As Mansfield Residents Push for Tougher Fracking Rules, the City (Slowly) Comes Around

There is nothing wrong with the way that Mansfield regulates fracking, according to the people who run Mansfield. "City leaders say the gas drilling ordinance in Mansfield is one of the most progressive and balanced ordinances in the Barnett Shale," city leaders say in a not-so-modest news release.

But some residents have noticed that the city has at least 200 wells drilled, with no rules to keep the wells a safe distance from homes or schools. So Mansfield officials are now working with citizens and the industry to pass a new drilling ordinance. Not that there was anything wrong with the old drilling ordinance. "Mansfield has made continuous improvements to its gas drilling ordinance" since 2009, the city says, describing the latest effort as not an improvement but an "enhancement."

A local citizen group pushing for tighter regulations, Mansfield Gas Well Awareness, would disagree with Mansfield's generous characterization of its past drilling regulations. "Our leaders, serving this community, have made poor regulatory choices on our behalf with the will of the gas industry in mind," they say.

Pressure from that group over the past year resulted in Mansfield's recent efforts to tighten its drilling regulations.The city council had its first reading of the proposed law on February 23, with two more coming up before it passes. "The city is on the continuous improvement track to constantly improve ordinances," says Mansfield Councilman Stephen Lindsey, who has spent seven years working in the oil and gas industry. "I think there is a representation of citizens in the community that they feel that 'Hey, gas ordinances could be tougher,'" he says, but he claims there are plenty who feel like the current ordinance may be too tough and a third subset of "people in the middle that are like, 'Hey, things are fine.'"

The most vocal group belongs to that first subset, and they have some hard evidence to back up their concerns. In October 2013, a TCEQ thermal camera captured what appears to be a heavy amount of emissions coming out of a well near the Mansfield Performing Arts Center and Mansfield's Woodland Estates neighborhood. Since then, the neighborhood has had numerous problems with that well, which is operated by EagleRidge, the same Dallas company that inspired Denton's local fracking ban. A year ago, Mansfield residents were reportedly alarmed by a mysterious, soapy foam that appeared in their yards from that same well, followed by an oily substance two months later.

Even Councilman Lindsey acknowledges that EagleRidge has not been a good company to work with. He says the TCEQ visited the site and found no issues of non-compliance, as the TCEQ often does, so Eagle Ridge continued to work as it pleased. "This is where the operator really missed the opportunity to engage," he says.

EagleRidge isn't the only company drilling in Mansfield that has taken advantage of the TCEQ's notoriously lax regulations. On January 29, Earthworks organizer Sharon Wilson went with Lance Irwin, a member of Mansfield Gas Well Awareness, to investigate the source of a foul odor in town. Wilson's thermal camera captured more emissions coming out of a compressor operated by Summit Midstream Partners. Wilson then asked chemist Wilma Subra to review the company's permit for the compressor station (which you can see here), and Subra came to the alarming conclusion that the station" does not have adequate emission controls. ... Especially since the emissions contain benzene and formaldehyde, which are known human cancer causing agents." (Summit Midstream Partners' spokesman didn't return our call.)

Mansfield officials say the new new ordinance will offer protections such as better documentation about emissions from wells, limits on fracking during weekends and holidays and private water-well testing upon request. But Mansfield's setbacks for drilling will remain the same. Sure, the city already requires a 1,000-foot separation between drilling activity and hospitals, jails and nursing homes. But schools and homes aren't part of that protected class. Instead, it's a 600-foot buffer zone that protects schools and the rest of the city from drilling, or just 300 feet if a property owner signs a waiver. Activists are pushing for a 1500-foot setback like the one Dallas has, which has effectively banned drilling here, but Councilman Lindsey argues that Mansfield's current setback "is very justifiable."

Despite what environmental activists describe as recent oil-lobbyist descent on the town, Mansfield's leaders say that the oil and gas industry have been nothing but cooperative in the effort to reform drilling. Lindsey says the council is trying to avoid an all-out fracking ban like the one famously passed by citizens in Denton.

"City leaders have worked closely with Mansfield residents, oil and gas operators, landowners and other stakeholders to update our drilling ordinance in a way in a way that maintains public health and safety while allowing for oil and gas production to benefit our state and local economies," Mansfield Mayor David Cook says in the recent cheery news release.

The oil industry agrees that fracking is already awesome in Mansfield. Two weeks ago, an industry-funded study of five wells in Mansfield claimed that "hydraulic fracturing does not produce harmful levels of air emissions."

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn