By Ari Phillips
For Reporting Texas
Calvin Tillman used to be mayor of Dish, Texas, a place so commerce-friendly that it renamed itself in exchange for free satellite television service for its 200 residents. Before his term ended, he moved to another town, Aubrey, because his children were getting nosebleeds. Tillman thinks the culprit is the growing presence of natural gas industry in Dish, and now he’s crusading against the industry that is the financial backbone of Dish.
Located within the gas-rich Barnett Shale in the Fort Worth area, Dish has benefited from shale gas extraction, which has brought jobs and economic development. But blanketing the town are pipelines, compressor stations, processing facilities, metering stations and other facets of what Tillman refers to as “the really nasty part of this whole process.”
Shale gas isn’t booming just in Texas; it’s a fast-growing industry domestically and internationally. A recent study funded by the U.S. Department of Energy concluded that developing national shale gas resources will significantly strengthen U.S. energy security in the coming decades.
Tillman, who works as an aircraft inspector when not pursuing natural gas issues, says that’s not the complete story. “What happens is, the industry comes in and wows you with all of the positives and how much money everyone is going to make, and it takes awhile to figure out the negatives,” he said. “One thing I try and do is act as a resource for people to lean on so they can learn more about the process.”
Tillman, who was mayor from 2007 until this past March, has become a frequent public speaker on the negative aspects of the natural gas industry. He has traveled around the U.S. and Canada to speak with communities grappling with similar issues. He’s corresponded with interested parties in England, Germany and Australia. He was briefly featured in the 2010 documentary “Gasland,” which focused on the impacts of natural gas drilling, specifically hydraulic fracturing, a process in which pressurized fluid is used to fracture rock and release gas. He also has a blog.
“The general idea of how we’re going to power America, that’s a big problem for our future,” Tillman said. “As we continue to grow as a power hungry nation, we’re going to need safe, reliable energy – and you can’t sacrifice someone to get that.”
The foul odor emanating from the gas processing facilities around Dish prompted Tillman to hire Wolf Eagle Environmental, a consulting firm, to test the air quality after industry and state regulators failed to respond to his requests for information. The report, issued on Sept. 15, 2009, identified 17 chemicals in the air, including carcinogens and neurotoxins, that exceeded the state of Texas’ allowances. The next year, a Texas Railroad Commission study found arsenic levels seven times higher than state allowances and lead levels 21 times higher in the town’s groundwater.
“My two small children kept getting nosebleeds in the middle of the night while they were sleeping,” Tillman said. “It doesn’t take too much research to figure out that chemical exposure can cause that. We just couldn’t take the chance, so that’s when we decided to move.”
Tillman said that since the family moved to nearby Aubrey, the nosebleeds have stopped and his elder son’s asthma problems have eased. According to the Associated Press, other Dish residents have complained of similar symptoms since the gas compressor station was built, including nosebleeds, pain, dizziness, respiratory problems and poor circulation.
Tillman says he isn’t your typical environmentalist. He grew up in the oil fields of Oklahoma and spent much of his youth working on pump jacks with his father.
Through his experiences in Dish, Tillman learned the value of environmental data. He helped found ShaleTest, a nonprofit that collects environmental data and provides environmental testing to lower income families and neighborhoods affected by natural gas exploration. “If you have data, you can get the state involved, and then the state starts kicking these guys in the shins and then you can get some things done.”
The independently conducted air study that Tillman spearheaded in Dish led to the installation of a permanent air monitor by state officials. When the air monitor would spike, people monitoring the gauge would take to blogs and other social media to inform the public. According to Tillman, this helped keep the operators in check.
Tillman thinks the industry is harming itself by acting badly, and that to survive it will have to start cooperating more with local governments. In Dish, the gas compressor station was built just a few feet outside of corporate limits to avoid dealing with regulations, not an uncommon practice.
In May 2010 in Flower Mound – another hub of natural gas processing – Melissa Northern defeated longtime Mayor Jody Smith in a surprising upset. The election was viewed by many as a referendum on the gas drilling boom in that town. After imposing a moratorium on the submission of new gas well permits, the Flower Mound Town Council adopted two ordinances this summer that increase review and oversight of the oil and gas industry in the area.
Aside from health and environmental issues, Texas law grants the power of eminent domain to gas utilities, gas corporations and common carriers to condemn property and lay a pipeline. Tillman said that some property values in Dish have decreased as a result. One property owner, he said, purchased 65 acres with the intent of subdividing it, but with four pipelines now crossing the tract, prospects for development look bleak.
This year Texas became the first state to pass a law requiring disclosure of chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. While a significant step, the bill is not as strong as many environmentalists wanted. “I applaud the Legislature for passing it, and I applaud the government for signing it,” Tillman said. “It’s not the most stringent law, and it has a lot of loopholes in it, but it’s better than what we had.”
The Environmental Protection Agency recently announced plans to draft national standards for the treatment and disposal of fracking wastewater. So far, states have primarily been left on their own to regulate fracking operations.
“If they can figure out how to fracture shale 8,000 feet below us, then they can figure out how to do it a lot safer than they’re doing it right now,” Tillman said. “But they won’t as long as they can get away with doing it sloppy.”