Nat gas feud pits prosperous N. Texans against energy industry *updated*

By Ronnie Crocker
Houston Chronicle

ARGYLE — For Kelly Gant, the end of the rainbow beckoned from a former pasture subdivided into one-acre lots for high-dollar houses.

Gant, a structural engineer by training, and her husband had researched the towns and suburbs surrounding Dallas-Fort Worth before settling on this one 13 years earlier. The Denton County community offered the comfortable, laid-back lifestyle they wanted and quality public schools for the children they planned to start having.

A girl and a boy came right on schedule, and by 2008 the family was hunting around Argyle for a bigger house. They put money down on one with cathedral ceilings and an azure pool that transforms a lush backyard into a kind of sanctuary.

They moved in six months later, pinching themselves at the turn their charmed life had taken.

Soon, however, they found themselves coughing, wheezing and caught up in a growing conflict pitting some prosperous North Texas homeowners against energy companies drilling the Barnett Shale and its rich, millenniums-old vein of oil and natural gas encased in rock.

Aided by advances in an extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing, the area is experiencing a natural-gas boom. Disputes have followed, from urbanized areas in Fort Worth, to modest family horse farms in Wise County, to subdivisions with names like Badminton Estates that are moving Argyle beyond its rural roots.

The first thing the Gants noticed after moving into their dream home two years ago was soaplike bubbles floating off the drainpipes during a rain. Then came the asthma attacks and headaches; the debilitating vertigo that kept the lithe, athletic Gant in bed for days at a stretch; the weird rashes that resisted all but the most powerful steroid treatments. There were visits to the allergist, the dermatologist and specialists in pulmonology and internal medicine.

Kelly Gant, 44, holds a photograph of a natural-gas flare at a well near her home in Argyle. Gant took the photo from her daughter's bedroom window. (Photo: Ronnie Crocker/Houston Chronicle )

“The doctors all asked what I’d been exposed to,” says Gant, 44 and a stay-at-home mom. “I couldn’t tell them because they won’t tell us what we’re being exposed to. But I smell things.”

What she does know is there are more than 30 wells pumping natural gas within two miles of her home and a big processing unit and tank farm a quarter-mile away.

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The industry insists that hydraulic fracturing, popularly referred to as “fracking,” has a safe record spanning 60 years. Well casings reinforced with steel and concrete have proved effective in keeping methane and fluids used in the fracking process from leaching into the water table, said Chris Tucker of the pro-industry group Energy in Depth, based in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, advances in flaring and capturing emissions have helped maintain air quality within regulated norms, said Deb Hastings, vice president for environmental affairs for the Texas Oil & Gas Association.

Both insist that the industry has a vested interest in making the nation’s 480,000 natural-gas wells run as cleanly and efficiently as possible. They have an interest, too, in looking out for property owners.

“We’re neighbors to a lot of these folks and we want them to be comfortable with this,” said Hastings.

She was one of four industry representatives appearing before the Texas Senate’s Natural Resources Committee on Thursday to testify in favor of a Republican-sponsored, House-passed bill that would require companies that bust up the shale through hydraulic fracturing to disclose what chemicals they use.

The additives help get water and sand into rock crevices under enough pressure to release pockets of gas.

The bill, still pending in the Senate committee which was reported out of committee Monday, would exempt chemicals considered trade secrets. But Hastings said the transparency would vindicate industry and be “a game-changer when it comes to debunking myths.”

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Don’t mention myths to Sharon Wilson. As organizer for the Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project, she spends much of her time investigating and highlighting the concerns raised by Gant and others who live, work and send their kids to school near the ubiquitous drilling rigs, production wells and compression stations that have cropped up in recent years.

She recently led a reporter on a tour, heading southwest from Denton on U.S. 377, past numerous sites on both sides of the highway. She said she is skeptical that the Texas Legislature can draft meaningful rules or that regulators can enforce them.

“People will think they’re protected,” she said of the disclosure bill, “but they’re really not protected.”

A yard sign in front of Michael and Susan Knoll's house describes their feelings toward natural-gas drilling near residential areas. (Photo: Ronnie Crocker/Houston Chronicle )

Before stopping to see Gant, Wilson swung by Michael and Susan Knoll’s elegant home in a nearby subdivision that Michael Knoll discovered while training for a bicycle race.

He said he has sunk $1.2 million into the two-acre property over the last four and a half years, building a house, landscaping it and putting in an irrigation system for a small vineyard he and his wife had wanted to plant.

They gave up on the vineyard after their well-water started foaming and their dog developed a rare form of cancer they were told is typically caused in humans by radiation exposure.

The family became aware of the wells that surround them in 2009, the Knolls said, the year before the dog got sick. Sometimes they’d wake up at night coughing; visitors said they felt funny, too.

One day that summer, what Susan Knoll described as a flowing river of drilling mud spilled onto their property from a nearby rig and a work crew hustled in with sandbags to keep the muck at bay.

“That’s when we really started noticing things,” said Michael Knoll.

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In the unincorporated community of Allison in adjacent Wise County, Tim and Christine Ruggiero shared similar stories, and videos, documenting the noise, the troubling results of private water testing, and visits from Texas Commission on Environmental Quality investigators with infrared cameras.

At each stop on Wilson’s tour, talk inevitably turned to the odors, often redolent of petroleum products but running an unpleasant gamut from burned tires to rotten eggs, vomit, sweet antifreeze and wet cat litter. Christine Ruggiero said it’s often kind of “propaney” and leaves her with a headache.

Whether the chemicals producing these odors and possibly fouling the water wells are making people or their animals sick is another matter.

The industry says no. But for these families, it remains an open debate.