A new report published by ShaleTest, an independent environmental research agency in Denton, found levels of benzene in several Denton parks that exceed the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality's long-term exposure limitations. Benzene is a carcinogen found in cigarettes, gasoline and is a common byproduct of oil and gas drilling sites.
McKenna Park is one of the playgrounds where unsafe levels of the chemical were found. The playground is located next to Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital of Denton, within a neighborhood, next to several churches and across the street from one of Denton's many Rayzor Ranch gas wells.
"The effects of benzene are well-known. It causes cancer at low exposure rates, in adults. And we're talking about a playground where children are going to play. So that's very concerning," says Calvin Tillman, a spokesman for ShaleTest. As a part of the Project Playground national initiative, the group collected air samples from several DFW playgrounds to test for potentially harmful air quality.
Wilma Subra, a chemist who is the consultant for ShaleTest,> says inhaled low doses of benzene over an extended period of time can cause any number of health problems. "This is one example of the chemicals that are associated with oil and gas processing being released into the air," she says. "You usually don't have drilling production on the playground, but there's no restriction on how close you can drill to a hospital, playground, home, things like that."
In 2013, the city of Denton passed an ordinance that prohibited fracking operations within 1,200 feet of homes, schools, playgrounds, or hospitals. But Dr. Adam Briggle, a bioethics professor at UNT, says the local law is flimsy at best, as it does not apply to any drilling site in operation before 2013. "Everything that existed was grandfathered under existing laws," he says. "The opposition is calling for responsible fracking, and in fact we have a responsible ordinance. But the problem is it doesn't apply to anything."
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Briggle says the initial exposure to benzene was a much higher level than the current amount. That's to be expected, but the City assured residents that after the first jump in chemical production, exposure would taper off to TCEQ-approved levels.
"This study is troubling because it shows those emissions linger for years at a lower level, but still at level above what is considered safe," Briggle says. "There's no way to prevent these exposures in our community. They're vested under older laws, so it underlines the need for a ban."
The drilling near McKenna Park began in 2010, after a heated debate by residents failed to prevent the site. Dentonites consider this site the beginning of the local anti-fracking movement. Cathy McMullen, who lives close to McKenna, first became involved with the movement when she heard about operation.
"It's my neighborhood, I see kids playing down there all the time. In what world is this right? I don't know when we decided this was acceptable," says McMullen. "You look at the safe levels, and you realize they're established on adult men. It's concerning. Is this something you want to tolerate? And if it's not we're going to have to step up and demand change. We've been asking for a long time." Denton residents will have the chance in November to pass the first local ban in Texas against fracking operations.