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The right way to protect Flower Mound

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I respect Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Steve Dixon for his dedication and service to our community.  But his arguments on the merits of a Centralized Collection Facility (CCF) are disingenuous at best, misleading and irresponsible at worst.

For starters, we must look at the subterfuge surrounding the Town Council’s January 21, 2010 vote that allowed the CCF motion to pass in the first place.  Every one of the 600-plus citizens who packed the council’s chambers that evening knew that the centralized wastewater facility was at the top of Williams Production’s wish list.  In fact, we now know that many of the families who had leased their mineral rights to Williams years before negotiated the CCF into the terms of their leases!

So why didn’t Williams simply submit their request for a CCF to the Town Council?  Because doing so would have forced Mayor Jody Smith and Mayor Pro Tem Jean Levenick to recuse themselves from deliberations because they, too, have signed leases with Williams and, therefore, had an obvious conflict of interest.

Conveniently, the Town “requested” the zoning changes, allowing Smith and Levenick to slither through a legal, if not ethical, loophole and participate.  Had Levenick not been permitted to cast the deciding vote, the motion would have failed on a 2-2 tie. 

Williams got what they wanted, and they didn’t even have to ask!  Most observers found the whole affair to be rather sordid and disturbing. 

Second, though Dixon is technically correct in asserting that the zoning changes allowed the town to “set the standard” for a CCF, had they not voluntarily created a new zoning classification, no “upgraded” specifications would have been necessary.  It likewise strains credibility to believe that Williams and its representatives had no role in drafting such detailed guidelines.  After all, which members of the town staff or council have expertise in developing specifications for a toxic wastewater collection facility? 

Furthermore, Dixon’s claim that the town “can still say no to any part of a centralized facility” is ridiculous.  The town essentially passed a blueprint for Williams to follow in its application.  If they follow it (and they’d be idiotic not to), on what grounds could the town conceivably “say no?” 
 
In short, the vote on January 21 was a blatant sell-out to Williams Production by the majority of the Flower Mound Town Council.  That’s why so many citizens are crying foul. 

So why all the consternation over a CCF?

The facility will be a massive complex of above-ground storage tanks and related equipment that will receive and store millions of gallons of toxic wastewater produced by the hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) process used to extract natural gas from the Barnett Shale.  Waste water may even be trucked or pipelined to the site from adjacent towns.

Fracking fluids typically contain roughly 240 toxic chemicals, including carcinogens, mutagens, endocrine disruptors and other lethal compounds.  It’s nasty, deadly stuff.  But, thanks to the Energy Policy Act of 2005 (a.k.a. the “Halliburton Loophole”), drillers are not required to reveal the fluid’s contents, and they are exempt from a bevy of environmental safeguards. 

Perhaps not for long.  The U.S. House Energy & Commerce Committee recently demanded that drilling companies disclose the chemicals used in their fracking operations, with an eye toward enacting safeguards to protect the public health and environment.  The “FRAC Act,” also pending in Congress, would repeal the exemption for hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

So the heat is on at the federal level.  Which helps explain why the drillers, and those beholden to them, are in such a rush. 

We are calling for a timeout. 

On February 20 and 21, more than 2,000 concerned voters signed a petition demanding that the Town Council enact a temporary moratorium on new permits for produced water pipelines and centralized produced water storage and collection facilities, or submit it to popular vote. Roughly 4,000 more signatures are needed over the next month for the petition to prevail. 

This extraordinary grassroots movement sprung up virtually overnight in response to the January 21 council vote.  Our exercise in democracy has not gone unnoticed.  Williams apologists have gone on the offensive, harassing volunteer workers at petition sites, spewing hate on blogs and message boards, and even threatening the organizers.  Petition advocates have been labeled Communists, liberals, fear mongers and worse. 

Certain unnamed Town officials have even pressured local businesses and the school board to deny the use of their property for petition-signing events.  It makes you wonder why our elected officials are so afraid the petition will succeed.

It’s getting ugly out there; but we are undaunted.

We’ve seen how drilling accidents have fouled the air, land and watersheds in New York, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Wyoming, New Mexico and yes, Texas.  We don’t want similar disasters in Flower Mound.

Mr. Dixon, if you are really committed to protecting our town – and I believe you are – stop letting the drillers set the agenda.  Pay more attention to the concerns of your constituents than to attorney Jeff Tasker, your friend and former Town Council member who now represents Williams.

Enact truly stringent ordinances that require vapor recovery systems and equipment to monitor sites 24 hours per day for hazardous chemical leaks.  Insist that drillers recycle their wastewater on-site, thereby reducing truck traffic and obviating the need for a CCF.  Recycling also means that less of our precious water will be permanently contaminated in the first place.  Williams will comply, as they do in other communities; but only if you make them. 

I also urge you to fulfill your campaign promise, still posted on your web site, to tighten Flower Mound’s Oil & Gas Ordinance “to not allow drilling within 1,000 feet of a residence.”  As you well know, all but one of the 33 wells drilled to date in Flower Mound have required a variance.  Yes, 32 of 33 well sites required a variance from our supposedly “exemplary” ordinances.  Why have ordinances in the first place if we’re not going to follow them?  You’ve had ample opportunity to do something about this, but you have inexplicably failed to act.

Accidents are an inevitable byproduct of gas drilling operations.  Fracking fluids and wastewater leak and spill from pipes and storage tanks.  That’s worrisome enough when the drilling takes place in the middle of nowhere.  But when the wells come within a few hundred feet of homes, schools, creeks and lakes, as they do in Flower Mound, the margin for error is unacceptably thin.  Placing a multi-million-gallon industrial wastewater storage complex in an environmentally sensitive, agricultural-zoned area within a mile or so of schools is simply irresponsible. 

Even if you ignore the risks to public health and safety, common sense will tell you that surrounding property values and quality of life will suffer.

Gas drilling is enriching a few property owners in Flower Mound, along with the natural gas companies and their legions of lawyers, consultants and lobbyists.  For all its efforts, the Town of Flower Mound earned a paltry $521,000 in fees and incremental property taxes in 2009.  The rest of us are left with a plethora of short- and long-term risks, both known and unknown.

It’s not worth it.  It’s time to make a stand.  

For more information, visit www.flowermoundcares.com.

Ladd Biro is a small business owner and syndicated sports columnist who has lived in Flower Mound sin
ce 2002.

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