The second Teena James stepped outside on Feb. 28, she could see clouds of black smoke filling the clear sky.
It was no mystery where the exhaust was coming from: the natural gas drilling site just down the block from James’ home, where only a road and a 6-month-old wall stand between residents and fracking.
Although the Mount Tabor drill site has stood on 3020 Village Creek Road for more than a decade, TEP Barnett – the Fort Worth branch of French energy giant TotalEnergies – began drilling again in January, this time creating four new gas wells.
Loud booms filled east Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood at all hours of the night, according to James and other homeowners, and the machines extracting gas from the ground never seemed to turn off.
“When they first came in, that’s all you were going to hear,” said Dereck Collins, whose home is just a few hundred feet from the TEP Barnett property. “Boom! We used to hear this all night. Boom! You can feel it.”
The noise was one thing. Black exhaust was another.
On that sunny Monday morning, James said she could taste the fumes in her mouth, causing her to vomit and later call an ambulance to check on her condition. But first, James pulled out her phone and began to record.
“I don’t know who I’m supposed to tell this to, I don’t know who’s supposed to listen and who can make a difference,” James told viewers on Facebook Live, pointing her camera toward the steady stream of exhaust entering the air. “But I’m letting you know as a mother, as a homeowner, as someone who stays in the community, this is not healthy for our neighborhood.”
Within hours, James called Fort Worth’s code compliance department and eventually filed a complaint with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which dispatched investigators to the site that day. Victoria Cann, a commission spokesperson, would not provide details on what was discovered at the site, but said the investigation is ongoing.
In a statement, TEP Barnett said a contractor’s pump at the Mount Tabor drilling pad began to fail and blew dark smoke on Feb. 28, though neighbors said they noticed some smoke as early as Feb. 25.
“Our neighbors were not harmed by the mechanical issue,” the statement reads. “We investigate any incident and draw on recommendations to continually improve our processes and procedures. TotalEnergies remains committed to operate this and all our sites in a safe and environmentally responsible way.”
The company also said officials conduct daily monitoring of noise and were in full compliance with allowable levels in the residential neighborhood. TEP Barnett logs “all inquiries” about drill sites and found that no inquiries were received from neighbors about drilling activities at Mount Tabor.
“For our recent drilling activities, we used an electric rig which operates on electricity and thus there were no emissions during the referenced action,” the TEP Barnett statement said. “We did not receive any citations for violating the Fort Worth gas drilling ordinance.”
Multiple neighbors said they tried to contact TEP Barnett through a phone number posted on the fence near the entrance of the drill site. They said they weren’t able to get through to anyone at the company despite repeated attempts.
Fort Worth has 600-plus drill sites, two inspectors
Brendan Skaggs, a gas well inspector for the city of Fort Worth, told the Report that he visited Mount Tabor the day after the incident was reported to the commission for a regular inspection he conducts on active fracking sites.
There are more than 600 drilling sites and 1,900 gas wells across the city, and two people are tasked with conducting annual inspections of each of them, along with urban forestry inspections, Skaggs said.
“I try to go to every site at least three or four times a year, and if there’s activity such as drilling, I’ll go out there once every two to three weeks,” he said. “It’s required to do every site at least once a year, but again, that’s not sufficient … It still needs to be done, it doesn’t matter if it’s two people or eight people that it takes to do it.”
How to contact Fort Worth with an air quality complaint
Contact the code compliance department’s air compliance investigations team by calling 817-392-1234 or emailing Air@fortworthtexas.gov.
He didn’t see any emissions issues while on site, but said he would not necessarily go to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which regulates the state’s air quality and industrial pollution, if he did spot a problem. Depending on the situation, Skaggs said, he would likely reach out to the person who filed a complaint or the gas well operator first.
City gas well inspectors are not allowed to do air quality emissions inspections because they are required to stick to Fort Worth’s gas well ordinance, which focuses on groundwater contamination inspections.
Code compliance officers in the environmental quality department do investigate air quality complaints in Fort Worth following investigation protocols set by the state environmental commission.
“They’re fracking out there, so there is probably a lot of dust and accumulation in the air,” Skaggs said. “But we don’t even have the equipment to do any kind of (air) monitoring, and we’re really not allowed to do that.”
A house directly across from the drilling site has served as Willie Miller’s home for 61 years. The 96-year-old said he often has to head inside and close all of his windows to keep from breathing in dust kicked up from 18-wheelers driving up and down Village Creek Road as part of the drilling operations.
“It has gotten worse since they started (drilling). They don’t give a damn about the human beings who live here and have to inhale all this stuff,” Miller said.
Calling a council member is often the best way to “get the ball rolling” on sending an inspector to a gas well site, Skaggs said.
Fort Worth has a record of James calling the city’s hotline to complain about the thick black smoke being released into her neighborhood, said city spokesperson Michelle Gutt. A code compliance officer responded on Feb. 28 and visited James’ house to investigate on March 3, James said.
But James wasn’t able to reach her council member, Gyna Bivens, or other elected officials, including the mayor’s office. Bivens, who represents District 5, said she did not receive a call from James but did hear from a Buddhist temple near the site that was concerned about the smoke.
“I got calls that they were drilling again, and that’s all I know,” Bivens told the Report. “The city has gas wells all over and, from time to time, companies see if they can get something out of them. I don’t see it as a really big issue.”
Stop Six not only neighborhood struggling with TEP Barnett
Last December, employees of Mother’s Heart Learning Center in east Arlington filed two complaints with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality after workers felt nauseated while spending time on a playground near the AC360 drill site on 2000 S. Watson Road.
Just a few weeks later, Arlington council members denied a permit that would have allowed TEP Barnett to drill three more wells near the daycare center and homes.
As the leader of environmental advocacy group Liveable Arlington, Ranjana Bhandari advocated for the permit denial alongside Mother’s Heart founder Wanda Vincent. After hearing about the recent incident in east Fort Worth, Bhandari said there is a pattern of residents not having a defined pathway for getting their concerns heard by either the gas operator or the government.
“We’re often told there are no complaints, but people don’t know how to complain,” Bhandari said. “This is a complaint-driven system of cleaning the air. (Investigators) come out after the fact. By then, the evidence of the problem has blown away.”
Gas Drilling in Arlington
Arlington City Council unexpectedly denied a permit request to drill near a daycare and homes.
Arlington is facing a lawsuit from a daycare owner and environmental activists after approving more natural gas wells in November.
Texas would benefit greatly from expanded air monitoring, especially around industrial facilities known to generate large amounts of pollution, Bhandari said. The state should also require gas well sites to post an emergency phone number for residents to call if they need immediate help or seek to file a complaint regarding the site, she added.
TotalEnergies is currently expanding its footprint in Tarrant County. In January, Liveable Arlington tracked 14 new permit applications from TEP Barnett to drill in Arlington, alongside one in Fort Worth and two in White Settlement. While natural gas prices have surged in the past several months, Bhandari said Total has pursued more wells in the region for more than two years.
“It predates this spike in gas prices that people are noticing,” she said. “If people are looking at their utility bills from Atmos Energy, that’s completely unrelated to this. They’re drilling here and exporting it to world markets, and that’s even before the Russian aggression.”
As drilling expands, Fort Worth signs agreement to receive royalties
Bhandari remains concerned that residents are too often kept in the dark about the arrival of industrial facilities, particularly gas drilling sites, in their neighborhoods.
In the case of Mount Tabor in Stop Six, the original drill site was approved in the late 2000s and amended in 2010 to allow the operator at the time, Chesapeake Energy, to drill less than 600 feet from protected buildings, including homes, according to City Council minutes.
TEP Barnett, which obtained rights to drill at Mount Tabor, was allowed to drill four new wells without a public hearing since the permit request was approved through an internal administrative process.
A 2009 council action also allows Fort Worth to lease the mineral rights for city-owned properties that are five acres or smaller to gas companies without going through a council hearing process. The process was meant to “to allow staff to negotiate and expedite processing of small leases” during the Barnett Shale drilling boom of the late 2000s, according to a council document.
Last October, Fort Worth officials quietly approved a leasing agreement with TEP Barnett to receive royalties if new gas resources are discovered on city-owned property at the Mount Tabor site in the next two years.
Marilyn Schoening, a gas lease analyst in Fort Worth’s mineral management department, said the agreement was typical for the city, though leasing agreements have become less frequent since gas prices fell in the early 2010s.
“All we’re thinking about is how do we protect the interest of the city, the property that the city owns,” Schoening told the Report. “And then, of course, the revenue that we would get, that goes toward projects for taxpayers. It doesn’t pay a salary.”
Fort Worth’s oil and gas revenue fund often supports infrastructure improvements and initiatives like the Open Space Conservation Program, Schoening said. But James said she hasn’t seen the benefits of that revenue head to Stop Six.
“The community is suffering for your personal gain, but what did you do for the community with this money?” James said.
Still facing challenges, neighbors getting ‘good sleep’ now
Change is already afoot at the Mount Tabor site. Starting on Feb. 28, loud machines stopped buzzing during late night hours, said neighbor Dereck Collins, allowing residents to get their first restful nights of sleep in weeks.
On March 4, James filmed members of a cleanup crew who she said was paid by TEP Barnett to clean trash on the property.
“It’s been years, and we couldn’t get them to come clean this up,” James told followers on Facebook Live. “Now all of a sudden, I make a video, call the state, and y’all are out here cleaning.”
Not all is resolved in Stop Six. James fears retaliation from code compliance officers, who she said often ask her family about unrelated issues on their property when she calls for help.
Miller, the 96-year-old resident, said industrial trucks are tearing up what’s left of the roads. Collins has already spent more than $9,000 on repairs to his floors, walls and foundation, which he blames on cracks caused by the gas drilling and fracking near the neighborhood.
And even though James smelled fumes in the air the day after the smoke stopped, her fellow residents made sure she knew that she made a difference.
“I’ve had neighbors knocking on my door saying, ‘I got good sleep last night. I don’t got bags under my eyes. We were able to watch TV without turning it all the way up,’” she said. “So when I get ready to go to City Council, are you going to be there? They said: ‘Let us know when. Let us know when.’”
Haley Samsel is the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Contact her by email or via Twitter.
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