Texas, Accused of Downplaying Cancer Fears, Grudgingly Re-examines Flower Mound Cluster

People who live in Flower Mound may or may not be at higher risk for developing cancer. The state already assured the public that there isn't a cancer cluster back in 2010, but after a UT-Austin researcher published a recent report challenging the state's methods, Texas has grudgingly agreed to look into it again.

The state explained its plans to do an "updated analysis" in a terse, somewhat defensive press release that is careful to not give too much credence to any lefty UT-Austin professors: "The updated analysis will use the most current data available and will again follow accepted scientific and statistical methods and be led by epidemiologists and cancer data experts," the Texas Department of State Health Services says in a statement.

The DSHS credits "community interest" more than any competing research as the motivation behind its new analysis. It mentions the UT-Austin report but doesn't link to it or mention the researcher by name: "Recent community interest was prompted in part by an article published in the Virginia Environmental Law Journal by a University of Texas at Austin faculty member."

The message of the UT-Austin report, by UT Law Professor Rachel Rawlins isn't to panic and get the hell out Flower Mound, though the town was once the site of heavy natural gas drilling. That has slowed down and in 2011 Flower Mound adopted a strict ordinance requiring a 1,500-foot setback between drilling and homes, much like the strict ordinance Dallas passed last year.

Rather, Rawlins' report is really a legal one. It says the problem is that cities like Flower Mound are powerless to cut back on industrial activity like fracking when their state regulators are so cozy with big business. "Local governments in Texas ... do not currently have the regulatory authority, capacity or the information required to close the regulatory gap," Rawlins warns. The Barnett Shale in North Texas is used simply as a "case study" in her article, as an example of the wobbly regulatory system that she says leaves people in the dark about potential public health risks associated with urban drilling.

Among her harsh legal conclusions:

There is no comprehensive cumulative risk assessment to consider the potential impact to public health in urban areas. Drilling operations are being conducted in residential areas. Residents living in close proximity to gas operations on the Barnett Shale have voiced serious concerns for their health, which have yet to be comprehensively evaluated.

As for the Flower Mound cancer cluster, the discrepancy between Rawlins' numbers and the state's has to do with how sure researchers think they should be that there's a concern before they start warning everybody about it.

For Rawlins' report, it was a separate researcher named Dr. Maria Morandi who reviewed the state's cancer cluster data. And Morandi found with 95 percent certainty that there is in fact a cluster in Flower Mound. The Texas Department of State Health Services, however, had come to its 2010 conclusion requiring a higher, 99 percent certainty threshold.

Rawlins' report argues that the 99-percent requirement that state used in 2010 was too high and not typical of most research: "The DSHS study does not convincingly explain the reason for selection of the 99 percent confidence interval," she writes.

So, where does Texas sit now in the 95 percent sure versus 99 percent debate? DSHS spokesman Carrie Williams tells Unfair Park via email: "We will be looking at both the 95 and 99 percent confidence intervals and will see if there is a meaningful difference. Though, the 99 percent confidence interval offers greater confidence that the result is real and not a false positive."

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Amy Martyn
Contact: Amy Martyn