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Why There’s a Real Chance My Texas Town Might Ban Fracking

The history of Denton’s struggle with fracking reveals why the gas industry’s “responsible drilling” propaganda is deceitful and why a total ban is necessary.

Organizers hold electric lights in support of a local ban on fracking at the courthouse square in Denton, Texas, in October 2014.

Part of the Series

I live on Denton Street; in Denton, Texas; in Denton County — so I know a thing or two about the city of Denton and its ongoing struggle with fracking within city limits.

I live a little more than a mile from McKenna Park, where, in 2009, Range Resources sparked the city’s anti-fracking movement when the company announced plans to erect five gas wells on Denton’s Rayzor Ranch development, one of which would be across the street from the park, residential neighborhood and hospital.

Even though that particular gas well is long gone from the park, the condensation tanks remain, and so do the increased levels of benzene and other carcinogens that linger in the air in the aftermath of large-scale industrial fracking operations, which may engage in re-fracturing in perpetuity.

“My children still don’t play outside in the backyard. They still cough at night,” Maile Bush told me, pausing to cough herself a couple times. “I think people think it’s over when the rigs move out but that’s completely not true.”

She is one of Denton’s many residents impacted by the endless fracking of our town. Her home sits between two EagleRidge Energy drilling sites in Denton’s Vintage neighborhood. The rigs have moved out of the sites, but her family is still dealing with a compression station and remaining infrastructure.

She is one of Denton’s many residents who have been implicated in the gas industry’s suggestion that the people who are struggling to protect their health and safety from the impacts of fracking in Denton are “insurgents,” and are being monitored as terrorists by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Like my neighbors, I too, have been affected by living close to an industrial gas well. Living near the well and participating in the community’s efforts to protect themselves from it brought me radically into political consciousness. As we struggled against the well, I saw with my own eyes the reality of how local governments and corporations value profit over the well-being of people.

In 2010, when the McKenna Park gas well was fully operational, I lived a little closer to it than I do now, just off Fry Street and Scripture Street, only about 4,500 feet from the well. I was in college, and wanted to be close to the University of North Texas (UNT) campus to ride my bike to class.

A view of the barrier from the playground at McKenna Park, where condensation tanks and other gas drilling infrastructure remain hidden just across the street.

The first time I met activist Cathy McMullen was when she came over to my former partner’s house to discuss organizing the neighborhood with us. We needed to do very basic things — set up an email listserve and list our concerns to take to city council. That summer, we organized several rallies at the park and went door to door with a petition to demand that city council members deny Range Resource’s special-use permit to drill at the site.

For five long years Cathy’s been fighting fracking in this town, and despite her dogged and determined spirit, the struggle has taken its toll.

In time, I came to know Cathy, and to this day, I can’t recall a city council meeting or any other kind of forum germane to Denton’s fracking problem in which she wasn’t in attendance. Today, she is one of the leaders of Frack Free Denton and the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, responsible for landing the city’s proposed fracking ban on November’s ballot.

Cathy is usually seen at meetings in a pair of nondescript nursing scrubs, her thickly-framed glasses attached around her neck, and always in a pair of comfortable tennis shoes. She is a home-health nurse and often finds herself up late finishing up her patient charting after a full day’s work as a nurse and a local fracktivist.

Cathy and her husband moved from the city of Decatur earlier that same year in 2009, after fracking operations started there — only to learn that Range Resources was planning a new gas well near her new home in Denton’s North Bonnie Brae neighborhood a few months later.

For five long years she’s been fighting fracking in this town, and despite her dogged and determined spirit, the struggle has taken its toll. Her feathered blonde hair frames the contours of a gentle but tired face.

“There was a lot of soul-searching going into [deciding to pursue a referendum for a fracking ban], and when I weighed that against the total arrogance of an industry hell-bent on destroying us for a cost, then there was no question about what had to be done,” she told me.

The push for a ban is personal for her. The outcome of the vote could determine whether or not she stays in Denton. Either way, she’s sacrificed so much over the years that she’s ready to take a step back from organizing after the election. “I am burned out,” she’s says simply. While many other Denton residents will continue to organize against fracking if the ban doesn’t pass, Cathy’s feelings aren’t surprising.

Dentonites like her have literally exhausted every single institutional avenue available to reform fracking in this city, and none of those paths have prevented other residents like Maile and her children from suffering the dirty laundry list of direct impacts of Denton’s 281 gas wells, some of which are only 200 feet from homes.

This is why there is a real chance that Denton could be the first town in Texas to ban fracking.

The gas industry has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into this election to convince us that this referendum is “irresponsible,” but the history of our struggle with the industry lays bare a tale that has proved much the opposite — an irresponsible industry that has backed residents into a corner with its violent drilling operations.

McKenna Park: Then and Now

As the public outcry over the McKenna Park fracking gas well grew that year in 2009, Denton’s then city council members became anxious over a steady stream of calls, questions and concerns from their constituents. The council members delayed voting on Range Resource’s special-use permit to drill at the McKenna park site by tabling the issue three times through the month of September. Each time they tabled the decision, we grew angrier.

Former Councilman Chris Watts, now Denton’s mayor, said Range Resources and surface owner Allegiance Development had put a gun to his head by threatening legal action against the city if it denied the permit.

Each meeting, my neighbors and I came out to tell the council members to deny the company’s permit, signing up to speak on unrelated agenda items to demand a park and neighborhood free of noise that can exceed 90 decibels, glaring lights during all hours of the night, heavy trucks congesting neighborhood streets, and exposure to carcinogens including benzene. Today, benzene is still present in the air at the park at levels exceeding the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) long-term limits according to a report by ShaleTest.

The council approved Range’s permit in a 6-1 vote on October 6, 2009. Former Councilman Chris Watts, now Denton’s mayor, said Range Resources and surface owner Allegiance Development had “put a gun to his head” by threatening legal action against the city if it denied the permit. The threat of lawsuits would prove to be a recurring theme council members and the community would struggle over in the coming years.

Only one individual spoke in favor of the gas well during the October 6 meeting: David Poole, a lawyer representing Range Resources.

The battle over the well achieved 21 stop-gap measures to regulate how Range Resources could operate at the site. Heavy sound barriers, protective enclosures, atmospheric monitoring and alternative traffic routes for trucks provided only some relief to us in the end. The city mandated that the fracking at McKenna Park must occur within two years of the initial start of drilling in December 2009.

Range Resources would go on to violate regulations at other drilling sites across North Texas, with the state regulator, the Texas Railroad Commission, issuing violation notices and the Environmental Protection Agency issuing an order of protection after the company’s drilling activities in Parker County had led to the contamination of at least two drinking water wells. The company would also go on to break the law at our park.

In April of 2010, toxic drilling mud was illegally spilled from travel trailers parked at the site and outside of the prescribed barrier imposed by the city. The company did not initially report the spill to the Railroad Commission. Drilling mud contains several carcinogens, including benzene, ethylbenzene, trimethylbenzne, isopropylbenzne and many others.

In 2011, an appeals court upheld a 2009 ruling that allowed Range Resources more time to complete its drilling at McKenna Park. The company sold the site for $900 million that spring to Legend Natural Gas. Corporate heads at Range Resources blamed citizen participation in a city drilling review process that took longer than expected.

Today, the park is quieter except for the faint clanking of metal ringing out from the infrastructure still at the site. The sound carries on the wind over the top of the remaining barrier. The city’s water tower, emblazoned with the city’s Texas flag logo, looms above the landscape. Before the gas well, and even before George McKenna donated $8,000 for the park’s construction in 1964, longhorn cattle grazed the fields at J. Newton Rayzor’s ranch. Much has changed since then.

Denton’s water tower at McKenna Park.

A couple of weeks ago, I got a glossy mailer from a group called Denton Taxpayers for a Strong Economy depicting a care-free child on a swing with the word “responsible” written across the image. An adjacent image shows a broken swing with the word “irresponsible” written across it. Beneath the images is the following sentence: “Denton’s irresponsible drilling ban proposition will hurt our parks and recreation areas.” The mailer argues the city will lose revenue that would go to parks if the ban passes.

My jaw literally dropped at the mailer, which turned our more than year-long struggle to protect McKenna Park and the children who play there on its head. The gas well at the site continues to vent pollution that is toxic to the people who live close by. Not only is that “irresponsible” — it’s actually violent. The only thing that kept me from immediately tearing the mailer in two was knowing I’d need to refer to it later to write this paragraph.

My neighbors also don’t seem to be buying their argument. Dozens and dozens of light blue and red “for the ban” yard signs dot my neighborhood. The closer you get to the park, the more “for” signs you see.

The battle over the McKenna Park gas well prompted the city to review its entire drilling ordinance in a process that would begin in December of 2009 and end with an entirely new drilling ordinance in 2013.

When Industry and City Governments Collide

After six months of review and countless hours of public input and testimony, in July of 2010 the city approved a slew of changes to its ordinance in its first phase of addressing concerns over gas well drilling within city limits.

The ordinance was amended to include a minimum 1,000-foot setback distance for gas wells from homes, additional noise limitations, higher fees for gas well permits and shorter expiration times for those permits, among other changes. These changes were designed to ensure “responsible drilling,” but the gas industry fought the changes throughout the process.

That same month, city officials announced they were assembling a task force to advise councilors in the second phase of the city’s drilling ordinance overhaul.

The formation of Denton’s drilling task force lacked transparency from the outset. Updates regarding the city’s selection process for task force members were not presented during public meetings and instead, were communicated internally via confidential memos — until the Denton Record-Chronicle obtained the memos through an open records request.

From the very beginning of the assembly process, it was clear city staff had prioritized the selection of members who worked for the gas industry. Councilman Dalton Gregory asked City Manager George Campbell to hold a council meeting for the purpose of discussing and addressing citizen representation on the task force. Gregory was worried the task force still needed Denton residents to offset the industry representatives already selected.

Meanwhile, a real citizen research committee free of oil and gas industry representatives was in the works. Councilman Kevin Roden facilitated the formation of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, which involved several UNT professors in researching various aspects of gas drilling in Denton. The Awareness Group’s research would incorporate public input and suggest ordinance changes based on its feedback. Roden and Awareness Group members hoped the council and city staff would officially include the Awareness Group’s research and suggestions in its formal ordinance deliberations.

When it was all said and done, the city’s official voting task force members included Ed Ireland, executive director of the industry-funded public relations group Barnett Shale Energy Education Council; John Siegmund, a former petroleum engineer; Don Butler of New Tech Global, a gas industry operations consulting firm; Tom LaPoint, an environmental researcher; and Vicki Oppenheim, an urban planner.

This arrangement ensured a consistent three-to-two vote in favor of the gas industry on task force agenda items meant to bolster “responsible drilling” regulations and protections for our community. The Awareness Group’s work was never incorporated into the city’s ordinance deliberations in an official capacity. Task force members Ireland and Butler weren’t residents of Denton.

Vicki stared out at us from the dais at city hall, silently communicating her helplessness as the panel’s three industry representatives shot down recommendation after recommendation.

Of all the voting task force members, Vicki was the community’s most steadfast and ardent defender, voluntarily meeting with Awareness Group members to put forward task force agenda items that reflected the group’s research and concerns. In addition to her more than 15 years as an urban planner, she founded Green Leaf Environmental Planning and serves as a board member of Denton’s Community Market.

Vicki is a short woman whose intense gaze hits you through her small, round glasses in a way that belies her height altogether. I remember the intensity of that gaze during task force meetings, when her glare would take on a different meaning as she stared out at us from the dais at city hall, silently communicating her helplessness as the panel’s three industry representatives shot down recommendation after recommendation she presented.

She sat with me on a bench this month outside Denton’s iconic courthouse on the square, and reflected about her experience on the task force. To this day, she still thinks non-resident members should have only been on the task force in an advisory role in which they wouldn’t have had voting power.

“There were people who had other interests on the task force, other than the benefits of the city, and perhaps they went on wanting to create the best ordinance possible. Maybe those were their intentions, but they just had different interests,” she says. “It wasn’t the same as someone who lives here.”

The task force and ordinance process taxed Vicki emotionally and physically. She spent countless sleepless nights researching the voluminous technical details associated with the drilling process and participated in weekly, long-running task force and council meetings.

But through it all, she never gave up fighting for us. By my own experience as well as independent academic research studying Denton’s task force process in its aftermath, Vicki raised about 60 percent of all agenda items the task force discussed and voted on.

Two of my friends, also UNT students at the time, arranged a meeting with the city manager to discuss the task force and our community petition calling for the removal of its non-resident members. We sat down with City Manager Campbell in his office. Yellowed, aging photos hung from the walls. Over and over, he recited a mantra about the non-resident task force members’ “technical expertise” to us. Technical expertise supposedly justified their voting power, he told us.

It’s hard to make any kind of an argument favoring why someone like the industry’s Ireland should have even been on our task force in the first place. Ireland is a gas industry-funded PR man. He is paid to promote industry talking points in the media, and his group is funded by some of the very same companies engaged in drilling operations currently harming Denton residents.

Today, his group continues to send shiny anti-ban mailers to our homes on behalf of the industry, with headers like “Just the Facts” touting an industry-funded impact study on the ban’s supposed economic harms. Fracking’s economic externalities — measures that include lower quality of life assessments — aren’t factored into the analysis. Ireland’s mailers also neglect to mention the fact that the biggest economic beneficiaries of fracking are the out-of-town gas companies that fund his group’s mailers.

Throughout the second phase of the ordinance overhaul process, we protested and organized. In February of 2012, the council took a cue from an Awareness Group recommendation and passed a 120-day moratorium on new gas drilling permits to allow city officials time to finish adopting new rules. The moratorium was extended for another 120 days the following June.

As the task force meetings wore on during the moratorium period, the community became increasingly frustrated with the ordinance overhaul process. City staff continuously offered draft after draft of rewrites to the drilling rules based on the task force’s recommendations, but Dentonites became embittered by the short times allowed for public review and by city leaders’ many closed meetings.

In January of 2013, the council approved the city’s new gas drilling ordinance, making several amendments to address remaining concerns. Most of the amendments councilors passed were items that had been rejected by the task force in three-to-two votes, Vicki recalled.

The amendments addressed concerns over setbacks, upping the distance a well can be from a home, schools and churches to 1,200 feet from 1,000 feet. They also dealt with issues regarding compression stations, insurance liability, and air and water quality monitoring, making what many Dentonites see as only slight improvements.

But since the new rules were passed, gas companies have returned to Denton to resuscitate the fracking of Denton’s more than 270 old gas wells. As the gas companies returned, it became clear the ordinance had failed to protect my neighbors.

The returning gas companies continue to claim they have vested rights in their property, and their prior permits mean the city’s new ordinance can’t apply to their old wells.

“That’s why I support the fracking ban,” Vicki tells me. “After over a year of work improving the ordinance to the best of everyone’s ability, and fully my ability, having put in hours and weeks of time … and now we find out this ordinance won’t even apply to many of the wells in Denton, and the industry, on top of it, is unwilling to work with the community.”

She understands first-hand why the industry isn’t concerned with “responsible drilling.” Not a single gas company will even consider applying the city’s new ordinance to a well if vested rights allow the company to follow old rules.

In the past five years, gas companies have operated wells illegally within city limits, with wells experiencing spills, blowouts, and violations of every shape, size and color — affecting Denton residents in many ways.

After an EagleRidge gas well experienced a blowout in April of 2013, thousands of gallons of undisclosed and toxic chemicals and carcinogens were released into an area near homes and businesses for more than 14 hours. Residents living near the well were told not to do anything that could cause a spark, including even turning on their lights, before they were eventually ordered to evacuate.

Denton residents also suffer the worst air quality in the state. Denton County’s average of ozone readings was 87 parts per billion in 2013, according to TCEQ measurements, tying only with Houston as the highest average in the state. The Clean Air Act of 1997 mandates that ozone pollution should not exceed 75 parts per billion.

Denton’s “responsible drilling” industry has also decreased residential property values, resulting in lawsuits against companies like EagleRidge for $25 million in damages.

Dentonites Fight for Frack Ban Despite Industry Intimidation

The Awareness Group soon morphed into Frack Free Denton, launching their campaign for a fracking ban within city limits in February of this year.

The push for a ban comes primarily in the context of the group having tried everything else. It is the next logical step for our community to seek protection from the gas industry. Awareness Group leaders like Cathy have gone from Denton to Austin and back again, pursuing drilling reforms within the established governmental channels. Each time, they’ve been told by officials that their hands are tied.

Denton residents have been calling for a total ban on fracking for years now, and city leaders have continually punted the issue down the field due to legal issues. The threat of a state lawsuit, which may become an inevitable outcome of the ban, is a price many agree is worth paying to protect our community’s health and well-being.

The council’s final punt on the issue came in the form of a five-to-two vote at about 3:30 in the morning on July 16, 2014, rejecting a voter-initiative petition signed by more than 2,000 Denton residents, sending the matter to voters to decide November 4.

I can’t recall another city council meeting like it. More than 600 residents and dozens of industry representatives packed council chambers as well as two overflow rooms at City Hall and the Civic Center just next door.

I can’t recall another city council meeting like it. More than 600 residents and a dozen industry representatives packed council chambers as well as two overflow rooms at City Hall and the Civic Center just next door. Council members heard testimony from statewide elected officials, former Railroad Commission officials, and many of the same tried-and-true Denton residents who’ve been speaking about the issue before council for years.

The elected officials spoke first and left first, prompting council members to ask where they’ve been over the past few years while the city has been seeking their help on this issue. An overwhelming majority spoke in favor of the fracking ban, and an additional 161 people submitted comment cards in support, with only 46 cards submitted in opposition.

Councilman Roden moved to accept the petition, appealing to concerns over the amount of money already spent on anti-ban mailers and a non-binding petition, proffered by employees paid $2 per signature by the oil and gas industry and signed by many non-residents.

After much back and forth between council members, the council finally voted to reject the ban, reasoning that it’s more important to let Denton voters decide the matter. Only Councilmen Roden and Gregory voted against rejecting the petition, raising concerns about whether or not a fair vote could occur when the gas industry was already spending so much money to sway the ultimate outcome.

“[Fracking in Denton] has become a symbol of what’s wrong with capitalism as an entity,” Councilman Roden told me at Denton’s Oak Street Draft House. “The only reason why I think [fracking] is such an issue is because there’s hell of a lot of money to be made.”

The Denton Record-Chronicle reported on the first round of campaign finance reports, which show that both specific-purpose committees for and against the fracking ban have raised $280,000 in the city’s most expensive election. The vast majority of that money, $231,000, has gone to opponents of the ban — three gas companies contributing $75,000 each: Oklahoma-based Devon Energy, Fort Worth-based XTO Energy and Houston-based EnerVest.

According to the Chronicle, of the $1,060 in individual contributions to the opposition, only two came from people with Denton addresses. Those two are Bobby Jones and Randy Sorrells, leaders with Denton Taxpayers for Strong Economy, the specific-purpose committee against the ban. Funding for the campaign in favor of the ban overwhelmingly came from Denton residents: About $14,000 raised in individual contributions reported by the ban’s proponents was given by 45 people with Denton addresses. Another $30,000 was contributed by Earthworks, a national environmental organization.

Roden recently left the Denton Chamber of Commerce after the chamber adopted a resolution against the ban that was subsequently used in industry-funded, anti-ban mailers without the chamber’s permission.

But in addition to the vast amounts of money the industry is spending on this election as a cost of doing business, the industry’s tactics go well beyond fake petitions and glossy mailers.

I have no reason to believe this election will be any different than every other forum I’ve been to in this city on this topic — a majority will stand against turning our town into an industrial drilling zone.

In 2011, Earthworks’ Sharon Wilson, who has been organizing against fracking in Denton the past few years, attended a Houston gas industry conference for PR professionals. During the conference, she recorded Matt Pitzarella, director of corporate communications and public affairs at Range Resources, giving a presentation in which he stated that Range Resources had hired Army and Marine veterans with experience in military-style psychological operations to influence communities like Denton where the company drills for gas.

During the conference, another PR professional, Matt Carmichael, external affairs manager at Anadarko Petroleum Corporation, suggested that his colleagues download the Army’s Counterinsurgency Manual, calling residents fighting fracking in their local municipalities an “insurgency.”

That “insurgency” includes people like me and my friends, as well as Denton moms like Maile, who live only 200 feet from gas wells.

The industry has also resorted to other kinds of scare tactics, which include the suggestion that Denton residents organizing against fracking are terrorists who have been included on a DHS watch list.

Frack Free Denton organizers created a satirical skit making fun of the gas industry’s talking points during a rally and concert at Denton’s Quakertown Park meant to coincide with the start of early voting on October 20, 2014. Activists held up a gas industry “puppet” and a mock “propaganda machine.”

But despite the industry’s violence against my neighbors, and the industry’s many coercive, cruel and despotic intimidation tactics in its ongoing psychological war against my community, the organizers here are a resilient bunch, always pushing back no matter what the industry throws at them — and they’re giving it their all in the run-up to this vote.

Despite the industry’s threats of lawsuits, despite their attempts at corporate control of my city government, the vast majority of my neighbors are in favor of this fracking ban. I’ve seen them speak against drilling at every city council meeting I’ve been to. They’ve come out time and time again to stand up for themselves. I have no reason to believe this election will be any different than every other forum I’ve been to in this city on this topic — a majority will stand against turning our town into an industrial drilling zone.

Denton’s anti-fracking movement has grown enough over the years that it now stands a very real chance of making Denton the first town on the Barnett Shale — where fracking was first pioneered — to ban it entirely.