and write reports. Most training is done on the job, and new hires are supervised by senior investigators before they are sent into the field on their own. If someone calls after the office closes, investigators respond immediately when there’s a potential health impact, Taylor said. If someone is having persistent headaches or nosebleeds, or there’s a highpitched sound, it’s classified as an “emergency situation.” If the call isn’t an emergency, it can wait until morning, she said. But when Jones is performing a scheduled investigation or responding to a complaint, he’s not allowed to be on the gas site unless someone from the company is present. Once, when he was using a camera to view a site, he couldn’t see the gas tanks. He had to wait an hour before someone from the company showed up to let him on the site. “It’s in everybody’s best interest if the company is there,” Walker said. Not every investigator with TCEQ thinks the agency is doing its job properly. In October, Jeff Kunze, who has been an investigator with TCEQ’s Waco region for 11 years, wrote to TCEQ’s executive director, pleading for help. Kunze said that since an audit recommended “tighter controls on overtime” for the Field Operations Support Division, TCEQ had been using other staff who aren’t properly trained or equipped to respond to emergencies. “Use of different staff may be management’s prerogative, but … it appears that budgetary and other concerns have overridden the obligation to comply with applicable laws, rules, and regulations — to the detriment of public and staff safety,” Kunze wrote. In the letter, Kunze said there were times when TCEQ staff were forced to use inoperable equipment in monitoring gas operations in the Barnett Shale area. In one instance, staff members had to find the source of odors by smell. Repeatedly, he pointed to incidences in which the staff was not provided with personal protective equipment needed on site to protect them from hazardous materials. Even when the equipment was available, the staff was discouraged from using it to “avoid alarming” onlookers. “Ironically, TCEQ fines companies for environmental violations when its own staff is not provided the equipment and training required by law,” he wrote. To demonstrate to the public the dangers of gas drilling in the area, Susan Knoll keeps pictures of the dying grasshoppers on her laptop. She also organizes protests, attends city council meetings and has
joined the board of a nonprofit organization that provides air, water and soil testing to low-income families near drilling sites. Knoll, a petite woman with wispy blond hair, doesn’t come across as a crusader. But when she begins talking about the gas well behind her home, her cheeks flush and her voice hardens. “They don’t let up. Every day there’s something new,” she says, spurting out a list of new drilling activity in Bartonville and Argyle. “There’s so much going on, it’s exhausting keeping up with it. But this is our family, and we have to protect it.” *** In Wise County, Tim Ruggiero has had an experience similar to Susan Knoll’s. He moved from a Denton subdivision to his ranch home in 2004 so he could have a small farm. His daughter wanted horses; he and his wife wanted more space. The drilling began in September 2009. After becoming dissatisfied with the state’s response to his complaints, he had his water tested and found strontium, boron and a chemical resembling the gasoline additive MTBE. After spending more than $7,000 on independent testing, Ruggiero and Calvin Tillman, the outgoing mayor of Dish, decided to start a nonprofit organization to test air, water and soil for people who can’t afford it on their own. They call it ShaleTest. Knoll is on the board. Ruggiero and Tillman went on a tour of the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation similar to the Barnett Shale that’s located in several Northeastern states. They met dozens of people whose water was contaminated. “We have to do something,” Ruggiero says. “We’re going to show the contamination, and we want to show a direct correlation [between contamination and drilling].” Engineers in Pennsylvania and Arkansas have agreed to help with testing, he said. Ruggiero sits on his porch drinking diet cola and puffing on a cigar. He looks out at the well next to his property and glances at his two horses grazing nearby. “The very same government agencies that are sworn to protect us are barely lifting a finger to help,” he says. *** On a warm fall day, Susan Knoll drives through Bartonville, pointing to huge plumes of smoke billowing in the air. The source: the Wright Well on North Gibbons Road. Piles of dirt make it impossible to see any activity at the well. A dead tree stands next to the road.
“It doesn’t feel good knowing you can’t do anything to stop them,” she says. April 1, 2010, was the first time Knoll called TCEQ and the Railroad Commission. Pools of water had formed in her backyard. A Railroad Commission inspector came out. He dipped a clear vial into one of the pools. The murky brown substance flowed into the tube. “And what are you testing that for?” she recalls asking the inspector. “The basic minerals, just to see if it’s salty,” he told her. “This’ll just be for chlorides, sulfides. One of the first things I’m going to test for is to see if it’s salty or not. It doesn’t look like it’s salty.” He trailed off. “What would that mean if it were salty?” she asked. “Well, that’s a sign — a lot of oil fields produce water that’s salty,” he told her. “Most of it is very salty.” The lab results showed nothing was in the water. Then two months later, she tested her well water and found methylene blue active substances. In April, Knoll kept smelling gas. On
April 30, she called TCEQ. An inspector came again. No violations were found. On May 7, she and her husband began to feel light-headed. Their noses burned and their stomachs churned. The smell of metal was everywhere. No violations were found. In June, the grasshoppers began dying. Hundreds of them were spread out on Knoll’s patio like dead leaves. They lay on their backs, legs twitching in the air. TCEQ arrived — within 12 hours — and discovered leaks in a temporary pipeline. Before the investigator could record the leak, the company fixed it. The investigator took an air sample, and the emissions were at safe levels, according to the report. No violations were found. Knoll vacuumed up the dead insects. She shakes her head. “No one actually believes it until you live it, because it’s unbelievable,” she says. Staff writer Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe contributed to this report.
Cement plays vital role in drilling By Beth Francesco | For the Denton Record-Chronicle March 30, 2011
angling about 125 feet above the ground and swinging in stiff winds, a 90-foot string of pipe bangs against the cold, metal drilling rig, slipping from the tool pushers below. The clanging is startling, but the roughnecks atop a threestory-high platform manage to gather the monstrous pipe and maneuver it into place. On the dusty gravel pad below, four crewmen clad in red coveralls lean against a Halliburton truck, waiting. Some gnaw gum. Some spit. Some wipe dust from their faces as they prepare for their critical step: setting the thin layer of cement that protects aquifers from the surge of dirty salt water and other fluids that will come barreling back to the surface from thousands of feet below — if the Barnett Shale is properly fractured.
Clang, clang. More dust. More wind. It may be a new, high-tech process for natural gas production, but the old safeguard is the same — and setting 31,000 pounds of pipe can’t be rushed. Each piece is connected by threads and heads that have to screw together perfectly. The vacuum seal formed by the connection means the difference between a good string of pipe and a bad one. And a bad string of pipe means toxic chemicals and salt water used in fracturing the gas-rich Barnett Shale might leak out, contaminating underground aquifers that supply irrigation and drinking water to North Texas. So work must proceed carefully with Devon Energy’s gas well in Wise County — one of seven running for the company in mid-November. According to records and interviews with several gas drilling experts in Texas, a lot can go wrong in cementing a
gas well, and it often does. Anything from inclement weather or faulty equipment to a botched mixture of cement and water can produce dire environmental consequences and human health risks. “The most important thing that probably happens in the history of a well is how this form application for drilling is filled out and how the circumstances that you could run into are taken care of,” says Dale Henry, a longtime petroleum engineer and master cementer. “It cannot be a rubberstamp deal.”
shouts against 36 mph winds, and the job shuts down — immediately. Minutes later, the safety meeting is over. The mixing truck whirs and stirs a precisely measured mixture of water, cement and calcium carbonate, which speeds the cement’s cure. Daryl Scofield and another worker perch atop the mixing truck. While he pilots the truck, monitoring the electronic cockpit that measures, second by second, the density of the mix and the pressure it is under, his co-worker tests the material by hand — “like they did in the old days,” Scofield says when the job is *** done. The cement mixture flows up to the platAn hour and a half pass. The last of the form via three stories of pipe to the newly surface casing stands in place, its head laid casing, which is outfitted with a prespoking several feet above the base of the surized cement intake head. The cement drilling platform. The men in red coveralls works its way down through the casing and mill about, kicking up dust with their up around its exterior, filling the area boots. They are anxious to mix and pour between the pipe and the earth that a drill the cement and finish this part of the job bit chewed through the night before. A — the start of a long process of stop-andfailure to fill even a tiny crevice with the start mixing, pouring and waiting. Garrett mixture means the well could succumb to Jackson, Devon’s Bridgeport drilling opera- “washout” — cakes of mud chewed away in tions supervisor, checks his watch, but he’s the drilling process, leaving gaps that suck in no hurry. Moving slowly and methodiaway the water in the cement. The mixture cally is the only way to safely work toward used in this job, Jackson says, contained an fracking the hard rock of the Barnett extra 30 to 50 barrels of cement — up to Shale, he says. Taking the time to get the 2,100 gallons — to ensure a solid seal. surface casing correct is time — and Halfway through the job, Scofield’s crew money — well spent. reduces the amount of water in the cement Devon’s on-site manager, Roy Darden, from 14.5 gallons per sack of cement to 9 gathers the cement and other crews for a so that the casing closer to the surface sets safety check before the gray stuff will faster, keeping the wet stuff on pace with course through and up around the just-laid the four-hour basic curing time all cement pipe: Who’s monitoring the materials — above or below ground — requires. truck? Who’s testing the batch of cement, On any rig, time is money. On this rig, it’s calcium carbonate and water? Who’s in about $2,000 an hour for equipment and charge of seeing to it that the watery conpersonnel. coction winds its way up and around the An hour after the job starts, another drill pipe properly? Everyone gets an waiting game begins. Darden, the on-site assignment. Darden orders his crew to stay manager, and an inspector for the Texas alert for any glitches. One glitch, Darden Railroad Commission hover over the reserve pits about 30 feet from the rig, where excess cement is supposed to flow when it returns to the surface. That’s how the crew knows the job is done, and how the Railroad Commission knows the law has been followed. At first, there’s just a trickle of muddy water. Then the brew darkens, with cement flowing Denton Record-Chronicle file photo/David Minton back at a good A tanker truck driver from Gilbow Oilfield Services checks on a tank at an Aruba rate, indicating Petroleum gas well on Tim Ruggiero’s property in Wise County in February 2010.
the pipe is encased and cementing can cease. As the flow-back cement dumps into the reserve pit, crews mix in a 94-pound sack of sugar — the same that sweetens morning coffee or gets spun into cotton candy — to keep it from hardening as it is trucked away. Darden and the inspector watch intently as the cement pours out of the hole and slows to a trickle. “Yo,” Darden shouts, pumping his fist in the air to signal that this part of the well — the surface casing — is complete, and the wait for the cement to harden begins. After the cement hardens, more drilling will take place, more pipe laid, string by string, until it reaches a curve several hundred feet below and stretches 11,500 feet horizontally, under farms and homes. The well’s twin is about 100 feet away, laid only weeks earlier using the same Devon rig. *** To most people, cement is so ubiquitous — the common ingredient in modern concrete structures — that few may think of cement as high-tech. Yet, in its pure form, cement is critical to well drilling and gas production. Some experts contend that the complex mixing, pouring and curing of cement under invisible, high-pressure conditions hundreds of feet below the surface of the Earth is a leading culprit in environmental catastrophes associated with oil and gas drilling — on land and offshore. But myriad problems associated with “cementing failures” have remained out of public view — until now. The world woke up to the hazards associated with botched cement jobs after a BPleased platform in the Gulf of Mexico exploded April 20, killing 11 rig workers and leaking millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico over several months. The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling blamed the explosion on a faulty cement job involving unreported stability tests and ill-prepared materials. “Cementing wells is a complex endeavor, and industry experts inform us that cementing failures are not uncommon even in the best of circumstances,” the commission reported. The report goes on to say: “Because it may be anticipated that a particular cement job may be faulty, the oil industry has developed tests, such as the negative pressure test and cement evaluation logs, to identify cementing failures. It has also developed methods to remedy deficient cement jobs.” None of the more than 14,400 gas wells drilled in the Barnett Shale in North Texas is exactly like another. The varying amount of experience of the
crews that do the work, the rig’s design and the proprietary fracking fluids all make each well vary. What they have in common is a dependence on cement to prevent leaks, including leaks of the chemical-laden fluids as they are pumped underground, under thousands of pounds of pressure, to break the rock and release the gas. As the BP spill illustrates, any cement job can turn into a disaster due to human error or the unknowns below. At active and inactive drilling sites across the state, the Railroad Commission conducts numerous inspections involving cement, which is used in nearly every step of the well’s setup. But inspection records, obtained in an open-records request, reveal that attempts by the commission to address hazards associated with reckless drilling practices aren’t always successful. Through its drilling permits, the Railroad Commission requires operators to spell out their intentions before any pipe is sunk. The agency wants to know how deep into the earth the operator plans to drill, how much gas it intends to extract and what methods it intends to use to extract it, such as conventional or horizontal drilling. Henry, the longtime petroleum engineer and master cementer, says the place to put a neon marker on the permit application is on line 21 — where the agency seeks the sort of information it needs to assess whether the driller is prepared to take all the steps necessary in the drilling, fracking and cementing processes to protect against a breach. The details of a job can vary as widely as a fingerprint, with variables involving everything from the size of the open hole and pipe to the quality of the cement the operator chooses. In Comanche County, located on the perimeter of the Barnett Shale area, landowner Roy Johnson knew something wasn’t right with a rusty wellhead on his property, state records show. The customarily lush coastal Bermuda grass surrounding the wellhead had dried up, and tiny white crystals littered the dirt left behind. The sight of glistening crystals around the wellhead spurred Johnson to call the Railroad Commission in 2008 and ask for an investigation. Inspectors discovered that the 30-year-old well was leaking salt water. One year later, the dead zone around the well had tripled to 56 square feet. How deep the salt water had seeped into the ground was anyone’s guess. Two years and 23 inspections later — each monthly inspection revealed breached cement at the top of the well had not been addressed — the agency ordered the inactive well plugged for a second time, in March 2010. Lucky Oil and Gas Co. was fined $13,750 for three faulty wells in all. Field tests on
the well on Johnson’s land revealed damage from the leak, where seeping salt water rendered the land near the wellhead unusable. The state, not the operator, will plug the well, according to Railroad Commission records. “Usable quality groundwater in the area is likely to be contaminated by migrations or discharges of salt water and other oil and gas wastes from the subject wells,” according to a Railroad Commission report of contamination on Johnson’s ranch. “Unplugged wellbores constitute a cognizable threat to the public health and safety because of the probability of pollution.” Though the agency inspects the cement jobs at well sites throughout the state, critics say that when it discovers a leaky well, it imposes fines, like Lucky’s, that amount to a slap on the wrist for the operator — fines that don’t begin to address the environmental damage done. The company could not be reached for comment. On Johnson’s land in Comanche County, it took nearly 30 years for the Railroad Commission to take action against an operator who started drilling a well without enough cement to complete the job, according to commission records and common calculations by the industry. To fill the 3 3/4-inch space between the pipe and earth extending 1,620 feet to the casing shoe — the bottom of the first set of pipes — should take approximately 436 sacks of cement. According to cementing experts, that amount of cement would fill the cylinder encasing the pipe and bring it to the surface — satisfying a Railroad Commission rule. The company’s cement report for the site indicates that 380 sacks were used. The 56-sack difference might not seem like much, considering all the additives an operator can use to accelerate hardening. But no drill bit chews perfect holes into earth, and the geology of each well location plays a critical role in how much water the strata sucks out of the cement mixture as it’s pushed down the hole. Drilling a well without enough cement to guarantee the space around the drill pipe is properly sealed, experts say, is tantamount to gambling with the water supply. The Railroad Commission doesn’t have the manpower to scrupulously review every application or inspect every cement job in the state, says Henry, a veteran of decades in the cementing industry. And even if the agency did, most surface casing jobs — setting the pipe and pumping the cement — take place at night, long after inspectors have headed home. *** Before applying for a Railroad Commis-
sion permit, operators must obtain a letter from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality that specifies the safe-water mark — the place where operators must drill past to avoid damaging or polluting underground aquifers on their way to the shale or other production zone. For TCEQ, each operator’s request requires sifting through more than 300,000 cataloged records that map subterranean Texas. A three-person administrative staff verifies data in the operator’s request, along with geologists who have specific regional expertise, says Ed Block, TCEQ surface casing planner. The staff studies the logs of nearby wells to pinpoint the safe-water spot before a drilling permit is granted. “If we don’t have a log for an area, it is the operator’s responsibility to provide one,” Block says. TCEQ’s team of nine processed about 11,628 requests from April 1 through Oct. 1 last year. At least half of those operators requested a letter from TCEQ within four days in hopes of expediting drilling. The office customarily takes two weeks to review an application. With the rampant drilling activity in the Barnett Shale, the agency is stretched thin in reviewing about 20,000 applications annually. “We aim for quicker service, but our workload has been heavy lately with lots of activity,” says Block. The current backlog has some geologists helping in regions of the state they don’t typically work in, he says. Henry, the longtime petroleum engineer, says that’s part of the problem. Time and expertise matter at every stage of the game: handling the application, reviewing industry data and knowing the geology in the area where the operator wants to drill. But expertise is absolutely critical in the mixing, testing, pouring and curing of cement around the well, Henry says. Even a minor miscalculation — using too much water or not enough in the mixture — can undermine the stability of the casing, reaping an environmental disaster. Michelle Wilson, education coordinator for the Portland Cement Association, the industry’s leading cement supplier, agrees with Henry that even minor glitches in the mixture can have major consequences. “It’s like Elmer’s glue,” she says. “If you dilute it, it loses its effectiveness.” Henry, who spent decades cementing and training cementers for Dowell oil field services, says formal training alone can’t teach anyone how to mix, test, pour and cure cement at a drilling site. After 50 years in the cement and drilling industries, he says the complexities make it as much an art as a science. Scofield, who worked the cement truck on Devon’s well in Wise County in
November, agrees. When working with cement and chemicals in a pressure-cooker environment, Scofield warns, anything can happen. “I train my guys to think one step ahead,” Scofield says. “They need to know what to do.” *** From his home’s breezy porch of brick reclaimed from his childhood school in Lampasas, Henry, now retired, still works to educate others on water safety and proper cementing. His 78-year-old hands deftly sketch pipe plunging deep underground while he lectures on the uncontrolled underground variables drillers must crunch through before hitting the sweet spot for gas. He talks about chemical makeup, compressive strength and myriad terms most people already have forgotten from high school physics.
The lines he sketches are drawn at an angle, so he, too, can see what he’s explaining on the traveling easel he used during three unsuccessful campaigns to lead the Railroad Commission, which governs oil and gas production in Texas. He’s a patient teacher on what he knows best — cement — and vocal about what he fears the most: bad cement jobs on oil and gas rigs. It doesn’t take long for Henry to grow from soft-hearted sentimentalist to redcheeked activist. There’s simply no safe cement job, he points out, leaning in and sighing hard. The wind on his porch picks up the paper on the easel, held in place by duct tape, and it crashes to the floor. As if on cue, Henry starts. “I’ll tell you what,” he says of the tapeeasel contraption, “that’s a typical cement job right there. It wasn’t good from the start.”
Striking the balance Citizens of the Shale, Part 5: Shale laden with pros, cons By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe | Staff Writer March 31, 2011
one-colored tumbleweeds roll across the smooth, bright concrete parking lot toward the gas well as a volunteer steps down from his pickup and walks to the front doors of First United Methodist Church of Krum. He is one of several adults who will help prepare for an afterschool program that day. Most of the deal to uproot the old downtown church so they could set down roots at the new location, on FM1173, was brokered before she arrived, Pastor Christy Thomas says. The mineral lease was a pivotal move for both the Krum school district, its minerals also pooled in the well site, and the church. Until then, the congregation was struggling in this historically Mormon community to raise enough money to build a larger sanctuary. Like many living above the Barnett Shale, Thomas won’t launch into a
thoughtful discussion about the social and cultural effects of the boom without first discussing the financial interest the church holds in a natural gas well next door — right down to the extra-wide driveway that the energy company built so that churchgoers and truckers could share access. “That’s a lot of concrete and that’s expensive, so that was a definite plus for us,” Thomas says. Energy companies tout not only the millions in royalties and thousands of jobs they bring, but also their tax-paying and philanthropy, saying their presence benefits the North Texas economy. Local economists agree the Barnett Shale boom softened the region’s entry into the recent recession, says University of North Texas economics professor Terry Clower. Last year, G&G Tractors closed on Denton’s south side, after decades of outfitting the county’s farmers. An Oklahoma
For the Denton Record-Chronicle/Spike Johnson
Barnett Shale operators have proposed to use this remote location in Cooke County to manage wastewater. This composite image was created by combining three 35mm photographs.
company, Beck Oilfield Supplies, moved into the building. While plans for a retail mecca on Denton’s west side have languished, city leaders offered tax incentives to lure a local office of Schlumberger Ltd., an international oilfield services conglomerate, away from Gainesville. Before the boom, local economists pointed to western Denton County as the next place in the fast-growing Dallas-Fort Worth area for big housing developments. But to support the rush to drill, Barnett Shale gas operators have bought up, leased or condemned thousands of acres of prime North Texas land to support well sites, production facilities and pipelines. Now, more than 1,200 miles of natural gas pipelines — with thousands of pieces of production equipment — crisscross Denton County, nearly all of it west of Interstate 35. In places where an extraction industry needs lots of land, an area also risks becoming a mono-economy, as happened in Appalachia, says Suzanne Tallichet, a rural sociologist at Morehead State University in Kentucky and an expert on coal mining and communities. The transformation of coal’s all-encompassing reach took a long time, she says. Before the Civil War, many Americans viewed Appalachia as a desirable place to live, and in the decades after the war, they tried to return to farming and the way of life they valued. At the same time, logging and coal companies were buying huge swaths of land — entire mountains. People could no longer afford their agrarian lives. Public officials went along with the change, and people were forced to sell their land, beginning a cycle of dependency, Tallichet says. With a regional annual economy of about $360 billion, even the most generous estimates of the Barnett Shale’s part — $11 billion in gross area product and 111,000 jobs — show little risk to the greater economy of Dallas-Fort Worth, Clower says, at least not the way Midland fell after the oil bust in the 1980s. However, smaller towns and other outlying areas could have a harder time. “Oil and gas still cycle,” Clower says.
Some of the research Clower has done in the U.S. and in Australia shows that small towns with few employers are more exposed to economic risk. But those that can adapt will survive. “You can ride a wave like the Barnett Shale,” Clower says. “You have to use the money to reinvest and be ready to move on.” *** A decade ago, Americans faced the prospect of running out of natural gas. Most natural gas came as a byproduct of oil drilling and production. Other easy-toget reserves were tapped out. Talks had begun over building shipping ports capable of docking tankers filled with compressed natural gas, so the nation could import what it needed. Breakthroughs in horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing changed that outlook. And Texas’ energy-producing infrastructure — a skilled workforce, idled drilling equipment, injection wells and, perhaps most important, sympathetic politicians — was primed to get at the mammoth natural resource known as Barnett Shale gas. There was just one hitch. More than 6 million people, and the immeasurable amount of infrastructure that supports their daily lives, reside above the shale’s estimated 27 trillion cubic feet of gas. Legislators and local officials have labored for a decade to make the two infrastructures coexist. Some experts say, historically, the chances for the region to come out ahead aren’t good, even before any down cycle begins. In the early 1990s, researchers studied Third World countries with extraction industries, and then began studying communities in the U.S. Centuries ago, mining spurred the development of other inventions and industry, and local communities benefited from those new economic linkages. Today, mining doesn’t have that robust effect on a local economy, in part because technology helps fewer workers complete tasks that once took many workers, according to the
late Bill Freudenberg, a rural sociologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. What researchers found is that poor countries get poorer over time, he said. They call it the resource curse. *** When drilling began in the Barnett Shale in the 1970s, about 1,500 vertical wells were concentrated in rural areas, mostly in Denton and Wise counties. Now the Barnett Shale region has about 14,000 wells drilled in 23 counties. Some industry officials say only a fraction of the field’s potential has been tapped. In regions that have been saturated by a singular activity, such as coal mining or poorly managed agriculture, researchers have discovered that a long-term recovery depends, in part, on the numbers, according to Daniel Bain, an environmental engineering professor at the University of Pittsburgh. “There’s lots of good faith on the part of the actors in the industry to do things right,” Bain says. In other words, if a only a small percentage of wells, such as one or two out of a thousand, cause problems in the environment, there is less to remediate. But the scale changes when extraction has saturated an area, he said. Then, even when the percentage of problems in the activity stays small, the number of problems looms large, he said. Longterm recovery means remediating hundreds or thousands of places in the land that don’t function the way nature intended. Once the scale has changed, he said, difficult problems emerge when basic elements and systems get out of balance. Salt, for example, accumulates. “Salt changes the way water interacts with the environment,” Bain said. Texas has seen salt damage. The state’s regulatory push for injection wells came after saltwater contamination in the oilfields during earlier booms. Land near Big Lake in West Texas, known as the “Texon Scar,” has been denuded for generations because of saltwater contamination. Researchers have planted salt cedars on the Texon Scar, but very little else grows there except tumbleweeds — the nonnative, salt-tolerant Russian thistle, which can remove more than 40 gallons of water from the soil while competing with crops. Understanding that kind of effect on the land is fairly new, coming from different research disciplines, Bain said. They call it the legacy effect. *** In order to benefit from resource extrac-
tion over the long term, people need quality government, orderly development and effective protection of the environment, according to Simon Taylor, director of Global Witness. An investigative non-governmental organization, Global Witness has tackled the resource curse in Third World nations, bringing international awareness to such issues as conflict diamonds. Political and business leaders must get a handle on the resource curse for shale gas areas, he cautions. If they cannot, he paints a bleak view of the future, pointing to the social unrest in the Niger Delta, for example. “Although shale drilling is a recent phenomenon and not going for 50 years, there [in the Niger Delta], the entire population is utterly affected. Their water systems, their fishing, their farming — it’s all being conducted in a toxic waste dump,” Taylor said. “And the political unrest there is unbelievable. There’s sabotage.” In Krum, tank farms and other production equipment sit between businesses, homes and even among historic buildings in old town. Krum hasn’t required screening with masonry walls and landscaping, or other kinds of aesthetic buffers seen in other cities. In fact, compared with residents in other Barnett Shale communities, Krum residents have complained to environmental regulators very little. The first complaint lodged with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality came in November, according to Alyssa Taylor, who heads the Barnett Shale inspections out of the agency’s office in Fort Worth. By contrast, residents in Corinth, who have just one gas well site inside city limits, have been vocal in their efforts to contain natural gas facilities to certain areas of the city. In Corinth, shrubs are sculpted like meatballs and blades of Bermuda can be found lined up like endless tidy rows of toy soldiers. Battles have been fought to bring down controversial stands of unconventional plantings of native Texas grasses. So, neighbors on Pottery Trail and other streets along Sharon Lake were stunned when, a year ago, XTO Energy applied to drill up to 22 wells at Lake Sharon Christian Center, a spiritual and natural retreat in the heart of this bedroom community of nearly 20,000 people. Allan Biel is one of many Corinth residents who, on a Thursday night, would have been somewhere else, rather than waiting for a turn at the podium to address the City Council. He had first come to a council meeting months earlier, as did many other residents, in a citywide push to deny the permits. Weeks later, he and other residents
returned, calling for a moratorium and an overhaul of the city’s rules. Now he was back again, after he and other residents read over new rules drafted after months of work by a special committee. Biel was worried about exemptions still possible within the city’s new gas drilling and production setbacks — rules that didn’t seem to alter the likelihood of drilling near Sharon Lake. On this approach to the dais, Biel picked his words spontaneously but carefully, spending his three minutes to convey what he thought about the venture of gas drilling into the heart of his neighborhood.
He and his neighbors had demanded quality government, orderly development and protection of the environment. Many weren’t sure they got it, and told the council to eliminate the exemptions. Others said they felt even the new 1,000-foot setback was too short. They asked for a mile. Something altogether different came from Biel. “My thoughts are this — all these companies want to have the citizens leave the state so they can do what they want,” Biel said. “Texas wants to push me out of my home.”
Practice lays waste to land By Spike Johnson | For the Denton Record-Chronicle and Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe | Staff Writer March 31, 2011
t’s 3 a.m. spondence from commission staff, attorDick Ross lies awake in bed as 18neys and scientists assuring him that the wheelers crawl past his house. Their dumpsite doesn’t pose any health risks. headlights stream through his winToday, sitting on the wooden porch of his dow. They are waiting to dump rural Hillsboro home in Hill County, Ross, drilling waste on a corn farm 50 feet from 64, contemplates his plans for a peaceful his front door. The concoction is a mystery pursuit: raising South African Boer goats to him, except on his small 10that when it acre farm. blows through “My advice to the air, it strips anyone dealing the paint off his with the gas house. industry: Sell For two years, your whole place, he has fought the get the hell out,” Texas Railroad Ross says. “They Commission over cheat you out of permit violations your money, involving the wreck your view Denton Record-Chronicle file photo/David Minton dumpsite, suband destroy your A crowd spills into the hallway April 29, 2010, during mitting photos of property value.” a Corinth City Council special session to decide if variances should be granted to XTO Energy for gas trucks dumping Yet, even as he well development at Lake Sharon Christian Center. waste at all hours contemplates of the night and retirement, the letters demandformer educationing that his neighbor’s dumpsite be tested al supplies salesman is continuing his fight for contamination, as required by law. His against the Railroad Commission’s permitcampaign to shut down the dumpsite trig- ting process by providing guidance to othgered threats of litigation from the waste ers who are protesting dumpsites in their haulers and a giant pile of e-mail correown communities.
*** Ross and other farmers find it hard to reconcile Texans’ storied love of the land with the growing practice of spreading tons of drilling mud and other toxic waste across it, a process euphemistically called “landfarming.” As the state’s permits for natural gas drilling in the Barnett Shale region soar, more and more parcels of the Texas prairie are being turned into dumping grounds for disposing of the industry’s waste — increasing the thousands of approved “landfarms” already in existence. About 1.2 barrels of solid waste are created with each foot drilled, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Simply to reach the approximate 8,000-foot depth of a Barnett Shale gas well, drilling creates more than 9,600 barrels, or 403,200 gallons, of solid waste. That does not take into account any horizontal drilling performed after reaching that depth. For the 14,000 Barnett Shale wells drilled so far, the waste would cover the entire city of Fort Worth in more than an inch of drill cuttings, slurry, heavy metals and other toxic compounds. The Environmental Protection Agency is set to study much of the lifecycle of hydraulic fracturing — the controversial process of pressure-pumping chemicalladen water to release the gas — including the final disposition of millions of barrels of wastewater that flows back with the gas. But far less attention has been paid to the tons of drilling mud and other solids being spread across the land. Some landowners open their gates and bank accounts to the industry’s need to dump the waste, oblivious to environmental risks. While official eyes are averted, permits to dump are stretched beyond their limits. And as neighbors eye each other with increasing distrust, millions of gallons of toxic waste are spread on the land, sometimes overflowing into waterways, sometimes becoming airborne and blowing across the prairie. The 986 square miles of Hill County has around 35,000 residents. Much of the land is owned by ranchers and farmers. “These people believe what they’re told — that this waste is safe,” Ross says. “Now their crops won’t grow.” The landfarm near Ross’ home was properly permitted within the regulations current at that time, according to Railroad Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye. After Ross complained to the commission, an inspector tested the landfarm for NORM, naturally occurring radioactive material often present in drilling waste, and found readings “within background levels for NORM” in the soil, Nye wrote in
an e-mail. The Railroad Commission has jurisdiction as long as the soil is on the ground. Once dried and airborne, that’s a different matter. The agency doesn’t have jurisdiction over air quality — that belongs to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. *** This land is perched above the Barnett Shale, a 350 million-year-old rock formation beneath much of North Texas. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the Barnett Shale contains about 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. Currently the largest natural gas play in the world, industry officials say, the Barnett Shale is a source of significant corporate profit and the country’s natural gas transformation. In 2008, Ross noticed changes in his view after XTO Energy Inc. secured permits to dump the equivalent of 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools of drilling waste on the Kimbrell family farmland opposite his front door. Lines of trucks would form through the night to dump their loads, which were later found to be outside of permit regulations. Ross made open records requests of the Railroad Commission and found that the daily toxicity tests for the waste, required by state rules, were never carried out or enforced. Ross began to worry for the health of his animals as a white dust from the landfarm opposite settled on their grass and feed. He worried about a decline in his property value, too. “I could feel the air sting my skin and make my eyes burn,” Ross says. His complaints sparked threats of legal action. The landowner and family living on the farm next door even followed him when he went to town, Ross says. Trucks would sound their horns and spin their wheels as they passed his house. Meanwhile, permit applications for the site came into the Railroad Commission and were approved by e-mail the next day, without a site inspection or toxicity tests. Nothing in the process allows for public notice, for either comment or protest, on the dumping. Minor permits, such as a one-time, offsite dumping of water-based drilling fluid, are good for only 60 days, Nye wrote. “Landfarming is a method of treatment and disposal of low toxicity wastes in which the wastes are spread upon, and sometimes mixed into soils,” Nye wrote. Searching for help, Ross approached the Environmental Protection Agency regional office in Dallas and TCEQ. They told him they couldn’t help; they had no jurisdiction. When Ross complained to the
Railroad Commission, he says he felt they didn’t care what he had to say about the matter. He says he couldn’t find an attorney to take his case. As the line of dump trucks grew, Ross became determined and decided to take action alone. By putting enough pressure on state officials, he hoped to force the closure of the disposal site. “If I didn’t stick up for myself, no one was going to,” Ross says. He sits in worn armchair in his front room, wearing carpet slippers. His black Labrador sits at his feet as he gazes out of his window. His house wall and the narrow asphalt road are all that separate him from the 111-acre dump next door. He has no choice, he says, but to watch the quagmire of brown earth and toxic waste being smeared around the landscape by rusty bulldozers.
Denton Record-Chronicle file photo/Al Key
A gas drilling rig across the street from McKenna Park puffs out a cloud of black smoke April 19, 2010, in Denton.
*** Shale gas production requires massive resources — huge swaths of land, giant drilling rigs, countless trucks and many man-hours. Each well is drilled using thousands of barrels of drilling mud and fluids, then “fracked” by pumping between 1 million and 7 million gallons of chemicalladen water to crack the rock and release the gas. For North Texas, drilling horizontally under residential areas and the new fracking technique means that once unobtainable gas is now up for grabs. About 14,000 wells have been drilled in the 23 counties of the Barnett Shale; another 3,300 have been permitted, including new permits to drill in Hamilton County. To deal with the solid waste, the Texas Railroad Commission administers three types of permits for landfarms. A minor permit goes to operations of lowest impact. The minor permit allows a single operator to spread waste from one drilling site on a small area of land, usually about 3 acres. A centralized landfarm, a much larger area of land, allows an operator to spread waste for a number of its drill sites. Both minor dumps and centralized landfarms are typi-
cally issued permits that last for two years. A commercial landfarm can accept waste from multiple operators and many drill sites. Minor permits require a soil test between 30 and 90 days after landfarming, “which limits the amount of waste spread, and include pH and metal limitations that should protect agricultural safety,” says Travis Baer, an engineering specialist with the Railroad Commission. Soil toxicity testing at the landfarm is trusted to the operator because waste disposed under minor permits is considered not necessarily toxic. As a result, the Railroad Commission doesn’t pursue operators if soil tests are late, or nonexistent. Information on minor permits obtained through an open records request shows three regional offices taking widely different approaches in tracking minor permits in their jurisdiction. Not all of them tracked the number of acres affected, or the precise location. Records of soil tests showed up on only a handful of the thousands of permits being tracked. The Abilene office tracks minor permits for the western counties of the Barnett Shale, with about 188,020 barrels of waste on the books for 2009, 216,110 barrels of waste in 2010, and 5,860 barrels so far in
in 2011. The Wichita Falls office tracks the northern counties, with about 755,300 barrels of waste on the books for the same time period. The Kilgore office tracked exponentially more waste being dumped by minor permit in the southern counties, about 5 million barrels in all, with more than 4.6 million of those barrels being dumped in Tarrant and Johnson counties. Centralized and commercial landfarm permits are different because they involve large volumes of waste and pose a greater potential for pollution, according to Railroad Commission officials. Ross estimates from the permit limits that more than 2 million gallons of drilling mud were dumped on the landfarm next door. Drilling fluids contain long lists of hazardous chemicals and heavy metals. XTO’s own literature lists arsenic, lead, mercury and barium as possible ingredients. Some chemicals are powerful carcinogens or possibly harmful to the brain and nervous system. Others could interfere with the development of unborn children. David Sterling, a professor of environmental health at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, voiced concerns about the possibility of benzene and formaldehyde being dumped on farms, along with “certain amounts of radioactivity increase because fracking fluid would have been amongst heavy rock,” he said. “Depending on [the] chemicals [present], there are different potentials for health impacts.” *** Bought by ExxonMobil in a $41 million, all-stock deal last year, XTO applied to the Railroad Commission for a minor permit to landfarm on 111 acres opposite Ross in 2008. On the application, company officials indicated that there were no waterways or homes in the area, that adjacent landowners would be notified and that the operation would accept only the company’s own waste. The company applied to spread 32,400 cubic yards of drilling cuttings — any mud and rock displaced from the drill hole — and 120,000 barrels of waste per year across the site. The operation would raise the ground less than half an inch, according to the application. The Denton Record-Chronicle attempted to interview XTO officials about the permits. In response, company spokesman Jeffrey W. Neu sent a written statement saying they followed state rules in obtaining the permits from the Railroad Commission. “We have a proud history of safe opera-
tions and are committed to working with residents to address any concerns they have,” Neu wrote. “Our own experience and compliance with municipal, state and federal regulations demonstrate that our operations can be conducted safely and in an environmentally responsible manner.” In order to allow landfarming on such a large site, Ross learned that state officials apparently agreed to issue 36 separate, 3acre permits for “cells.” Each minor permit was issued for two months at a time, then renewed, until the landfarm reached its capacity or the time limit was reached. Yet, the Railroad Commission can produce records for only 16 of the 36 cells. From 2008 to 2010, as the waste was plowed into the ground next door, Ross watched white dust billow into the air. He worried for the health of his goats and his horses as a fine powder settled over his house and land, but information he needed to assess that risk was nowhere to be found. “I have not been able to find one soil test for the last five years for any of the landfarms in Texas,” Ross says. He began to spend less time with his animals. He spent four hours a day at his desk writing e-mails and making phone calls, protesting the dumpsite. As he invested more time in his cause, he found that the slew of complex processes and loopholes required research. He learned that minor permits would only allow Justin-based Chaney Trucking to dump waste. Yet, over the life of the landfarm, Ross photographed many other truck companies dumping in the early morning hours. “You don’t drive 200 miles at night to dump unless something’s wrong,” he says. He learned that to protest a minor permit application before it is issued, the case must be evaluated in the Railroad Commission’s main office in Austin. Yet, when he tried to appeal XTO’s landfarm, he found that Railroad Commission employee Carl Gardner, who retiredin August 2010, was receiving and granting permit applications by e-mail within a day — without soil tests or site inspections — leaving no time for a protest to be launched. He learned that minor permits were granted to XTO, yet approval letters for the same site were also being sent to Chesapeake Energy and Devon Energy, allowing them to spread 2,500 barrels of waste at a time. “It was just nonstop — there were 10 trucks at a time,” Ross says. Eventually, state and company officials telephoned Ross to answer his concerns. He learned that plans were not for two years of landfarming, as stated on the
minor permits, but five years. Even though the plans were for a landfarm of the length and scope of a commercial project, none of the soil testing, reporting and inspections occurred. The Railroad Commission has since revised its guidelines so that large areas of land cannot be dissected into cells with minor permits, Nye said. Large areas of land require centralized permits. *** In September 2009, Ross sent photos to state and federal officials of huge quantities of waste and rainwater from the landfarm washing out a section of County Road 4114 and washing into the adjoining farm. Two weeks later, documents show Railroad Commission inspector Roger Satterwhite went to the site to assess the runoff. Fellow employee Chris Evers, an engineering specialist, closed the complaint with a letter citing Statewide Rule 8, that “drilling fluid and drill cuttings are not considered hazardous.” When Ross contacted TCEQ to request tests of soil and air, he was told that although they were sympathetic to his concerns about contamination, they had no jurisdiction. Agency officials advised him that as long as the rules of the minor permit were followed, there should be no contamination. “Tell them to come up here when the soil’s all white and the corn won’t grow,” Ross recalls saying. Ross recalls watching his neighbor Todd Kimbrell drive his big rig past his house, and downshift to make noise. Although Ross never dealt with him directly, he figured the intention was to scare him. Attempts to contact Kimbrell by calling the contact phone number on the landfarm application were unsuccessful. “They’d get in their trucks and pretty much follow me everywhere,” Ross says. He received a number of letters from the Kimbrell family’s attorney, telling him that if he didn’t stop his protests, legal action would be taken against him. Ross watched his neighbor plow and plant on the land immediately after dumping had ceased, and after a year, a scarce crop of corn came up. There are no Texas regulations governing how much time must pass between the end of landfarming and when crops can be grown on the site. “Weeds wouldn’t grow on it for a year,” Ross says. He watched as even rainwater wouldn’t seep into the soil during drought. Crops such as corn will not necessarily ingest and pass on carcinogenic substances from industry waste, according to Travis
Wilson, of the Texas Agri-Life Extension Service. However, “heavy metals from soil will certainly be taken up by plant life,” he said. Cadmium, lead, silver and arsenic are all listed as part of the waste spread on the corn field next to Ross. Ross believes his efforts paid off in getting the landfarm shut down, although the Railroad Commission says the permits simply expired and were not renewed in 2009. Still, Johnson County residents contacted Ross recently. A landfarm had been set up near them. “I told them who to speak to and what questions to ask,” he says. Throughout his two-year struggle, Ross had compiled a giant pile of e-mail correspondence with various Railroad Commission staff, attorneys, scientists and government agencies. He was able to provide the Johnson County residents with a step-by-step guide on how to shut down a landfarm. “I should start charging consultancy fees,” he jokes. He says he isn’t done yet. He plans to continue his fight against the Railroad Commission’s lax permitting process. He describes another landfarm close to his home that he pressed to close. Closing two landfarms isn’t much of a victory. Ross is battling with a regulatory agency that has permitted more than 2,300 landfarms in the Barnett Shale region, and will continue to allow new crops of farmers to open their gates for the tilling of toxic waste across the Texas prairie.
Published on Mar 27, 2011