Mayor vows to keep gas drilling fight despite move

February 23, 2011 4:41:28 AM PST
This tiny rural town at the heart of the state's natural gas drilling controversy is losing its most high-profile crusader: Mayor Calvin Tillman, who has sold his house over concerns about his children's escalating health problems. After he moves to a town that so far has avoided drilling activity, Tillman plans to keep fighting -- although not as a politician -- to make sure energy companies follow state and federal air quality regulations.

"In some ways it's a loss because our home in Dish is exactly what we wanted, but on the other hand the war isn't over. I'll keep working toward reform," Tillman said Tuesday. "If we don't get the companies to do this more responsibly, you're going to have to put a chain-link fence around the entire Barnett Shale because it's going to be uninhabitable."

Tillman, elected to his first mayoral term in 2007, said he's losing money in the sale of his home that is to be finalized this week. Town commissioners can remove Tillman if he moves away from Dish before the May election, when his term expires.

Tillman said he has no plans to run for another public office but will stay involved in the issue by talking to state lawmakers, environmental agency and work through his nonprofit organization Shale Test, which provides air and water testing in low-income communities concerned about drilling.

The Barnett Shale, a 5,000-square-mile underground rock formation packed with natural gas, now has more than 12,000 wells since the massive boom in recent years. The shale spans about two dozen North Texas counties.

Dish is a rural community with only 200 residents some 35 miles northwest of Dallas. But the community has about 60 wells and a dozen compressor stations, which are used to regulate the pressure as the gas moves through pipelines. Since the first compressor station was built there in 2005 and drilling escalated, residents have complained about noise, putrid odors and health problems from nosebleeds to pain and circulation loss -- but they acknowledge there's no proof linking the drilling to the health issues.

Energy companies say they are operating in a safe and environmentally friendly manner.

More than a year ago environmental regulators who tested the air over the Barnett Shale reported extremely high levels of cancer-causing benzene at gas wells near Dish and elevated levels at 19 more sites in North Texas. But the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said the Dish readings were caused by mechanical problems that the companies fixed quickly.

However, high levels of benzene continue to be recorded in Dish, one of several sites in the Barnett Shale with air quality monitors placed by the state, Tillman said.

The town's website has a link to the 24-hour monitors' results and other reports and studies. It also has documents that residents can print and fill out -- including a detailed "odor log" and a "nuisance" affidavit that can be used in any proceedings of the state's environmental agency.

Although the noise issue has impro

ved and some months have no spikes in benzene levels or major odors, Tillman said he and his wife decided to move last summer when their younger son suffered a severe nosebleed following a day of almost unbearable odors outside.

Tillman said he took the unusual step of requiring potential buyers of his house to read air quality studies about Dish and watch the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Gasland." The film critical of natural gas drilling shows some residents lighting their tap water on fire and others discussing illnesses.

"I wanted to make sure I was open and honest, and I wanted to make sure people knew what they were getting themselves into," Tillman said.

Tillman isn't the only resident to leave a community that has complained to the state about noise, foul odors and pollution concerns since the gas drilling boom.

In Flower Mound, about 15 miles southeast of Dish, Kelly McDonald moved to a Dallas suburb last year, even after a new mayor and city officials were elected after pledging to impose stricter rules on gas drilling .

McDonald, who had been the new mayor's campaign manager, said she was thrilled to see new leadership but there was only so much change that could be done because existing wells were exempt from the new rules. McDonald said cities have limited control over drilling and also are affected by what happens in adjacent towns.

"The state has control over drilling regulations, so I'm not sure it can be solved at the local level," McDonald said. "We just loved Flower Mound -- loved the area. ... We chose to leave Flower Mound because of the drilling."