First, who is Mayor Calvin Tillman from DISH, Texas and why should any of us care that he spent last week in a whirlwind tour of New York and Pennsylvania communities?
Three years ago, Calvin Tillman was elected Mayor of DISH, Texas, which is located in the heart of the Barnett Shale about 25 miles north of Fort Worth.
DISH occupies no more than 2 square miles, is home to about 180 residents and its annual operating budget is a mere $70,000. (For reference, The Incorporated Village of Liberty, NY covers 2.39 square miles, is home to 3,975 residents and has an annual GENERAL budget of $3,798,804.00.)
According to Mayor Tillman’s presentation (which Breathing heard in both Dimock, PA and Callicoon, NY) DISH is also home to “eleven natural gas compressors as well as an associated treating facility, four natural gas metering stations, around eighteen natural gas wells within its corporate limits, fifty plus wells just outside its corporate limits” and is where “eleven high pressure natural gas pipelines converge.” (Please find aerial views here.)
The Mayor and his residents became increasingly alarmed by the noise generated at the compressor site. “One compressor creates noise at 85-90 decibels…and DISH has 11.” (According to the American Speech Language Hearing Association, “Sounds louder than 80 decibels are considered potentially dangerous.”) Although Tillman was eventually able to obtain noise abatement around the compressors, a foul stench — apparently emanating from the same site — continued to permeate the town and “all the trees along the compressor site were dead or dying.”
After complaining about the odor for several years, “The person who finally came to look said he couldn’t determine the source of the odor.”
Eventually, five corporate operators performed a joint air study and concluded, “no natural gas leaks were found that would be detectable to the human nose.”
The stench worsened and as a result, DISH spent approximately 15% of its annual budget to commission an independent air study which “assessed thirty-one citizens and former citizens of the town…. The laboratory results confirmed the presence of multiple recognized and suspected human carcinogens in the fugitive air emissions present on several locations tested in the Town of DISH…. 61% of health effects reported [by study participants] are known health effects of the chemicals detected in the DISH air study. These health affects include: difficulty in breathing, brain disorders, chronic eye irritation, dizziness, frequent nausea, increased fatigue, muscle aches, severe headaches, sinus problems, throat irritation, and allergies.”
In his presentations, Tillman added, “All the commissioned tests were taken on private property within 100 feet of homes and children.”
According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), “The maximum time-weighted average (TWA) exposure limit is 1 part of benzene vapor per million parts of air (1 ppm) for an 8-hour workday and the maximum short-term exposure limit (STEL) is 5 ppm for any 15-minute period.”
WFAA – TV lends credence to Mayor Tillman’s concerns about air quality, “So imagine the reaction of scientists looking at an air sample from a Targa Resources compressor station outside Decatur, west of DISH in Denton County. The sample revealed a level of 1,100 parts per billion of benzene.” (Note: 1,100 ppb = 1.1 ppm)
As the Mayor pointed out, recommended levels are based on a healthy 35 year old man’s exposure over an eight hour period, five days a week. Exposures are not based on the effects of exposure on pregnant women or children. “Why aren’t they based on pregnant women and children?” he asked rhetorically. “Because they shouldn’t be exposed at all,” he said.
(DISH residents are exposed 24/7. Readers interested in learning more about the DISH air study are encouraged to visit the Mayor’s site where the results have been published and he answers those who have attempted, unsuccessfully, to debunk its results. During his presentation, Mayor Tillman affirmed that since the results of the DISH air quality tests have been published, “The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) validated the DISH air study in an internal memo. They’re going to install a permanent air monitoring unit in DISH. If they’d debunked our study, they wouldn’t have spent the money for that.” The TCEQ monitor will record air quality in DISH in real time and anyone will be able to follow the results on the internet. If you’re interested in hearing from DISH residents who have suffered debilitating health effects, Split Estate, presents their stories. )
- Although concerns in DISH, Texas are somewhat different from those raised by drilling in Dimock, PA or the Marcellus Shale in New York and the Delaware River Basin, local residents believed those of us living in the Delaware River Basin would benefit from hearing about the “DISH experience.” Mayor Tillman agreed and accepted invitations to meet with some of our local communities.
Unlike most elected officials, Tillman receives no compensation for his mayoral duties and he refuses any compensation, reimbursement or sponsorship for his informational tours.
On Friday February 19, Mayor Tillman met in a closed-door session in Narrowsburg, NY with local policy makers and elected officials. Neither the press nor the public attended and beyond rumors that 20 or so attendees conferenced with the Mayor, we have no information as to who attended or the scope of their conversations.
During the afternoon of the 19th, Tillman, accompanied by members of the press and private citizens, helped delivered 17 cases of fresh water to Dimock, PA resident, Pat Farnelli for use by her and other familes whose water has been rendered useless by a toxic soup of contaminants such as methane, dissolved solids, heavy metals, minerals, barium and strontium. Approximately 18 Dimock families — the number continues to grow — have filed suit against Cabot Oil and Gas (Fiorentino et al. v. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. et al., No. 09-2284, complaint filed M.D. Pa. Nov. 19, 2009) for the degradation of their water supplies. Although the drilling company has provided drinking water to some residents, Farnelli says her family doesn’t qualify for deliveries. “There are six or seven gas wells within about 700 feet of my house. The last time we checked, the methane saturation of our water was about 12%. The DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] said they won’t make Cabot deliver water to us until our saturation is higher — maybe 30% or so — that’s what I’ve heard. Between 30-50% is when the methane starts rumbling before the wells explode. Four or more of my neighbors have had their wells explode. Not just Norma’s. But the methane concentration in our well isn’t that high, yet.”
When Breathing asked Ms. Farnelli if she had anything in writing from either Cabot or Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) explaining the 30% ceiling, she said, “No. It’s just what we’re told.”
In response to a question from Mayor Tillman, Ms. Farnelli explained that when her children “drank water from the family well, they’d get a terrible stomach ache and throw up. They’d just double over. Used to be, they’d drink water at the school, and they’d be fine but whenever they drank our home water, they’d get sick. And now, the water at the school’s turned off, too.” (A drill pad was erected on the Elk Lake School grounds after The Susquehanna River Basin granted approval in July 2009. See Docket #37.)
(Later in the evening, Breathing was in the Elk Lake School for a discussion of gas drilling sponsored by The League of Women Voters. The school’s water fountains were turned off. Students and staff are confined to drinking from bottled water dispensers although water continued to flow to lavatory sinks and toilets. According to several attendees, students and parents were informed by the Elk Lake School District that installation of bottled water was a precaution against the spread of “the H1N1 virus.” (Link to article written prior to the start of drilling.) According to a December 9, 2009 article at The Independent Weekender, drinking fountains were shut down after the pump system “malfunctioned” on October 15, 2009. The District Superintendent said the shutdown had nothing to do with drilling or hydraulic fracturing at the school site. Further, he stated the water has been tested, found safe and repairs would be completed over the Christmas break. Instead, according to officials, fountains were turned off to prevent spread of the H1N1 virus.)*
During Mayor Tillman’s presentations at both the Elk Lake School auditorium and The Delaware Community Center in Callicoon, he was adamant that certain areas should be off limits to well drilling pads. “You do not have to site them on school yards. You make this hazard a risk when you put it in school yards and in peoples’ front yards.”
Locally, the Wayne Highlands School District has been approached by Hess about a potential leasing of school properties for drilling.
When Farnelli was asked about her own health, she admitted she’s undergone testing for lupus. “The doctor ordered some blood tests for metals, but I haven’t had them done. We don’t have health insurance. Even though I’m on disability and my husband’s cook job barely pays the bills, we don’t qualify for assistance and we sure can’t afford health care.”
“I feel like we were naive for signing the leases,” Farnelli continued. “We sure aren’t prospering. I wish we’d never signed. The landman told us they probably wouldn’t drill; that there’d be little or no lasting damage or impact; that there’d be a commotion for two or three weeks, and then there’d be a little thing like a fireplug on a square of concrete in the hayfield left. He said it was almost like winning the lottery and that’s how they were still talking Thrusday night at Elk Lake at the royalty owners’ meeting…about winning the gas well lottery. They said the sign-on bonus was the most anyone would pay — $25 per acre — and that it was like free money. They made it sound patriotic and clean and green — like getting America off of foreign oil dependency. When Norma’s [Fiorentino] well blew up on New Year’s Day…we’ve been kicking ourselves. The Carter’s well vent exploded 6 or 7 times. Now, I worry about my kids.”
“We were told everyone would get a methane tester for our basements but Cabot said the equipment wasn’t necessary. The DEP showed up here with a Cabot representative and they were pretty jovial when they didn’t find methane in the basement. Then they said they’d found some at our well head and that they needed me to vent it because they’d found it in the water. My husband wasn’t home and I didn’t know what I had to do. They didn’t explain anything and they said they couldn’t do it for me. I asked for help a couple of times but they said I needed a big wrench. Two days went by and all they’d say was my house could blow up.”
At this point in the story, Mayor Tillman asked Ms. Farnelli for the name of her DEP contact and said he planned to contact him.
Throughout Dimock, signs of poverty are clearly visible and the state of dirt roads traveled by heavy drilling trucks was impossible to ignore. Ruts were so deep and continuous that humps as high as 8-9″ threatened the under carriages of low-riding vehicles and, in part, may have prompted the Mayor’s question in Callicoon (below) about the state of our local roads.
On February 20th, the Mayor was back in Sullivan County at the Delaware Community Center in Callicoon, NY where he was joined by Nancy Janyszeski, Chair of the Board of Supervisors of Nockamixon Township and Pennsylvania Chair of the Lower Wild and Scenic Delaware River. They were greeted by a standing-room only crowd that was a mix of drilling advocates, lessors and opponents of gas drilling.
After explaining the results of air quality tests conducted by DISH (see above) Tillman addressed issues of hydraulic fracturing and recommended several precautionary measures. “I saw in Dimock that drill pads are situated next to homes. In Texas, local authorities are allowed to permit a well which I was shocked to hear local ordinances can’t do here. It needs to come back to the local level. In theory, Chespaeake could buy and tear down this building and put in a well and there’s nothing your local governments could do about that. They might buy a city block like in Fort Worth and put a pad site. What’s good for Albany might not be good for here. Urge your local officials to get the local control back to the local level.”
Supervisor Janyszeski echoed the Mayor’s concern about local control. Nockamixon has used zoning to hold the drills at bay until protections of its water and land are in place. “We’ve always understood the benefits of drilling, but we need to make sure it’s safe. We’re in Special Protection Waters. We have a Wild and Scenic Rivers designation. The proposed drilling site in Nockamixon is on an Exceptional Value Stream.
“Hundreds of leases were signed before we even knew they were in town,” Janyszeski said. “The gas people say they don’t need local permits.
“The drilling will be for a short-term and our communities will be left with the clean up but the gas companies come in and say, ‘We don’t need a permit from local governments. If you or I want to put an addition on our house, we need a permit. Why don’t then need one?”
At which point, most of the audience broke into spontaneous applause.
Janyszeski then discussed an amicus brief filed by, among others, Nockamixon Township, The Delaware Riverkeeper and Damascus Citizens in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania concerning the ability of local governments to control gas drilling within their borders.
According to the Court’s ruling, “Municipalities have a unique authority and responsibility in the regulatory framework which must be maintained; they ‘give consideration to the character of the municipality, the needs of the citizens and the suitabilities and special nature of particular parts of the municipality.’” In the end, the court’s decision permits a local regulatory body to enact “traditonal zoning regulations that identify which uses are permitted in different areas of the locality, even if such regulations preclude oil and gas drilling in certain zones….” However, the decision also restricted the scope of local jurisdiction, “We do not, for instance, suggest that the municipality could permit drilling in a particular district but then make that permission subject to conditions addressed to features of well operations regulated by the [Pennsylvania Oil and Gas] Act.” (Bold added for emphasis.) Essentially, when it comes to actual drilling practices and operations, the Court upheld that Pennsylvania State law will carry more force than local regulations.
In response to the ruling, Nockamixon Township has amended old zoning ordinances in order to restrict gas and drilling operations to “light industrial and quarry zones.” Also, the Town has strictly enforced weight limits on all its bridges.
“It means companies have more hurdles to jump,” said Janyszeski.
Tillman reiterated the importance of local involvement, “Your local authorities have to insist drilling companies use green completions. Flaring isn’t necessary. They don’t have to store the drilling waste in pits. Make sure there’s a system for vapor recovery on condensate tanks and other emission sources. They can use zero emission dehydrators and pneumatic valves. The companies say it costs too much but green completions actually save product which makes the companies more money.”
In amplification of Tillman’s statement that, “Companies will tell you the fracking fluid’s safe. It contains over 250 chemicals and over 90% of them have negative health effects,” Ms. Janyszeski suggested other localities conduct baseline water testing as was done in Nockamixon Township. “We used Wild and Scenic River funding to perform our first round of testing. Now we know how our water is. We tested streams near proposed sites and ten wells and discovered we have TCE in a couple wells. As a result of the successful testing, we got another $25,000 from The Wild and Scenic River funds for a second round. I’d add, since hearing what Mayor Tillman’s done with air testing in DISH, that’s also something our local governments should be looking at.”
(Linda Babicz, moderator of the program, interjected that our local Multi-Municipal Taskforce is working to ensure, through permits, that drilling companies will be responsible for testing before any gas wells are drilled or worked on. In addition, she offered, “We don’t have Home Rule in New York State. That’s why our local governments don’t have the right to demand permits.”**
As to assertions made by drilling proponents that gas drilling will be an economic boon for local municipalities, Mayor Tillman addressed the issue of declining tax revenues in DISH. “During my tenure as Mayor, I’ve doubled the size of the town to 2 square miles. The [underground] minerals are just an extension of the property for taxation purposes. The average well loses about 50% of its mineral value after the first year of production. The only way to maintain the value, is to drill more and more…. and the cost of natural gas goes down…… a lot of cities in Texas and in the Barnett shale are in trouble. They’re having to raise taxes and lay off people. I liken this to heoin. It’s like an addictive drug and a lot of [Texas] cities got addicted to it.”
“There are other ways to think about it,” the Mayor continued. “We used to get 60% of our tax revenues from minerals. We’ve probably spent that much to clean up. If you don’t have minerals on your property and you don’t get ‘mailbox money,’ it probably isn’t worth it. And even those who get the mailbox money, they’ll probably say it isn’t worth it. The former mayor [of Dish] sold mineral rights. He’s one of my supporters now. [The companies] have kicked in money for parks, but if you weigh the costs and benefits, I just don’t think there’s been an overall benefit.”
When he was asked about the kinds of jobs the gas industry’s created in Texas, Tillman said, “Most drilling rig crews are transient. They’ll come for two weeks and then they’ll go somewhere else. They live on the pad site — seven days on and seven days off.”
When asked about the health impacts of drilling on drilling workers, Tillman responded, “There’s probably stuff that doesn’t get reported. There have been some accidents where workers got asphyxiated and died. There’ve been explosions on sites and people have died. There are signs, ‘No Open Flames’ near wells because of the methane. I called OSHA for the workers but they’re only considered temporary employees so they don’t go through OSHA.”
One audience member asked Mayor Tillman to address the impact of hydraulic fracturing on organic farms. “The only other air study done besides ours [outside of litigation] was at an organic goat farm in Fort Worth. The company was flaring a well. [The study] detected the same toxins as ours did. She has to constantly test her pastures. I assume you’d have to do that at your own expense until you win a long court battle.”
(According to The Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA) and an article in The Post Standard, “The number of organic farms in New York has tripled since 2006″ while the market for organic goods has expanded 20% over the last ten years. According to The United States Department of Agriculture’s 2008 Survey of Organic Growth, “Nationally, New York ranks fourth in the number of organic farms behind California, Wisconsin, and Washington. Total area devoted to organic production in New York totaled 168,428 acres. Value of sales of organically produced commodities in the state totaled $105.1 million, ranking seventh nationally and accounting for 3.3 percent of total U.S. organic sales.”)
At the end of his prepared remarks, Mayor Tillman recommended several actions that should be taken by local and state governments:
Develop ordinances related to oil and gas exploration prior to permitting any wells.
Local Ordinances should require road use agreements
Local ordinances should require green completions
Understand that there are places that should be off limits for drilling.
Wells should not be located in school playgrounds, and pipeline should not be run through front yards
Impose a severance tax
Require the latest emission lowering technology, including vapor recovery, and zero emissions dehydration, and pneumatic valves
Work together in groups when signing leases
Do not be the mole, working against your neighbors
Of the severance tax enacted by the State of Texas, he said, “Here’s what I wish your legislators would consider. We don’t have a state income tax in Texas. We have the severance tax on the gas companies. It’s good for a lot of reasons. The tax is paid by volume on the gas so if you’re leasing, you’ve got a measurement of how much your wells are producing. It’ll tell you how much gas is coming out of the ground and how much money you should be getting.” (In a previous Breathing article, I referenced a court judgment that found Chesapeake had defrauded royalty owners in Texas out of $134 million in payments by under-reporting the amount of gas Chesapeake extracted from its lessor’s wells.)
- Tillman continued to tout the benefits of enacting a severance tax, “Do you have enough inspectors in New York? A severance tax could pay for that, too.”
- Then, looking out over the audience, he asked, “How are the roads holding out around here?” When the audience groaned and laughed, he said, “A severance tax can fix that.”
But the final recommendation which drew a standing ovation from the crowd was this, “Do not issue another permit until these things are accomplished!”
*The article does not specify what agency tested the water. I am planning to make contact with the school in order to obtain more clarity. If I succeed, I will certainly report back here.
**Actually, there is a weak version of Home Rule in New York State that permits localities to narrowly regulate within their own borders so long as the State of New York approves. When Sullivan County attempted to use it relative to a Room Tax on our hospitality industry, we discovered that the process is arduous, complicated and is ruled by “windows of opportunity.”