Schutze

Maybe City Council Should Have Asked Some Questions Before Taking Drillers' Money.

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The drilling interests argue it's not their gas. They say all that gas comes from geological formations unrelated to the ones they are busy busting up underground. They say people in those regions have always been able to light their water on fire.

So we took $30 million from the drilling companies. We're going to have tons of pollution, radioactive pipes and maybe even flaming faucets. And the city will deal with fires, explosions, stuff like that, on a case by case basis, as they come along.

Slick!

What Hunt has proposed and the city council will vote on next month is a task force to look at the issues and recommend changes to the city's drilling ordinance. Those changes might include any number of things that would reinforce public safety without denying the energy companies the right to exercise their leases.

Raymond Crawford, one of the activists pushing for the task force, says the city council needs good basic information so that it can "pull apart the gas ordinance...and make that ordinance so tight and so strong that it is going to protect the residents.

"It can be done," he says. "Will there be accidents? Probably. Will there be some leaks? Probably. But as it is now, there is no air monitoring required. There is no reporting of spills required and (drilling) 300 feet from your bedroom window is the law."

Jim Schermbeck, head of a group called Downwinders At Risk and unofficial dean of the state's clean air activism community, argues that all local officials—not just in Dallas—have an obligation to learn about the health risks associated with fracking.

"Here is a new source of things we know can give you cancer and known neurotoxins," he says. "People in the Fort Worth area are literally now swimming in a sea of this stuff that's getting higher and higher as more facilities come into the area and into the urban environment, and you are increasing everybody's exposure to this."

Schermbeck points out that regulating the actual drilling process itself is only a beginning. "The drilling rigs are just the front lines, the shock troops of this whole thing. You start letting drilling rigs come into a neighborhood, and then you need the pipelines and then you need the compressors."

Gas companies use powerful compressors, often driven by diesel engines, to squeeze high volumes of gas into pipelines and push it along. Schermbeck, whose group spent decades fighting caustic pollution from huge cement plants in Midlothian, says compressors are comparable to cement plants as sources of damaging volatile organic compounds or VOCs.

"One compressor, my God, you're getting a machine that puts out the same amount of VOCs in a year as one of those cement plants," he says.

The city council has been resistant to Hunt's calls for a task force. Councilman Dave Neumann, whose West Dallas district is directly affected, dithered on the issue and ultimately failed to come up with a proposal.

Last week Hunt joined council members Pauline Medrano, Tennell Atkins, Vonciel Hill and Carolyn Davis in signing a request that the task force be placed on the city council agenda—enough signatures to force Mayor Dwaine Caraway to schedule it.

The council has been generally reluctant to tackle this crucial public safety question, and I think we can all guess the two main reasons: 1) They don't want to look stupid for having signed those leases and gotten the city $30 million in hock to the drillers before knowing what they were doing. And, 2) They're afraid the drillers will sue them.

That has been the first position of the drilling companies when other smaller communities in the area have moved toward tighter regulation. They always say they're going to sue.

But you know what? The city gets sued every day. They dare people to sue them. I've written about it lots of times. I think of ordinary citizens like Josh and Jenn Terry, whose small apartment building project in North Oak Cliff was torpedoed by a bunch of sleazy under-the-table city council politics. The city's attitude toward them was, You want to sue us? Bring it on, suckers. We got a whole floor full of lawyers, and we pay them their salaries every day anyway.

Even if the city made a stupid deal on some leases, it did not sign away its basic police powers or its moral obligation to protect the health and safety of its citizens.

I asked Hunt what her goals would be for the task force she has proposed. "First and foremost," she said, "it's to protect our neighborhoods. "We need to take a step back, and we need to look at the environmental issues associated with fracking. What is the current science on the safety of fracking? And go from there."

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze