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Evidence of urban drilling dangers can no longer be ignored

Last month, I wrote about several recent accidents tied to natural gas drilling, including hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) operations reported from around the country.  A pipeline rupture in Virginia.  An 8,000-gallon frack water spill in Pennsylvania.  A pipeline explosion in El Paso.

I felt it was important to use real-world examples – rather than hypothetical possibilities – to illustrate the legitimate threats posed by the proliferation of gas drilling in our community.  After all, only a fool fails to learn from the mistakes of others.  None of us wants the next catastrophic accident to occur in Flower Mound.

Little did I know that in just a few weeks’ time, the dangers would strike much closer to home.  Better grab a pitcher of coffee…we’ve got a lot of ground to cover.

On March 17, roughly 3,000 gallons of flowback water, a toxic byproduct of the fracking process, was spilled at the Cummings gas well site in Flower Mound.  The site is operated by Williams Production, the busiest driller in town, which claims the spill was contained before it could affect surface water.  Fortunately, it wasn’t raining at the time, or the damage could have been much greater, since the spill occurred at a high elevation on the Cummings property.  State and local response teams were dispatched to the scene; but, as usual, details are hard to come by.  Curiously, there’s no mention of the spill on the Town’s web site whatsoever.

(For the record, the 8,000-gallon spill referenced above led to a suspension of fracking operations in Dimock Township, Pa., and fines from the state on Cabot Oil & Gas totaling $176,650.  So far, no word on whether Williams will be fined for its Flower Mound spill.)

Last Friday, tank batteries storing a petroleum by-product of the gas-drilling process exploded in Decatur, injuring two workers. Four tanks were set ablaze, and a fifth was blown away from the others.  Video of the fire, which fortunately took place in a fairly remote location, offered a stark reminder of the potential perils of centralized storage facilities such as the one for which zoning changes were approved by our Town Council in January. Williams is planning a massive complex off Scenic Road, within a mile of Liberty Elementary and several neighborhoods, with as many as 38 tanks to store waste water from more than 125 proposed gas wells.  As we witnessed in Decatur, and in Lamesa last May, when one tank blows, the rest can follow quickly.

Earlier this month, methane levels 20 times above normal background levels were detected in the air around the same Williams site on Scenic Drive.  The methane plumes were so high, they exceeded the upper limits of the instrument’s detection range. Methane is a surrogate gas for benzene, xylene and other toxic and carcinogenic volatile organic compounds, according to Wilma Subra, an environmental chemist.  Tests are being conducted to determine whether any other toxins were also present.

As if to underscore Subra’s concern, elevated levels of cancer-causing benzene, methane and other toxic chemicals above the state’s levels for safe short- and long-term exposure were reported last Saturday at Range Resources’ Rayzor Ranch gas well in Denton.

And don’t get me started about the elevated carbon disulfide levels found at three sites across Flower Mound.  The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) now wants us to believe that its standards are “unrealistically low.”  In other words, we can’t possibly maintain these levels with all the drilling go on around us…

More air quality tests performed in February by the TCEQ found extremely high levels of toxic emissions at a Chesapeake Energy facility in Godley, roughly 30 minutes southwest of Fort Worth.

And in one of the most egregious examples of “Drillers Gone Wild,” Aruba Petroleum has virtually destroyed the property of Tim and Christine Ruggiero with seemingly non-stop leaks, spills and emissions at its drilling site in Decatur.  The Ruggieros’ story would be shameful if it took place in the former Soviet Union.  That it’s happening here seems downright criminal.

Not to be forgotten, Flower Mound residents are still awaiting the findings of a childhood leukemia/cancer cluster investigation being conducted by the Texas Department of State Health Services. Results were expected in February, but were apparently delayed due to all the media attention.  The study was elevated to the Governor’s office for further scrutiny and “edits,” and is expected to be released this week.  We can only hope the oil and gas lobby has not been granted editing rights.

Meanwhile, several local and state governments have taken proactive measures to protect their citizens. Oil and gas leases have been suspended in Montana, while drilling moratoriums are being pursued in Colorado, New York, and Pennsylvania. Even the industry-friendly Texas Senate is beginning to seek more accountability for drillers.

Perhaps most encouraging of all, just last week, in a groundbreaking development with far-reaching implications, the Environmental Protection Agency announced a $1.9 million study of potential health and safety threats posed by hydraulic fracturing.  That’s right, the feds have gotten so many complaints from citizens in Pennsylvania, New York, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming, Arkansas, Texas and elsewhere that they simply couldn’t ignore the obvious any more.

Get the picture?

Flower Mound Council Members Al Filidoro and Tom Hayden have.  They’ve called for a six-month moratorium on new drilling and centralized facility applications, to give the town time to consider new ordinances and other measures that will protect the health, safety and quality of life of our citizens.  Given the mounting evidence of risks in and around our area, and the nightmarish experiences of other communities around the country, who could quarrel with such prudent, commonsense steps?

Perhaps Upto
n Sinclair answered that rhetorical question best when he said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Indeed, the drillers and their apologists have gone on the offensive, casting moratorium supporters as “cry babies,” “whiners” and even Communists.  They’ve disputed every negative test result, trivialized every accident and, predictably, threatened litigation against the town should it attempt to slow down their full-on industrialization of Flower Mound.

Ironically, if mineral owners would stop singing from the drillers’ hymnal long enough to pay attention, they’d realize they could be the biggest beneficiaries of a moratorium.  According to Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell professor and expert on hydraulic fracturing, prices for natural gas at the wellhead have dropped by more than a factor of two over the past year and a half.  “If you’re a landowner, now is not a good time to sell your gas,” says Ingraffea. “Wait.  It will never be worth less than it’s worth now.”

Hmm.  No wonder Williams is in such a hurry to plunder the Barnett Shale.

Mayor Pro Tem Jean Levenick, who leased her mineral rights to Williams, had the audacity to accuse Filidoro and Hayden of waging a “politically motivated fear campaign.”  Right out of the drillers’ talking points…

She disputed their contention that drillers have accelerated their applications, saying none had been received since December 7.  But she conveniently failed to mention that 10 applications were submitted that very day – roughly as many as had been received in the entire previous year – less than 24 hours before an administrative moratorium was quietly enacted by the town.  Curious timing, no?  Why did Levenick gloss over that?  Who is she protecting?

Mayor Jody Smith, another Williams lease holder who is running for re-election despite promising during her last campaign to “term limit” herself, has offered nary a comment about the latest drilling incidents.  Hopefully she’s using her down time to familiarize herself with the petition drive that’s been underway since mid-February.  You may recall she feigned ignorance of the petition at the last council meeting in one of the most brazen acts of political gamesmanship ever seen in local government.

What strange vortex has Flower Mound been sucked into? 

One last point: Drilling advocates frequently cite the oil and gas industry’s stranglehold on Texas, as if their right to tap minerals had been ordained by God.  They caution that any attempt to thwart the drillers would inevitably be overturned in Austin or by the courts.  Threats of litigation from our “good neighbors” in the drilling industry, they say, could bankrupt the town.  Mayor Smith and her cronies have repeatedly encouraged this cowardly stance, leading many to wonder what they are doing in office if they are afraid to stand up for their constituents.

Yet evidence suggests we aren’t as impotent as they’d like us to believe.  In fact, Flower Mound prevailed in a suit brought by Red Oak Gas which challenged the town’s refusal to grant 15 variances to drill on the River Walk development.  The suit cost Flower Mound less than $35,000 to defend.  Contrast that with the $409,134 spent on median beautification in 2009, and you start to get a feel for the priorities of our elected officials.

Another lawsuit, brought by the good folks at Williams-affiliate Mockingbird Pipeline, is setting up a precedent-setting legal battle to determine whose rights to eminent domain are superior: a utility’s or a town’s. Heaven forbid the town loses this landmark case, which will be watched closely all across the nation.  Methinks even mineral owners would shudder at the notion that a drilling company could trump a municipality’s rights to its own property.  

It may cost us $50,000 to $100,000 in legal fees to defend this suit throughout the inevitable appeals process (though other communities with a stake in the result could help offset some of our costs); but I, for one, am willing to sacrifice a little shrubbery to defend our land. 

At the risk of sounding alarmist, it’s safe to say the fate of our town will be decided over the next few weeks and months.  As the Flower Mound Cares petition drive approaches its 6,000-signature goal – more than 4,700 concerned citizens have signed as of March 21 – residents have made clear that they will demand action even in the face of opposition and intimidation by the Mayor and her allies on the Town Council.

And on May 8, citizens will go to the polls with a very clear choice to make: Support Mayor Smith and her slate of like-minded candidates, who champion the acceleration of urban drilling and refuse to demand accountability from the drilling companies; or elect candidates who have listened to the concerns voiced by the vast majority of Flower Mound citizens, and who are dedicated to protecting the health, safety and quality of life of all their constituents – not just mineral owners who have sold their rights, if not their souls, to the gas interests.

The drillers have made clear they will spare no expense to elect “their” candidates.  You’ll see evidence of that very soon, as their advertising, phone banks and public relations campaigns kick into high gear.  Former council member Jeff Tasker, an attorney now representing Williams (wink, wink), is orchestrating the effort like only a former town official could.

God help Flower Mound if they prevail.

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

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