The sleepy Town of Flower Mound is under siege from a deep-pocketed army of 21st Century robber barons, and many of the town’s elected officials have hoisted a white flag high above Town Hall.
For roughly three years, few residents of this quiet suburb paid much attention as gas-drilling rigs periodically sprouted from huge tracts of ranchland along the western edges of town.
After all, the towers were few and far between, and Flower Mound had a well-earned reputation as a family-friendly residential community unreceptive to commercial and retail development. Let Southlake, Grapevine and Highland Village become shopping Meccas. We’ll stick to our horses and buffalos, our quiet restaurants and shops, and our modest traffic.
Then, seemingly overnight, the gas wells started creeping closer to our peaceful neighborhoods and exemplary schools. Huge tanker trucks began rumbling down residential streets. And kids started getting sick.
The news traveled fast, prompting the locals to start asking questions. But answers were elusive. Representatives from the drilling firms, most notably The Williams Companies, smiled and assured everyone that they had only the best interests of the community in mind. But they refused to address the tough questions, while making it patently clear they had no intention of slowing down.
Though the numbers keep changing, Williams plans to drill at least 100 more wells throughout Flower Mound over the next few years, with many of the new pad sites in close proximity to homes, schools and businesses.
Meanwhile, Mayor Jody Smith and her allies on the Town Council fiddle while Flower Mound is systematically pillaged.
Despite increasingly strident pleas from constituents to tap the brakes and assess the short- and long-term consequences of their actions, a firm majority of the council stubbornly votes in lockstep on behalf of the gas interests. On January 21, roughly 600 Flower Mound citizens packed a Town Council hearing to voice their concerns with the latest sell-out to Williams. An overwhelming majority of those present voiced their opposition to the proposed ordinances, just as a similarly vociferous group had advocated a temporary moratorium on new drilling permits at a December 17 hearing. In both cases, three of the five councilmembers thumbed their noses at the irate crowd and sided with the drillers.
Mayor Smith and her pro-drilling cohorts offered various defenses for disregarding the will of their constituents. They claimed to be prohibited from preventing drilling within the town, citing the takings clause of the U.S. Constitution. They dismissed as overblown “scare tactics” many of the health and safety concerns raised by their opponents. They worried aloud about the inevitability of lawsuits brought by Williams should the town dare stand in its way. And, in true political fashion, they insisted upon having more “facts” before they would reconsider their position.
Perhaps most insulting, the officials inexplicably ignored the words of caution offered by the mayors of several nearby towns, including DISH, Texas, which have been grappling with drilling issues far longer than Flower Mound.
Nothing, it seemed, could dissuade the Council from moving forward, leaving most observers scratching their heads in disbelief. In fact, Mayor Smith and Councilmember Jean Levenick each have leased their mineral rights to Williams, which has forced the officials to recuse themselves from certain votes tied directly to the company. A loophole allowed them to skirt the strict, legal definition of “conflict of interest” in the key votes held on January 21. However, many questioned if their actions passed the smell test.
Yet, as concerns abound about ethical conflicts within the Council, even more crucial questions centered on Williams’ conduct in the area remain unanswered. Among the most significant –
Is it safe to drill so close to populated areas?
Urban drilling is a relatively recent phenomenon, so its long-term effects on health and the environment have yet to be fully measured. Likewise, the process used to extract natural gas from shale formations – called hydraulic fracturing – is new to the urban landscape. In its simplest terms, “fracking” involves combining millions of gallons of fresh water with a mix of sand and 80 to 120 tons of toxic chemicals which are then pumped deep into the ground to break up the shale and release the gas. Each well can be fracked up to 18 times, requiring between two and nine million gallons of fresh water each time. In an area subject to persistent drought conditions and mandated water-use limits, most residents wonder where all that water is coming from.
The fracking process generates toxic vapors and waste water that can contaminate the air, water and soil. Over the past half-dozen years, more than 1,000 documented incidences of water contamination in the western U.S. have been linked to hydraulic fracturing. Most of these have occurred in remote areas far removed from population centers. In densely populated areas, the margin for error is much narrower.
What’s in the fracking fluid?
The only ones who can accurately answer this question are the drillers, and thanks to Dick Cheney and their other powerful friends in Washington, they don’t have to. The Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted hydraulic fracturing from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Other legislation enacted during the Bush Administration exempted oil and gas companies from compliance with the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Resource Conservation & Recovery Act, among others. As a result, the gas industry operates with virtual impunity, shielded by a federal veil of secrecy and answerable to no one.
The exemptions allow drillers to disingenuously claim that since they are not required to label the contaminated water as “hazardous,” it isn’t. But nothing could be further from the truth. Fracking fluids typically contain roughly 240 toxic chemicals, including carcinogens, mutagens, endocrine disruptors and other lethal compounds, the vast majority of which have adverse health effects.
Last Summer, legislation was introduced in Congress to give the EPA authority over the hydraulic fracturing process. But given the myriad of other issues facing the feds, not to mention the lobbying muscle still wielded by the oil and gas industry in Washington, there’s no telling when, or if, the “FRAC Act” will ever see the light of day.
Are the toxins seeping into the air and water causing cancer?
At least five children and two adults in Flower Mound have been diagnosed with leukemia since 2005. Four of the children live within a few blocks of each other, less than a mile from an active gas well. The Texas Department of State Health Services recently launched an investigation to determine whether a statistically significant “cancer cluster” exists in the area. Preliminary results are expected later this month.
However, hazardous levels of benzene – a known carcinogen with proven links to leukemia – were detected during tests recently conducted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality at several sites across the Barnett Shale. Needless to say, this irrefutable evidence of a legitimate health threat has triggered alarms all across Flower Mound. Except at Town Hall.
Is the waste water radioactive?
It is beyond dispute that the contaminated water produced during the fracking process is hazardous. But is it radioactive? Levenick asked a town employee that very question during a recent hearing, and was told that it wasn’t. Having heard the answer she sought, she probed no further. But according to a recent article in Scientific American, the wastewater produced by fracking in the Marcellus Shale in New York
contains “levels of radium 226, a derivative of uranium, as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink.”
Williams denies that its wastewater is radioactive, but they refuse to allow the town to test its samples. Smith and Levenick are awfully trusting souls.
Where’s all that wastewater going?
Hundreds of millions of gallons of toxic, probably radioactive, wastewater are being produced in Flower Mound every year. If Williams is allowed to expand from its 26 current wells to 100 or more, it could be billions of gallons. (To put these figures in perspective, the typical elevated water tower holds two million gallons. The Exxon Valdez spilled 10.8 million gallons of crude oil into Prudhoe Bay, Alaska.)
Today, an armada of tanker trucks is hauling the sludge out, clogging the town’s narrow arteries and stoking fears of a catastrophic accident. On January 21, at Williams’ unofficial request (wink, wink), the Town Council approved new zoning procedures to allow for a Centralized Collection Facility (CCF) to be fed by a web of pipelines installed across town. This has raised an entirely new set of concerns, ranging from the aesthetic intrusion of massive storage tanks, to the possibility of ruptured or leaching pipes, to the degree to which Williams may seek to condemn private property via eminent domain in order to lay pipe through residential neighborhoods, parks or anywhere else they see fit.
Supporters, most of whom signed the same types of leases as Smith and Levenick, see the CCF as a necessary evil that will reduce dangerous truck traffic through their neighborhoods. Opponents argue that perhaps they should have foreseen this problem when they sold out to Williams, and transporting the toxic waste through a maze of pipelines buried directly above the town’s water table could make a bad situation even worse.
Besides, all that toxic water can’t remain at the CCF forever. Guess what, citizens of Argyle? It’s headed your way! The permitting process is underway for a mile-deep injector well within 100 feet of some Argyle homes to accept Flower Mound’s effluent. You can thank us later.
Can’t the water be recycled?
Devon Energy is already recycling 100 percent of its flow-back water in the Barnett Shale, and may soon begin recycling its produced water as well. Recycling adds approximately three percent to the total cost of drilling a well, according to reports. Williams claims the costs are excessive and dismisses recycling out of hand.
The compliant leadership of Flower Mound’s Town Council refuses to press the issue.
But the natives are getting restless. They’re demanding answers to these and other urgent questions, not least of which is the impact all these uncertainties are having on property values. Local realtors have presented anecdotal evidence that an exodus may already have begun, while many new buyers are suddenly steering clear of Flower Mound. That’s a bitter pill to swallow for a town that was named the sixth-best place to move in the nation by Forbes in 2009.
Some good news is emerging, however. A revolution is afoot in Flower Mound. Urban drilling opponents are organizing swiftly. A voter registration drive is underway with the goal of replacing Williams’ apologists with representatives of the people. A spunky band of citizen-activists is forming alliances with neighboring towns and appealing to state and federal authorities for help.
The people of Flower Mound are no longer standing idly by as their quiet suburb is slowly transformed into a Superfund site. Too many lives, and livelihoods, are at stake.
Ladd Biro is a syndicated sports columnist and small business owner who has lived in Flower Mound since 2002. He can be reached at [email protected].