In shadow of Texas gas drilling sites, health fears escalate
ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — At a playground outside a North Texas day care center, giggling preschoolers chase each other into a playhouse. Toddlers scoot by on tricycles. A boy cries as a teacher helps him negotiate over a toy.
Uphill from the playground, peeking between trees, is a site where Total Energies is pumping for natural gas. The French energy giant wants to drill three new wells on the property next to Mother’s Heart Learning Center, which serves mainly Black and Latino children. The three wells, along with two existing ones, would lie about 600 feet from where the children planted a garden of sunflowers.
For the families of the children and for others nearby, it’s a prospect fraught with fear and anxiety. Living too close to drilling sites has been linked to a range of health risks, especially to children, from asthma to neurological and developmental disorders. And while some states are requiring energy companies to drill farther from day cares, schools and homes, Texas has taken the opposite tack: It has made it exceedingly difficult for localities to fight back.
The affected areas go beyond day care centers and schools close to drilling sites. They include communities near related infrastructure — compressor stations, for example, which push gas through pipelines and emit toxic fumes, and export facilities, where gas is cooled before being shipped overseas.
On Tuesday, the City Council in this city situated between Dallas and Fort Worth voted to advance Total’s latest drilling plan, setting it up for an expected final approval in a matter of weeks.
Last year, the council denied Total’s request. The rejection came at a time when Black Lives Matter protests after George Floyd’s murder by police had led many American communities to take a deeper look at racial disparities. But with time having passed and turnover on the City Council, and the pressure of a state law that strips power from local governments, Total gained the support it needed for its drilling plan with a 5-4 vote.
Many residents fear the consequences.
“I’m trying to protect my little one,” said Guerda Philemond, whose 2-year-old, Olivia Grace Charles, attends the day care. “There’s a lot of land, empty space they can drill. It doesn’t have to be in the back yard of a day care.”
Total declined a request for an interview to discuss the matter. But in a statement, the company said it has operated near Mother’s Heart for more than a decade without any safety concerns expressed by the City of Arlington.
Asked by a council member if he would send his own children to the day care next to the drilling site, Total spokesman Kevin Strawser said he would. “I’m very comfortable with what we do and how we do it,” he said.
The clash in Arlington comes against the backdrop of pledges from world leaders to reduce emissions, burn less fossil fuel and transition to cleaner energy. Yet the world’s reliance on natural gas is growing, not declining. As soon as next year, the United States is set to become the world’s largest exporter of liquid natural gas, or LNG, according to Rystad Energy.
As a result, despite pressure for energy companies to shift their spending to cleaner technologies, there will likely be more drilling for natural gas in Arlington and other communities. And children who spend time near drilling sites or natural gas distribution centers — in neighborhoods that critics call “sacrifice zones” — may face a growing risk of developing neurological or learning problems and exposure to carcinogens. A report by Physicians for Social Responsibility and Concerned Health Professionals of New York, which reviewed dozens of scientific studies, found that the public health risks associated with these sites include cancers, asthma, respiratory diseases, rashes, heart problems and mental health disorders.
Most vulnerable are non-white families. Many of the wells Total has drilled in Arlington are near Latino and Black or low-income communities, often just a few hundred feet from homes. A statistical analysis by The Associated Press of the locations of wells Total operates in Arlington shows that their density is higher in neighborhoods that many people of color call home.
Asked about that finding, Total did not respond directly but said its “decisions on future drilling are driven by the geological data.”
“America is segregated, and so is pollution,” said Robert Bullard, director of the Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice at Texas Southern University. “The dirty industries, and what planners call locally unwanted land uses, oftentimes followed the path of least resistance. Historically, that’s been poor communities and communities of color.”
The pattern is evident well outside the Arlington area, too. When gas pumped in Texas is shipped out for export, it goes to liquid natural gas facilities along the Gulf Coast. Many of those facilities are near communities, like those in Port Arthur, Texas, that are predominantly non-white.
“There’s constant talk of expansions here,” said John Beard, founder of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, which opposes the expansion of export facilities. “When you keep adding this to the air, the air quality degrades, and so does our quality of life and so does our health.
“Once again, we’re being sacrificed.”
At the Arlington day care, Wanda Vincent, the owner, has been cautioning parents about the health risks and gathered signatures to petition the City Council to reject Total’s drilling request. When she opened the facility nearly two decades ago, Vincent wanted to provide a refuge for children in her care, some of whom suffer from hunger and poverty.
That was before natural gas production accelerated in the United States. Around 2005, energy companies discovered how to drill horizontally into shale formations using hydraulic fracturing techniques. With this technique, known as fracking, water and chemicals are shot deep underground into a well bore that travels horizontally. It is highly effective. But fracking is known to contribute to air and water pollution and to raise risks to people and the environment.
Vincent had worried that the political winds in Arlington shifted since last year, and that the council would approve Total’s new request.
“The world was dealing with what happened with George Floyd,” she said. “The meeting was emotional, just listening to the speakers that were talking and then sharing their hearts and saying, ‘Well, we want to do more. We want to, you know, racially do better.’ And I was encouraged. But you know what? Nothing has really changed since then.”
Some states have acted to force fracking away from residents. Colorado last year required new wells to be drilled at least 2,000 feet from homes and schools. California has proposed a limit of 3,200 feet. Los Angeles has taken steps to ban urban drilling. Vermont and New York state banned fracking years ago.
In Arlington, drilling is supposed to occur no closer than 600 feet from day care centers or homes. But companies can apply for a waiver from the City Council to drill as close as 300 feet.
France, Total’s home country, bars fracking. But that ban is largely symbolic because no meaningful oil or gas supplies exist in France. So Total, one of the world’s largest players in natural gas, drills in 27 other countries. It turns much of that gas into liquid, then ships it, trades it and re-gasifies it at LNG terminals worldwide.
The gas wells next to Mother’s Heart represent just a tiny fraction of Total’s global operations. Yet the company holds tight to its plans to drill there despite the community’s resistance.
“Nobody should have a production ban unless they have a consumption ban, because it has made places like Arlington extraction colonies for countries like France, and they have shifted the environmental toll, the human toll, to us,” said Ranjana Bhandari, director of Liveable Arlington, the group leading the opposition to Total’s drilling plans.
In Arlington, companies that are rejected for a drilling permit may reapply after a year. Several Arlington council members said they fear litigation if they don’t allow the drilling. That’s because a Texas law bars localities from banning, limiting or even regulating oil or gas operations except in limited circumstances.
“Legally, our hands are tied,” said Councilwoman Barbara Odom-Wesley, who voted against the drilling plan last year but switched to support it Tuesday. “Our City Council hands are tied by the state Legislature.” She added that she learned more about Total over the last year and believes the company will act responsibly.
“If I’m able to reach out to the French and speak to them directly, I would let them know, ‘Would you be able to allow somebody to go in your back yard and do natural gas drilling where you know your wife lays her head or your kids lay their head?’ ” said Philemond, the day care center parent. “And the answer would absolutely be ‘No’ within a second.”
A mile or so from the day care, in the back yard of Frank and Michelle Meeks, a high-pitched ringing blares like a school fire alarm as the sun sets. Just beyond their patio and grill looms the wall of another Total well site, where one of the wells was in the “flowback” stage, according to the City of Arlington. Flowback occurs when fracking fluids and debris are cleared from the wellbore before gas production begins. This site, which stretches behind many neighborhood houses, is near two day care centers.
The ringing goes on and on. When the wells were initially drilled, Michelle Meeks said, the sound and vibrations were a full-body experience. At this point, she and her husband barely notice it.
After the drilling started a decade ago at the site, a few hundred feet behind their house, they noticed cracks in their foundation and across their backyard patio. They now receive royalty checks for $15 or $20 a few times a year. That money wouldn’t make a dent in the cost of repairing the cracks in their foundation. But when the oil and gas developers came knocking years ago, the couple thought that saying no would have been futile.
“In Texas, you really can’t fight oil and gas production,” said Frank Meeks, a 60-year-old machine operator. “We don’t have the money to go and get big-time lawyers to keep them out of our back yards.”
A few miles away, Pamela Polk cares for her autistic 21-year-old grandson in a modest home she rents across the fence from another Total gas well site. She has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. And since they moved in a decade ago, her grandson developed asthma.
Arlington’s air quality exceeds federal ozone pollution standards set by the EPA. In 2012, at the height of the fracking boom, asthma rates for school-age children in Tarrant County were 19%-25% — far above national and state norms.
“You’d think they would at least put a flyer in the mailbox or something, you know?” Polk said. “I’m frustrated. I mean, we pay taxes, you know, even though we’re renters, we still pay taxes.”
The site is a quarter-mile from two day cares. Polk notices teenagers playing on the other side of the fence in the field adjacent to the drill site.
“The biggest thing that worries me,” she said, “is kids.”
Around Arlington, drilling has imposed higher costs — literally — on lower-income neighborhoods than on more affluent areas. As the fracking boom took off, “land men” from the oil and gas companies went door to door in Arlington, asking permission to drill beneath homes of those who owned mineral rights. Some homeowners were offered signing bonuses and royalties. Renters like Polk, and others who don’t own the rights to the minerals beneath their homes, had no choice but to yield to drilling — and received nothing for it.
By contrast, when land men came knocking in Bhandari’s wealthier neighborhood 15 years ago, her neighbors, a lawyer among them, joined forces. Some, like Bhandari, opposed fracking altogether. Others wanted higher royalty payments. In the end, the company, which had sought to drill next to a park, situated its well pad a mile away. Now, Bhandari is trying to help less affluent neighborhoods push back on drilling.
Arlington sits atop the Barnett Shale, one of the largest on-land natural gas fields in the United States. Gas production, which peaked in the Barnett Shale a decade ago, has been declining. Even with natural gas prices rising, few large U.S. companies plan to drill new wells at a time when investors are increasingly seeking environmentally responsible companies.
“Total is a publicly traded company. They claim to be very interested in the energy transition and so forth,” said Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University. “If a U.S. company were to do that here that was publicly traded, their stock would be hammered.”
Not only is Total among the few operators that are actively seeking new wells in the Barnett Shale. It’s also drilled closer to population centers than have other companies over the past eight years, according to an analysis by S&P Global Platts.
Some in Arlington have managed to benefit from the drilling. At Cornerstone Baptist Church recently, a dozen choir members belted out hymns while congregants clapped and waved hands. A rainbow of lights illuminated a cross hanging above. Balloons and ferns decorated the stage, flanked by outsize screens showcasing the singers.
The church, which allowed Total to drill for gas on its land about a decade ago, collected royalties that helped support food giveaways, as well as other churches, said Jan Porter, a former church elder.
“It’s enabled us,” he said, “to do ministries that we might not have been able to do.”
After natural gas is pumped from underground, it moves through pipelines, passing through compressor stations, which help keep the gas moving. About a half-mile west of Polk’s house is a compressor station. Occasionally, a sour smell wafts through the air. As the gas moves through a series of curved pipes, a sound like a giant vacuum arises constantly.
Exposure to emissions of volatile organic compounds from natural gas pipeline compressor stations has been linked to higher death rates, according to a study by Indiana University. When released, these compounds can create ozone, which may exacerbate asthma, bronchitis, emphysema or cause chest pain, throat irritation or reduced lung function, especially in children and older adults. Compressor stations in New York state emitted 39 carcinogenic chemicals, including benzene and formaldehyde, according to a study by the University of Albany. Compressor stations also release methane, a potent climate-warming gas.
A few blocks away, the same sour smell clings to the air as Patrick Vancooper prunes tomato plants and okra he grows on a strip of land between the street and a fence. Many of his neighbors, in a community with pockmarked roads and weathered apartments, don’t know they live near a compressor station.
Greg and Gloria Allen were among them. They noticed a smell like raw eggs or a skunk, with a chemical odor too pungent to be an animal. They didn’t know the cause.
When the couple drives down the block near the compressor station, hidden behind a row of commercial properties and a doctor’s office, the fumes are so severe that Gloria Allen, a 59-year-old bus driver for the City of Dallas, gets headaches.
“If they build something like that over there, they should tell us,” she said. “Any time that can be a danger to me and my family, that’s not a place for me.”
After two years living on the block, in a home they share with their 14-year-old grandson, Gloria Allen was diagnosed with asthma. On her day off, she visited her doctor to discuss her symptoms.
“It’s driving me crazy,” she said of the odor. “It’s coming through the fence. I smell it in the house. I’m going to move. I can’t take it.”
After the fracking boom reshaped communities like Arlington, America wound up with too much natural gas. Yet at the same time, the world’s thirst for it grew. Developers, Total among them, poured billions of dollars into expanding LNG export terminals along the U.S. Gulf Coast, often near communities made up predominantly of people of color.
The nation’s largest LNG export facility sits just outside Port Arthur, which is three-quarters non-white. A second export facility is being expanded in Port Arthur. And a third export facility has been proposed.
Beard, of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, worries that chemical leaks could cause a devastating explosion. An LNG export terminal just outside Port Arthur was recently fined for safety violations after hundreds of barrels of liquid natural gas escaped through cracks, vaporized and released 825,000 cubic feet of natural gas into the atmosphere.
Back in Arlington, where the gas supply chain begins, Rosalia Tejeda worried about the health of her three children, who live with her a few blocks from the well site at Mother’s Heart. Tejeda wasn’t looking forward to telling her 13-year-old son about the outcome of the vote.
“It’s sad that I have to go home and tell him that, yet again, they’re not a priority,” she said tearfully. “I was hoping for my faith in humanity to be revived and it’s not.”
AP staffers Angeliki Kastanis in Los Angeles and Francois Duckett in New York contributed to this report.