At first, residents living near the Home Run natural gas drilling site in west Fort Worth thought the mist they could see from their windows was a welcome rain.
About 10 a.m. on April 25, small business consultant Tiffany Myles realized it wasn’t typical precipitation. From her townhome across the street, she could hear a loud roaring noise at the TEP Barnett site, which sits right behind the Fairview Retirement Community apartment complex on 7832 Chapin Road.
By the time she left to pick up her daughters from school at 3 p.m. that Monday afternoon, the mist was thicker and emitted a disturbing smell. The Myles family cars were covered in the substance, which had solidified and became difficult to remove. She compared it to an ice storm covering everything in its path.
“The smell was like tooth enamel burning,” Myles said. “I was walking with a cup of water, and when I got in the car and went to drink, it was salty and bitter. My husband even tasted some of the spray to see what it was, and it made his tongue burn.”
Upon her return to the townhome community – on the Benbrook side of Chapin Road that separates Fort Worth and the small suburb – Myles said a Fort Worth police officer told her there was some kind of “explosion risk” stemming from a gas well incident.
The officer didn’t know more details than that, Myles said. She quickly packed clothes for her family to spend the night at her in-laws’ home.
“My anxiety was through the roof,” Myles recalled. “What kind of ‘explosion risk’ had we been sitting in all morning?”
In the two weeks since the incident, Myles and her neighbors report having more questions than answers from TEP Barnett, the Fort Worth arm of French energy giant Total Energies and the leading force behind a natural gas drilling resurgence in Tarrant County.
Among the concerns shared by people living in the Western Hills area are the long-term effects of the incident on their vehicles, soil quality and ability to live without fear near the gas drilling site, which is just over a quarter-mile from Fort Worth ISD’s Western Hills High School.
Several residents, including those living at Fairview Retirement Community, were told by TEP Barnett representative Craig Overcash that the white substance on their cars was “saltwater” that rose to the surface during the incident. Overcash did not return a phone call requesting comment.
Vegetation outside the Fairview complex, where rent for elderly residents is subsidized through a Department of Housing and Urban Development program, looks like “it’s been in a grass fire,” said Billie Jean Baker, who has lived there since November. Seniors living at the complex lost power for nearly a full day, from Monday morning to the early hours of Tuesday, Baker said.
TEP Barnett provided meals, flashlights and vouchers to pay for car washes and refrigerated food that went bad during the power outage, Baker said.
But some meals didn’t reach elderly residents who couldn’t hear door knocks above the roar of the drill site. Some residents couldn’t find their way in the dark or had trouble climbing stairs without elevator access, leading Baker to help “direct traffic” in the dim hallways. The heat without air conditioning drove Baker to temporarily leave the complex overnight.
“They should have called to have this place evacuated,” she said. “We have air conditioning vents that open to the outside. (Overcash) says it’s not toxic, but what if it had been? We’re breathing this in.”
Some residents were also disconcerted with how they were informed – or not informed – by government agencies about what was going on outside their front door. Anne Mattern, a retired infection preventionist who lives in Benbrook, said she was told to keep moving on when she asked a Fort Worth police officer near the site if she should be concerned for her health.
“People have lost electricity, people have lost water, and their repair is to power wash all of this fluid and aerosolize (disperse) this stuff, which makes it worse because you’re breathing it in,” Mattern said. “And then there’s the safety of individuals that still are exposed to the chemicals that are inside of their cars, plants and homes. We already have enough pollution in this area.”
TEP Barnett: Incident caused by ‘unexpected pressures’ at Chapin Road gas well
On April 25, crews were preparing to replace equipment within the borehole of the gas well when they encountered “unexpected pressures,” resulting in water and gas rising above the ground, said Tricia Fuller, a TEP Barnett spokesperson.
Staff stabilized the well later that same day. The incident did not involve active drilling or hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, she added.
TEP Barnett notified all relevant authorities, Fuller said, including Fort Worth’s gas well inspection team, the Fort Worth fire department and the Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas activity in Texas. Residents also filed complaints with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which sent staff to the site on April 26, Fuller said.
“We have been actively meeting and working with nearby residents since April 25 to provide support,” Fuller wrote in an email. “We also are in contact with city and government officials to ensure they are briefed with the most up-to-date information.”
Communications staff for Fort Worth’s fire department or police department did not respond to emails requesting comment. A Fort Worth communication officer referred the Report to those departments.
Gas well inspectors for the city did not respond to a request for comment. Natalie Carter, a spokeswoman for Fort Worth’s development services department, which includes the gas well inspection team, confirmed an inspector was on scene for three to four days “out of an abundance of caution.” All air and water quality testing was conducted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, she said.
Gary Rasp, a spokesman for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, confirmed that DFW regional staff received complaints regarding the incident and investigated at the site on April 26. The investigation remains ongoing, he said.
“A layer of grey/white material was observed on surfaces surrounding the natural gas site,” Rasp wrote by email. “The investigator monitored for volatile organic compounds and did not detect any readings. No odor was detected during the investigation.”
Mattern reported the incident to the Environmental Protection Agency’s North Texas office, but had not heard back as of May 5. An EPA Region 6 spokesperson did not return a request for comment.
Myles spent several days communicating with neighbors on the Nextdoor app and trying to find out more information from Tarrant County’s public health staff, the TCEQ and the city of Fort Worth’s gas well inspection team. At every turn, she said, her questions were passed to another department.
“No one seems to have known anything,” Myles said. “It still is a nightmare. We were so comfortable here. When things like this happen, do they think that it’s OK and they just keep going about business as if we aren’t here?”
‘Saltwater’ was white substance covering vehicles, grass
What explains the mysterious substance covering vehicles and gardens across the area? Fuller said “elevated levels of salt” came from the water that is “naturally produced” from gas wells. She did not elaborate about whether TEP Barnett had further details on the contents of the fluid.
Gas drilling operators use “saltwater” as a catch-all term for different types of waste that come from the hydraulic fracturing process, according to reporting by Chemical & Engineering News and Inside Climate News.
Those types can include “produced water,” or the naturally occurring briny water in oil and gas formations that can contain heavy metals and radioactive material; “flowback,” a mixture of produced water and fracking fluids, including sand and chemical additives; or produced water that has been treated to remove almost everything but salt to be reused during the fracking process.
Industry wastewater is five to eight times saltier than the saltwater found in the ocean, U.S. Geological Survey hydrogeologist emeritus Bill Kappel told Inside Climate News.
The fluid is salty enough to sting the tongue, featuring heavy metals that may not meet drinking water standards, according to Kappel, who added: “You don’t want to be drinking this stuff.” Scientists continue to study the composition of fracking wastewater, which varies by company due to proprietary formulas used by different drillers.
TEP Barnett has hired an independent arborist to identify how the operator can support impacts to trees or vegetation and offer residents an opportunity to decide how to move forward, Fuller said. A third party environmental study requested by TEP Barnett after the event showed elevated levels of salt in the surrounding areas, she added.
“We are continuing to work with stakeholders to review the impact and to put in place any further measures,” Fuller said. “We are actively investigating the cause of the incident to ensure such a well control issue does not happen again.”
Soil samples, property damage and unanswered questions
In the days following the incident, crews hired by TEP Barnett power washed cars, porches, grass and bushes up and down Chapin Road, Myles said. No one asked for permission to do so, she said, and it felt as though the company was trying to “get rid of all the evidence” of what happened.
Like other neighbors, Myles has spoken with Overcash about TEP Barnett paying to replace the soil and other equipment in her garden. At Fairview Retirement Community, Baker – a former hospital worker – has advised friends to take chest X-rays now and follow up in a few months to check for health issues.
She and her friend Roseanne McKee have also refused to accept vouchers to pay for car detailing until they know the full extent of the damage to their vehicles.
“I’m a senior citizen on a limited income,” McKee said. “I can’t afford to buy a new car.”
McKee praised Overcash, the TEP Barnett representative, for his response to a chaotic situation inside Fairview. But she wants to know more about what the company plans to do to make up for the damages, including potential issues with the apartment’s roof and landscaping. Fuller said TEP Barnett continues to offer payments for car washes, patio furniture cleaning or “other such environmental support.”
Baker’s daughter, Bethany Sanchez, sought legal advice after becoming frustrated with a lack of information from TEP Barnett. At an April 28 town hall at Fairview, Overcash declined to answer questions about what happened at the site, Sanchez said.
The entire presentation, which originally promised to feature TEP Barnett’s chief executive, lasted less than five minutes, Sanchez said.
“How dangerous is what they’re living next to?” she asked. “Did they drill so far down that it could now happen again? What was about to happen that night that they don’t want to tell anybody what happened?”
After speaking with Overcash in the days following April 25, Myles allowed TEP Barnett to take about 12 jars of soil samples from her home. She requested to see any scientific analyses that were produced by the company.
But she’s not so sure she can trust TEP Barnett’s analysis. Myles collected her own samples of salt content, soil and oily residue that stuck to her car, gardening equipment and tree leaves. Propelled by her frustration with a lack of transparency from TEP Barnett or government officials, she’s still exploring options for testing the samples for contaminants,
“We need to know the makeup of what that mixture is and what are the long-term impacts,” Myles said. “We have a hen in the back. Our neighbors have horses back here. I don’t want to wake up one day and see dead animals.”
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. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.