Last Stand: Arlington City Council to Vote on New Gas Wells Near Daycare Center

Dozens of gas well sites and hundreds of wellheads already call Arlington home, according to an analysis by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting for Mother Jones.
Dozens of gas well sites and hundreds of wellheads already call Arlington home, according to an analysis by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting for Mother Jones. Wiki Commons
Since 2020, the French conglomerate Total Energies has been working to install three new gas wells at a site near the Mother’s Heart Learning Center in Arlington. The Arlington City Council is set to make a final vote on the new gas wells at a meeting tonight.

Staff and parents of students at the daycare oppose the new wells because they fear health risks associated with fracking. Studies have shown these include high rates of childhood asthma and increased odds of hospitalizations caused by asthma. The site is in an area of Arlington mostly populated by Black and Latino residents. Hundreds of residents signed a petition opposing of the wells.

In 2020, the Arlington City Council denied the request for more wells with a 6-3 vote. But, the company’s latest attempt seems to be going smoothly with the City Council expected to grant final approval for the wells at tonight’s meeting.

The city was expected to approve the gas wells on Dec. 14, but Total Energies requested the issue be taken up on Jan. 4 instead.

Total Energies didn’t respond to the Observer’s requests for comment. In a Dec. 7 email to city staff, Total said they wanted to postpone the meeting because all of the council members weren’t available Dec. 14.

But Liveable Arlington, a local environmental group opposing the permits, thinks the reason for postponing the meeting was more nefarious. In a statement on their website late last month, the group said: “When Arlington wants to permit fracking next to toddlers, they try to do it when they hope no one is watching. But Liveable Arlington is watching, and standing with the impacted families trying to keep their children safe.”

In an email to the Observer, a spokesperson for the city of Arlington said Total’s request to postpone the vote until this month was reflected on the City Council’s Dec. 14 meeting agenda. Additionally, the spokesperson said the request to postpone and the Dec. 14 meeting agenda were made public on Dec. 10. The agenda for tonight’s meeting was posted on Dec. 30.

“Agendas for both public meetings were posted in compliance with state law,” the city spokesperson said.

On Dec. 14, the day the city was supposed to approve the permits, a nauseating smell emitted from the site while children and daycare staff were at the playground. The playground is 613 feet away from the drilling site. The daycare itself is a bit farther at 637 feet.

"I can say, if it came down to what’s just about the kids, it’s a no brainer for me. But, it’s not about just that.” – Arlington Mayor Jim Ross

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Ranjana Bhandari, a longtime resident of the city and the executive director of Liveable Arlington, told the Observer it appeared someone was working on a tank battery at the time. Then, a strong odor filled the air, causing one staffer to get nauseated and another person to feel dizzy and lightheaded.

The daycare director filed a complaint with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality over the incident. The TCEQ promised to send an inspector the same day, but Liveable Arlington says no one from the agency came and spoke to daycare staff.

Liveable Arlington posted about the incident on Twitter two days later and got a response from the TCEQ’s official page.

The TCEQ said: “On Dec. 14, an investigator arrived on site at 2:35 p.m. and conducted a survey around the area of the gas pad and the daycare center. No odors were noted during the investigation. No emissions were noted using an optical gas imaging camera from the pad facilities.”

In response, Liveable Arlington wrote: “This is what Arlington residents live through. 1) People living next to drill sites suffer toxic exposure and experience health impacts. 2) If they call TCEQ (most don't know how to) by the time you arrive, much of the physical evidence of emissions has blown away.”

“The way I see it is this is the city’s and Total’s last stand." – Ranjana Bhandari, Liveable Arlington

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The group said there should be fence-line air monitoring at the site 24/7 to track emissions in real time. There should be community oversight of this data, the group says, with penalties for companies that make neighbors sick.

Before voting in favor of the Total Energies gas wells at a City Council meeting last month, Mayor Jim Ross, who's also an attorney, said: “I struggle with this. Those of you who know me know that I prosecuted for years environmental exposure cases.”

He said while he understands drilling can be associated with certain health problems, he hasn’t seen any evidence yet showing Total Energies' drill site is causing these problems for the daycare or the surrounding communities.

“So, it’s not just about ‘Do certain contaminants cause certain problems?’” Ross said. “Yeah, they do. But, is there sufficient data to show a causal link from this drill site to the kids there? I can’t say that there is. I can say, if it came down to what’s just about the kids, it’s a no brainer for me. But, it’s not about just that.”

He also said he resented any implication that his supporting vote has anything to do with the demographic makeup of the communities surrounding the site.

Other council members said they felt they had to approve the gas wells because of House Bill 40, a measure that took effect in 2015 that bars cities from implementing unreasonable regulations on drilling operations.

About two weeks later, students and staff smelled the nauseating odor they say came from the drill site. The odor was back on Dec. 21.

On its website, Liveable Arlington said: “Residents on the front lines of drilling have no protection, and officials who can do something about it are senselessly waiting for 100% proof of harm or hiding behind state law (which basically is a cover for corporate lawlessness and government malfeasance.)”

It would appear tonight's vote is the last stand for neighboring residents, and the daycare's staff and students. But, Bhandari sees it differently.

“The way I see it is this is the city’s and Total’s last stand," said said. All they need is to persuade one more City Council member to vote no. If they look at the science and listen to residents, Bhandari said it should be a simple decision.

The group is encouraging residents to reach out to their council members and attend the Arlington City Council meeting to speak in opposition of the new gas wells. 
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Jacob Vaughn, a former Brookhaven College journalism student, has written for the Observer since 2018, first as clubs editor. More recently, he's been in the news section as a staff writer covering City Hall, the Dallas Police Department and whatever else editors throw his way.
Contact: Jacob Vaughn