SHALE SHOCKED from Dallas Child Magazine
Calvin Tillman grew up on an oil field in Oklahoma. So, when he moved to DISH in Denton County, he didn’t think much of the natural-gas drilling activity going on in this tiny residential hamlet. In fact, he went on to become the mayor.
That is, until his family began to smell the noxious odors, and his two young sons experienced frequent, severe nosebleeds. Their home sat approximately 1,000 feet from a drilling site. He started to dig into the issue of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” of natural or shale gas, and it “didn’t take a lot of research” to uncover copious claims of environmental and health issues, especially respiratory, resulting from living near production sites.
Like the Dallas Cowboys, Neiman Marcus or barbecued brisket, fracking has become synonymous with North Texas, a dense parcel perched on the largest onshore natural gas field in the United States – the Barnett Shale. As of this spring, 15,731 total gas wells within 23 counties, including Dallas, Denton and Tarrant, were recorded by the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas operations.
Much of the gas is buried a mile below urban and suburban communities, which means gas companies often set up drilling operations close to homes, schools and other public buildings, causing an outcry over whether it is safe – especially for children.
Probably nowhere is drilling more pronounced than in Fort Worth, which was the first large city to permit shale production. Despite an early and sustained pushback by environmental activists, Cowtown sprouts more than 2,000 gas wells.
Consequently, as production has risen, complaints to federal, state and local agencies have also increased, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which oversees permitting of some drilling equipment and associated air emissions.
“Something is in the air”
Many landowners, including Elizabeth Lane of Arlington, have leased their mineral rights to gas companies in exchange for signing bonuses and royalties. Lane (not her real name) says she had never heard of natural gas drilling before her suburban neighborhood was approached by a gas company. She and her neighbors were swayed by the heady promise of lottery-like income with minimal inconvenience. And, she says, the notion that drilling would happen whether they signed or not.
Soon after drilling started, however, the mother of a 12-year-old daughter describes her residential respite turning into an “industrial zone,” filled overnight with the clamor of equipment, chemical odors and a thick smog that “took my breath away.”
She says she has gained $2,000 in payments so far, along with puzzling ailments, such as extreme exhaustion (her neighbor relates it to not being capable of “lifting a toothbrush”), dizziness and headaches. “Something is in the air,” she recalls thinking, and she began to take a new interest in her city council meetings, where fracking is a heated topic. “I realized quickly that this is not a good thing to be near your home.”
Drilling, of which fracking is just a small part of a complex, lengthy process, is permitted around the clock on large pad sites two blocks from Lane’s home. She claims to being frequently jarred from sleep by a racket and vibration akin to “having an appliance on all night.” But what’s really keeping her up is the nagging fear of what her daughter might be breathing in and how it could affect her health later.
She recalls a pungent smell rushing into her home one evening – and she could do nothing to stop it. “Why are they allowed to drill 24/7?” demands Lane. “Why are they allowed to drill in a residential neighborhood at all?”
“Potential health and environmental impacts”
Natural gas is a cleaner-burning fuel than coal or oil. It’s also considered essential to the energy security of the United States. Even a modest increase in natural gas supply from shale deposits could generate more than 400,000 new jobs in the United States and upwards of $132 billion in U.S. economic output, a study shows. But it wasn’t always economically feasible to retrieve natural gas from the deep, porous shale formations in the earth.
When gas prices soared in the late 1990s, the U.S. turned toward a new technology of horizontal drilling and well fracturing to crack open the vast reservoirs of natural gas in a cost-effective way. Fracking is a technique in which blasts of high-pressured water, chemicals and sand fracture rock and release natural gas.
The American Gas Association says natural gas pipeline and utility companies spend approximately $7 billion a year on programs to ensure the safety and reliability of natural gas infrastructure. Federal authorities, however, admit there are environmental concerns associated with the production of shale gas, including the possibility of groundwater contamination, risks to air quality, migration of gases and fracking chemicals to the surface, mishandling of waste and the subsequent health effects.
Fracking fluids – which are known to contain some hazardous chemicals – can be released by spills, leaks, faulty well construction or other exposure pathways, contaminating surrounding areas. Because of the massive volume of water used (4 to 6 million gallons per well), disposing of the wastewater post-fracturing leads to further challenges.
The response from the gas industry to these issues has generally been denial – not only that any such problems exist but also that if they did exist they are not real risks. In the past year, concerns about the potential health and environmental impacts of shale gas drilling have led some jurisdictions, including Dallas and Denton, to issue a temporary moratorium on new wells in order to mull over the strengths and weaknesses of local ordinances. (There is no drilling in Collin County, which is not part of the Barnett Shale.)
But it’s not an issue that’s going away anytime soon. In fact, drilling is spreading to other areas of Texas and the United States. “The challenge for Texas is not whether to allow shale gas and oil production, but how to protect the communities whose lives and landscapes are being transformed by the boom,” according to the organization Earthworks in its recent report, “Flowback: How the Texas Natural Gas Boom Affects Health and Safety.”
“Disturbing chemicals in our area”
By 2009, residents of DISH living near 11 natural gas compression stations began to worry about the noise, unpleasant sulfur-like odors, and, most alarmingly, health problems they were experiencing, including headaches and blackouts. Tillman reported their concerns to Texas regulators and hired a private environmental consultant who discovered “disturbing chemicals in our area” associated with gas wells and gas compressor stations, he says.
Wolf Eagle Environmental sampled the ambient air at seven locations and “confirmed the presence in high concentrations of carcinogenic and neurotoxin compounds in ambient air near and/or on residential properties,” according to the report. Of particular concern was the detection of benzene, a known human carcinogen. The chemical concentration in the air exceeded safety standards – by a large amount, says Wilma Subra, a renowned chemist and microbiologist who reviewed the consultant’s study. “Acute impacts to health will occur with these concentrations of chemicals in the air,” she says.
The TCEQ Toxicology Division also examined the data and concluded that if the results were representative of normal and prolonged ambient conditions, the reported levels of benzene could result in long-term health risks to residents. “The DISH study can be compared to any area in the Barnett Shale with drilling activity. The same toxic chemicals will be present,” Subra says.
That study prompted the TCEQ to do its own investigation of air emissions in the Barnett Shale. Of 94 sites tested, two – near DISH – revealed extremely high levels of benzene, and there were 19 more with elevated levels of the chemical. At Tillman’s request, the Texas Department of State Health Services also performed blood tests on 28 DISH residents; results, however, showed that the exposure of DISH residents to volatile organic compounds was similar to that of the general U.S. population.
Tillman, who participated in the study, still has questions about the results. For instance, his blood test revealed the presence of dichlorobenzenes, potentially cancer-causing chemical compounds used in pesticides and, most commonly, mothballs, as well as in natural gas drilling operations. “I have never had mothballs in my home, nor would I have been using pesticides that time of year,” Tillman says. “I did, however, live next to one of the largest natural gas compression and processing facilities in the area.”
Tillman admits that independent blood tests he had run on his children didn’t find anything worrisome, but, adds, “nobody knows how much benzene a child can be safely exposed to.”
For Tillman and his wife, the threat of health problems from the drilling juggernaut overtaking their community (a dozen major pipelines converge here with more than 50 wells in a town of only 200 people), were not worth the risk. Tillman made the agonizing decision to resign from his mayoral post and sell their home at a loss. They now live in Aubrey, far from a drilling site, and report that their symptoms have “disappeared.”
Subra, recipient of a MacArthur “genius” award for her work documenting harmful toxins related to industrial operations, says 10–70 percent of the waste used in gas drilling can be considered hazardous. “People who live in these communities continue to report having their quality of life degraded substantially,” Subra says.
To make matters worse, “The burden is falling on everyday people to come up with the money to prove they are getting sick from these emissions,” says Jenny Land, a local activist who is affiliated with FracDallas, an umbrella group of concerned citizens.
Subra says acute health impacts from living in close proximity to natural gas drilling, of which children and the elderly are more susceptible, can range from irritated skin, nose, eyes, throat and lungs to headaches and dizziness, while chronic effects could include damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs and the nervous system, as well as leukemia and other cancers.
But it’s difficult to link the symptoms definitively to fracking. “Most doctors are not equipped to deal with chemical exposure. They just treat the symptoms,” Subra says.
In response to the myriad of health concerns, the TCEQ says it has devoted a “tremendous amount of time and resources to the issue of Barnett Shale air quality.”
“And we will continue to do so,” says Chairman Bryan Shaw, Ph.D. After several months of operation, 24-hour air monitors in the Barnett Shale area (in Dallas, Fort Worth, DISH, Eagle Mountain, Flower Mound, Decatur and Everman) have not detected levels of concern for any chemicals.
“Children more vulnerable”
The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX), an independent research organization focused on health problems caused by low-dose exposure to chemicals, analyzed health effects data for 61 chemicals found in products known to be used during oil and gas drilling or hydraulic fracturing in Texas. More than 90 percent of the chemicals are harmful to the brain, nerves, lungs and digestive system; 80 percent or more can affect the heart, blood and kidneys; and 67 percent can affect the immune system.
Though industry representatives have said there is little cause for concern because of the low concentrations of chemicals used in their operations, the report states that, “Numerous systems, most notably the endocrine system, are extremely sensitive to very low levels of chemicals.” The damage might not be perceptible at the time of exposure, but “we have no idea what the long-term effects could be,” reports Dr. Theo Colborn, founder of TEDX. “Our major concern is that this exposure is insidious.”
So, what are the additional risks to children who are exposed to shale production chemicals? “No one can answer that question,” says Sharon Wilson, who is the lead Texas organizer for Earthworks, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the impacts of irresponsible mineral and energy development. “We don’t have the science yet to determine how this can be done safely. Everyone is a guinea pig. The test case is here and now. We will find out the science from how this harms us.”
What we do know is that children are more vulnerable to environmental hazards. “They eat, drink and breathe more than adults on a pound for pound basis,” according to the Pediatric Environmental Health Specialty Unit. “Research has also shown that children are not able to metabolize some toxicants as well as adults due to immature detoxification processes.”
Adds the organization, “The fetus and young child are in a critical period of development when toxic exposures can have profound negative effects.”
Local communities fight back
Recently, the EPA took the first step toward setting national air pollution standards for emissions related to hydraulic fracturing. Drillers will be required to use cost-effective “green completions” that capture 90 percent of natural gas and other compounds for use or eventual sale rather than vent them into the atmosphere.
“We are thrilled that the EPA has stepped up and put out stronger rules, but it’s not enough. We need more,” says Wilson, who maintains the shale gas watchdog blog Bluedaze.
Some area towns have been successful at lobbying for tighter regulations – and, in the process, have discouraged drilling altogether. Driven by vocal community activists, Southlake approved one of the most comprehensive ordinances in North Texas, requiring a 1,000-foot setback between drilling rigs and homes and a halt to fracking during summer months because of the drought’s impact on the water supply. As a result, gas companies responded by backing away to produce minerals in areas with less restrictive conditions.
Others have logged a bitter fight. In 2006, Flower Mound residents voted out the mayor and entire city council because of concern over fracking. The new city council enacted controls so strong that drilling options are severely limited. “In the long run, how good the regulations are depends on how much the community fights for,” Subra says. “Even with the best set of ordinances in place, however, variances [which are frequently granted to drillers throughout North Texas] can drive the ordinance into the ground.”
For those living in the midst of drilling, there is a mix of determination (to fight) and despair (to flee). Like Tillman, Lane is considering uprooting her family. Her preteen daughter hasn’t exhibited any symptoms related to the gas drilling, but “I worry about the long-term effects,” she says. “I feel like what choice do I have but to move?”
“When so many citizens across almost two dozen counties report similar complaints and symptoms associated with gas drilling, something is wrong,” reports Earthworks. “More thorough research is needed.”
Dr. Christopher Portier, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Environmental Health, makes clear that the science on the issue isn’t settled yet. “Studies should include all the ways people can be exposed, such as through air, water, soil, plants and animals,” Portier writes.
The EPA is in the middle of a large study to determine any potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water and groundwater.
Though residents such as Lane contend the quality of their water has changed since drilling ensued, so far there hasn’t been one water contamination case associated with the process of hydraulic fracturing in Texas, according to the state. Texas recently adopted one of the nation’s most comprehensive chemical disclosure rules for fracking chemicals – a start at creating transparency, Subra says. The law, which went into effect earlier this year, requires Texas oil and gas operators to disclose (at FracFocus.org) all of the ingredients and water volumes used to frac wells in Texas. Companies, however, will still be given leeway for proprietary chemicals, which are protected by trade secret agreements, Subra says.
State Representative Lon Burnam of District 90 (Democrat–Fort Worth) filed a bill last year to prevent drilling within 1,200 feet of public schools statewide. The measure was one of many proposals that died after facing industry opposition. Burnam says he will continue pushing the measure next year when the Texas Legislature is back in session but is concerned that industry-friendly lawmakers will foil all but “watered-down” regulations.
“We’re fortunate to have shale gas in North Texas, but we need to extract it in a way that doesn’t threaten public health and safety,” Burnam says. “Current law favors private profits over public health, particularly for vulnerable populations like children. We can and must change that.”
So. What’s it like to live next to a gas drilling rig? Elly Khoei, an Arlington resident, is all too happy to let you in on the soundtrack. Khoei, a biology student at UTA, lives next to a horse farm that housed a drilling operation, and she could lie in bed and watch the activity just 600 feet away, only partly concealed by a noise barrier that she likens to a “green used diaper that flaps in the wind.”
There is loud, aryhthmic clinking – from pipes, poles, whatever. You can’t see exactly what’s going on, so it’s hard to pinpoint the source. Heavy trucks grinding in and out. And, as late as 3am, hard clinking sounds, wires shaking, loud rumbling, a guy’s voice on a loudspeaker.
Drilling, she says, took months, disrupting her attempts to study. “I would go outside and flip them off and go back inside,” she says. “It drove me crazy. It is so loud it’s ridiculous.”
Arlington resident Elizabeth Lane likened the noise of fracking to “helicopters hovering over our house.” Depending on how close you are to the site, you could also have powerful spotlights beaming in your windows at night. “This is heavy industrial mining,” Lane says. “This is what it is.”
If you want to find out how much drilling activity is in your area, click on the Texas Railroad Commission GIS map: http://gis2.rrc.state.tx.us/public/startit.htm
If a well has been permitted, it should appear on the map. Also, stay involved with your local city council and check with them to find out about pending drilling permits.