Texas town warns of woes from gas exploration

Pipes and a compressor site in Dish, Texas, where residents claim damage to livestock and trees. In Pennsylvania, the PUC is studying the pipeline companies´ power of eminent domain. Page D5.
Pipes and a compressor site in Dish, Texas, where residents claim damage to livestock and trees. In Pennsylvania, the PUC is studying the pipeline companies' power of eminent domain. Page D5. ANDREW MAYKUTH / Staff

DISH, Texas - Five natural-gas compressor sites stand at the edge of this North Texas town. Residents say the quarter-mile-long complex is ugly, noisy and smelly.

Pipes and a compressor site in Dish, Texas, where residents claim damage to livestock and trees. In Pennsylvania, the PUC is studying the pipeline companies´ power of eminent domain. Page D5. Gallery: Texas town warns of woes from gas exploration

But it's what they can't smell that they fear most.

Mayor Calvin Tillman says carcinogenic air pollution from natural gas has ruined the quality of life in this semirural town of 180 people, which sits atop the Barnett Shale formation. The geology is similar to Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale, where gas exploration is in its infancy.

Angered, he says, because gas operators and regulators have dismissed the town's complaints, Tillman has vowed to push back. He has launched a campaign in Pennsylvania and New York to warn residents here about the dangers in the gas boom.

On an East Coast visit last month, Tillman received a hero's welcome from environmentalists who want a moratorium on drilling. He is visiting again this week, and is scheduled to speak Friday night at Temple University.

On his blog, Tillman says the purpose of his visit is "to inform citizens of negative side effects of natural-gas operations, as well as suggesting steps to make the process be accomplished responsibly and respectfully."

The David-and-Goliath campaign has attracted the industry's attention.

"How many mayors of little towns would go on speaking tours of the Northeast states?" asked Ed Ireland, executive director of the industry-funded Barnett Shale Energy Education Council in Fort Worth.

Some industry supporters portray Tillman as a fearmongering tool for anti-drilling activists, and have attacked a study Dish commissioned last year that found elevated emissions near the compressors. It identified benzene, a carcinogen, as the big worry.

Energy in Depth, an industry Web site, aimed a series of snarky questions at Tillman before his last trip East, saying his talk "should be quite the show."

Tillman shot back online, remarking that "my knowledge level on shale gas far outweighs most of those who work in the industry."

Tillman, 37, an aviation-safety expert in his private life, moved to Dish in 2003 and was elected to the unpaid mayor's job in 2007. "Most people moved out here to get away from it all," he said.

Dish occupies about two square miles and has little commerce and no real center, except for an airstrip for crop dusters. It has a mixture of small farms, manufactured housing, and suburban homes. Residents incorporated the town about 10 years ago because they feared being annexed by Fort Worth, whose northern limits are 11 miles away.

Dish was originally named Clark, but sold its name in 2005 to a satellite-television company in a promotional exchange that brings each household free TV service.

The area around Dish is dotted with natural-gas wells. The most prominent feature of the fenced-off wellheads are 10-foot-high olive-green tanks to collect the liquids that come up with the gas.

Tillman does not have many complaints about the wells - most are outside Dish. His concern is the labyrinth of small underground pipelines that converge on the town to connect with major high-pressure pipelines that transport the fuel to distant markets.

Before gas is pumped into the pipelines, it's compressed in machines whose constant drone and mysterious emissions have raised fears.

Lloyd Burgess, whose 30-acre farm adjoins one compressor, pointed to dead trees that mark the property line.

"If it kills trees, how can it be good for people?" he asked. "What's it doing to my health?

Burgess says he's not an anti-drilling zealot. A burly man who breeds quarter horses and owns a trucking company, he displays hunting trophies in his office and carries a plastic bottle for spitting tobacco juice. Without the energy industry, he says, "unemployment would probably be 15 percent in Texas."

But since the compressors moved in, some horses have fallen ill, and he developed asthma and other ailments.

"Everybody who works here suddenly has allergy problems. It's like Three Mile Island. Who wants to live here?"

Burgess and others have sued to recover lost property value. "They just ought to buy the whole town," he said.

Dish's claims received media attention after the town council hired an environmental firm to collect one-day air samples near the compressors in August. High levels of 15 chemicals, including benzene, were found.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality then conducted air studies at 94 sites in the region and found two with very high levels of benzene. Nineteen others had levels that caused concern. The industry said it corrected the leaks that caused the major emissions.

"We want to fix the problems," said Patrick Nugent, executive director of the Texas Pipeline Association. "We want to get it all sorted out so we can move on."

This month, the commission installed an air monitor near the compressors to test for contaminants.

And in the latest development, the Texas Department of State Health Services notified 28 Dish residents this month of test results on samples of their blood, urine and tap water. Though the results are ambiguous, they have raised new concerns.

Allison Lowery, a department spokeswoman, said that half the residents had compounds at or below levels expected for the general population. Half had "slightly elevated" levels, she said.

Four residents tested positive for benzene. All were smokers - tobacco is one potential source of benzene.

Lowery said epidemiologists were studying the results and would report their findings in several weeks. She cautioned that the tests were not designed to identify the source of any contaminants.

But she noted there were inconsistencies in the compounds found in the residents with slightly elevated levels, suggesting that no single source was to blame.

She also noted that the state tested five health workers before they visited Dish in January and found some of the same compounds, suggesting that the source was not unique to Dish. Possible sources include automobile exhaust, wood burning, household products, and gasoline.

Though Tillman's blood and urine came in below levels expected for the general population, he is still worried. "I'm not sure I'm going to be able to live here," he said earlier this week.

His newest concern is the water.

The health department's tests found some contaminants in residents' well water, Lowery said, but none at unsafe levels. The source of the contaminants is not known, she said.

Tillman's water tested positive for traces of three contaminants, all below federal legal limits for public water: styrene was 3,700 times below the limit; ethylbenzene was 28,000 times below the limit, and xylenes were 47,393 times below the legal limit.

"The most disturbing is the toxins found in our water," Tillman said in an e-mail. "They should not be there at all. Not sure what to do about that."


If You Go

Calvin Tillman is scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. Friday at the Temple University Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, 1947 N. 12th St. Information: Philadelphia Clean Air Council, www.cleanair.org.

Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.