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Trailer Talk's Frack Talk: Why a Mayor Was Forced to Leave His Town Because of Gas Drilling

Major Calvin Tillman left his beloved community of Dish, Texas (that has 60 gas wells) to protect his family from the dangers of natural gas drilling.
 
 
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When the Mayor leaves town you know something is very wrong.

When residents of a community need water delivered that's also an indication.  

Do the gas companies expect us all to move, to leave our homes and neighborhoods?

It seems that this doesn't bother them at all, in fact if you think about it this makes the industrialization of the area more complete and grants even easier access to the shale gas operations. Major Calvin Tillman left his beloved community in the tiny town of 200 residents of Dish, Texas (that has 60 gas wells) to protect his family from the dangers of natural gas drilling. His two sons were getting sick from exposure to the shale gas industry in his community. They were waking up with nose bleeds and were having respiratory challenges among other adverse health impacts. So, like any responsible parent, in order to protect them and provide them with a better life he left. How many people are being ousted from their communities by this industry, what are the implications of these forced migrations by citizens throughout the country?  

A voice from the Barnett Shale to the Marcellus...Mayor of Dish, TX, Calvin Tillman and Sabrina Artel traveled to Dimock, PA in the winter of '09 where Calvin was bringing fresh water to the homes of some of the residents who lost their water since the natural gas drilling operations began in their town. In Dish where Calvin lives the rapid spread of drilling and well sites has created unsafe polluted air, a massive industrial site where their homes are located, loud disturbing sounds, children with frequent bloody noses, sick horses and a complete loss of quality of life. Calvin Tillman wanted to meet the people throughout the region of the Catskills of NY and the adversely impacted areas in Dimock, PA to offer his support and share any knowledge he's gained about fighting the gas companies. Since we traveled to Dimock Calvin has sold his home and had offered any gas executive his home to live in for one year free of rent (no takers) if gas drilling is so safe and pleasant to live with in your neighborhood.  

Calvin recently co-founded Shale Test with Tim Ruggiero, of Decatur, TX who also knows what life is like when industry moves in.ShaleTest.org is a new national group that has a mission: "To provide lower income and compromised individuals with environmental testing of their drinking water, air and soil that might have been impacted by natural gas development. Currently, Shale Test has testing volunteers in Texas, Pennsylvania and Arkansas, and is recruiting in other states. Calvin Tillman says, "I have seen a real weakness in the availability of quality environmental testing across the United States to all families, especially in lower income areas. Therefore, citizens must rely on poorly equipped and understaffed state agencies to protect them, Shale Test will level the playing field for these people."  

Mayor Calvin Tillman and Tim Ruggiero are on atour of the Marcellus (a fourth visit for Tillman) and are touring parts of PA and NY this week being hosted by community groups, Chenango Community Action for Renewable Energy (C-CARE), Un-Natural Gas.org and NYRAD in NY among other sponsoring groups. Here's what Calvin Tillman shared with Sabrina during their travels to Dimock, PA...  

Sabrina Artel: Welcome to Sabrina Artel's Trailer Talk. Trailer Talk's "The Marcellus Shale Water Project" is a combination of live events, sound pieces, radio broadcasts, home movies, and an evolving interactive web site that you're welcome to participate in. We're exploring the impact of natural gas drilling on New York's water resources, and the issues being debated in our neighborhoods throughout the country and globally.

What is guiding people's decisions about whether or not to lease their land for gas drilling? And at what point do the rights of the individual diminish in the face of the health of an entire area? What role does water itself have on the ability for an area to survive by providing for itself?

What impact is this having not only on the communities in the shale regions, but also on the national dialogue and policymaking decisions around energy extraction?

What defines the American dream, and how does it impact the decisions being made in our communities?

Trailer Talk's "Marcellus Shale Water Project" explores the impact of natural gas drilling in our neighborhoods. Local culture, generations of history, and beloved homes can be lost when the oil and gas companies, intent on fossil fuel extraction, move into a new region. We're facing a complete shift in our region as this largest-ever concentration of gas lies in wait beneath our feet.

With the Marcellus Shale Water Project, we are going to be exploring natural gas drilling in my neighborhood of the Sullivan County Catskills, the surrounding upstate New York areas, the Hudson River Valley, and Pennsylvania.

Alright. We are en route. We just crossed over the Delaware River in Narrowsburg, New York, in Sullivan County, and we're now heading into Pennsylvania, where they have begun the drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. And a map has been pulled out. What route is this?

So, we're on our way to Honesdale, Pennsylvania. We're on U.S. 6 on our way to Dimock, Pennsylvania, where they've been having reports of well water contamination, and we'll be meeting with some of the people there. And I have sitting next to me Mayor Calvin Tillman from Dish, Texas. So, it's great to meet a fellow Texan, and welcome you here to New York, and now onward we go into Pennsylvania.

So, Mayor Tillman, if you could share with me what brought you here into our neighborhood and to these communities, and what's been happening in Dish, Texas, with the natural gas drilling?

Calvin Tillman:Well, in Dish, Texas, we have every single aspect of the natural gas operations, from the drilling to the processing to the compression, to the odorizing. We have it all. And there's a lot of negative side effects to that that isn't always made clear in the beginning. And so, I'm hopeful to come up here to the Marcellus Shale and to be able to convey some of those negative side effects to the folks here, because here it hasn't gotten started as much as it has in Texas, so there may be an opportunity for the folks here to do something about it before it starts, 'cause if you wait too long, then you're going to clean up a mess instead of fixing it from the beginning. It's much easier if you can regulate it from the beginning and get some of the precursors in place.

Artel: So, when did this start in your town of Dish? How long have you lived there? A little bit of history about where you're from in Texas; you becoming the mayor; and why you wanted to become the mayor of your town. You talked about the shale -- the Marcellus Shale, which we have here. What kind of shale are you dealing with in your home town?

Tillman: We have the Barnett Shale, and the Barnett Shale is very similar to the Marcellus Shale in a lot of ways. And Dish is located in the very heart of the Barnett Shale. We are 15 miles from the very first well that was ever hydraulically fractured using the technologies that's used in all of the shales now. And so, we're about 25 miles directly north of Ft. Worth, Texas. They started drilling in our area about 15 years ago.

One unique thing about Dish is that we're on one of the pipeline routes coming out of the Barnett Shale, so on top of the drilling we have a very massive compressor station because we have 11 natural gas high-pressure 36-inch pipelines running through our community.

Artel: I'm from Texas originally. Still have a lot of my family living in Texas. It's kind of in the blood, isn't it, of the Texans? It's something that you have to deal with. So, what is your relationship with it? What was your attitude initially when this began happening in your town?

Tillman: Most of the folks ... Like you said, you live in Texas, you become accustomed to it, and it's something that everybody has grown accustomed to. They've been drilling in Texas for 100 years, so essentially the laws were written 100 years ago as well, and a lot of those laws are dated, and they're written for the Permian basin, where you're out in the middle of nowhere -- not for into close-knit areas around people and civilization.

Artel:Initially, were you open to the idea, then, of this drilling happening? Do you have drilling on your own land? Your town is a small one; if you could also share with us the population.

Tillman: We're about 2 square miles and 180 citizens that live in the corporate limits of Dish. On my property, I do not have anything. What we do have is, we have the air quality and some of those issues that have come across the fence to us.

To most people, initially, this looks like a very good benefit, especially on the economic side of things. It looks like it is just going to be an economic windfall, and the cost of that windfall don't catch up with you for a little while.

So, at first, it looked like everything was going great. Now the negative side effects are starting to catch up with us, and the costs for that windfall are starting to catch up with us.

Artel: What are some of those costs, and also, if you could talk a bit then from the initial drilling to the issues that you mentioned with the air? What's happening to the citizens of Dish? How can all of you fight now to protect your homes, your health, your property, your quality of life before the drilling began?

So, let's start there. I have so many questions because for all of us, when we're facing this drilling, there are so many issues that you already addressed -- the economic, right? So there's that hope that it will be helpful in that way. There's also that hopefulness that it couldn't be as bad as we hear happening throughout the country. And then there's also that thought I've heard people say, "Well, if there are troubles, they'll be fixed. These energy corporations will address them."

Tillman: Right. Well, when the drilling starts, you have one well, and that one well will have its side effects. As the pipelines start coming through -- and that's something that people always forget, is that they have to get the gas out of here to get it to market, and that's going to require a number of pipelines. It's going to require a massive underground highway to get this stuff out to market. And all along that route there's going to be compressors, there's going to be dehydration units that remove some of the impurities from the gas. That's going to be all along the route, and people seem to forget that.

Well, those companies have the power of imminent domain, and so it doesn't matter if you want them there or not. You don't have any choice in the matter.

So, let's take, for example, Dish. There is a major portion of our community, which is very much a rural community with large lots. There's a lot of it that can never be developed. These easements that are taken are permanent easements, and they're up to 100 or 120 feet ... 125 feet wide, and they're taken under the threat of imminent domain.

And so, that area will never be able to develop. You cannot even plant a tree on one of those easements. That's something that's not widely looked at because that can actually destroy the economic development of a community, and it has done a lot of that in Dish. There's a lot of our area that we will not be able to develop. And so, that costs the property owners hundreds of thousands of dollars in surface values. And a lot of stuff just isn't taken into account.

Artel: So, at first, would you say your town in Dish, Texas, with 180 or so citizens -- they were open to the idea of the drilling? Because I want to take us from the start to what you're dealing with right now.

Tillman: Yeah, absolutely. In Texas, we have a lot of split estates, so actually the folks who actually sold their minerals when this "gold rush" was going on -- most of those have moved off somewhere else. They have sold the surface, retained the minerals, and moved off somewhere else. And as that has continued to happen, the bitterness towards the industry has continued to grow.

And so, we have a pretty large portion of our community who feel like we've really been done wrong by this industry, and they're very bitter.

Artel:And they're bitter because they're getting sick breathing the air; because they can't leave even if they wanted to because their way of life has been radically shifted to a point of them not being able to have a good quality of life there? Share with us perhaps your own personal story about it, in addition to you being the mayor of Dish.

Tillman: Well, these companies come in here, and they're the 300-pound gorilla, and they just run all over you; they run all over your rights; they run over everything about your way of life. They seem to think it's okay to put a compressor in that constantly emits 100 decibels of noise, and emits carcinogenic toxins. They seem to think that that's okay, and that's well within their rights to do so, and they don't give us any relief. They act like they just have the right to continue to sacrifice us for the good of the shale.

Artel:And so, your sacrifice has been your having to listen to ... What is the equivalent sound of what you just described in terms of this 24-hour-a-day decibel? What is that like, then?

Tillman: I believe 85 decibels is your average lawnmower. So, they say you should wear hearing protection when you're mowing the lawn because that can cause hearing damage. And so, that would be something that it would be equivalent to. It's just this engine that's always roaring in the background.

Now, over the course of time, through several threatening letters and debates back and forth, we've managed to get some of the companies to install some noise abatement, but they still haven't enclosed it. They can make a compressor station that sounds very similar to the air conditioner on your home. They can make it that quiet. But they won't unless you make them. And we've had to fight and fight and fight, and we've had to spend money.

You talk about the economic benefits ... The town gets tax dollars from the drilling. The minerals are taxed at the same rate as the surface is taxed. And that's a benefit; that's money we got. In Dish, we've had to spend every bit of that money just to try to get the human rights that we should expect anywhere in the United States.

Artel: What company are you dealing with with this extraction of the natural gas?

Tillman: There are five companies that are involved in the compressor station. We have one driller. And there's a couple of other companies who have metering stations in the area. So I'll go through all of those.

The compressor station is Crosstex Energy; Chesapeake Energy; Atmos Energy; Energy Transfer; and Enbridge. The metering stations are owned by J-W Operating; Atmos; Crosstex; and Enterprise Texas Pipeline. And the driller, which, oddly enough, is the most reasonable one to deal with, is Devon Energy. And Devon Energy probably has a lot of things that they could do a lot better, but they voluntarily do green completions; they voluntarily don't flare; they voluntarily do a lot of things that you would have a hard time forcing the Chesapeakes of the world to do.

Artel: And speaking of Chesapeakes, I spoke with one of the representatives who is in New York at the DEC ... the first hearing with the Department of Environmental Conservation. So, I spoke with one of the representatives, and that was my first conversation with one of the natural gas representatives, and they really are good salespeople. I mean, that's their job, right? -- to sell this energy; to paint the picture that everything's going to be okay.

So, Chesapeake -- it's not been so easy, then, dealing with them?

Tillman: Well, Chesapeake and a few of the other companies ... whenever I really need someone who can make a decision, they typically send me a public relations person instead of a decision-maker, and you take that public relations person ... if it gets out of his 10 question/answers, he doesn't now the technical aspects of what's really going on. He is just that. He's a public relations person.

And with someone like Chesapeake Energy, Chesapeake has leveraged on the prospects of their wells and how much those wells are going to produce, that it wouldn't take much for them to be in a bankruptcy situation, or something of the sorts, where they may go off and sell all your leases off to somebody else, and you don't know who they're going to sell it to. They're going to sell it to whoever's going to pay them for it. And so, that's one of the things about Chesapeake that folks need to really know, is that they are very highly leveraged and they're not very well-managed.

Artel: And that definitely presents a very potentially detrimental situation for a county, for a town, in trying to manage the economics of their town.

So, you mentioned the noise pollution. You mentioned air quality that's happening. Could you elaborate a bit about, then ... what's happening, then, with the air that you're breathing in Dish?

Tillman: The gas at the well sites are not odorized, so you have a difficult time knowing that you're getting emissions off of the well site 'cause it's just not odorized unless you're right up on top of it. However, this massive site that they've allowed to be permitted is huge and there's so many emission sources that can possibly come from.

But what you have is, you have five independently permitted sites, and they're all permitted under a "permit by rule" which means if you don't reach a certain emissions threshold, then you just fill out an application, send it into the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, and they'll send you back a permit. And individually, each one of these sites qualify for that; however, collectively, they are well above it in some categories, and they're double the limit in a very key category, and that is volatile organic compounds. Volatile organic compounds are your BTEX chemicals -- your benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylenes. Those are well-known carcinogens -- well-documented carcinogens.

So, the state has allowed them to install this right next to our community, and so there was an odor problem that was coming from this site, and we tried to get the state regulators to come out; we tried to get the operators to clean it up; and they refused for a long time. They refused to admit that they had any problems.

And then they came to me, and I believe it was actually headed up by Chesapeake Energy to do a study, and that really made me feel good, 'cause we had worked with them and tried to develop a reasonable relationship with them through this process, and they had told me that they were going to do an independent air study, and they were going to find the source of this odor.

And so, their idea of an independent comprehensive air study was that they put a gas detection unit in the back of a vehicle very similar to the one we're riding in right now, and drove around our town for a couple of hours, and then they declared that there was no problem. And so, not only did they assert that this was just a figment of our imagination, but they also tried to intentionally deceive us.

The trust was severed at that point, and we moved forward and we had our own independent air study done, and we're a very small town with a very small budget. But we spent 15% of that budget to perform an independent air study.

Artel:What is your total budget?

Tillman: $70,000, roughly.

Artel: So, roughly $70,000 budget, and you had to spend 15% of that for this own privately funded air quality study. So, what did that study determine?

Tillman: Well, it was always my assertion that there was gas leaking over on this site. And so, we did get methane. But the other things we got were something that I never could have imagined, and that was those carcinogens and neurotoxins. The most well-known thing that was detected was benzene, and it was detected at very elevated levels. There were some carcinogens that were well above the effect-screening levels some 100 times the effect-screening levels for long-term exposure.

Artel: And long-term exposure, we're talking cancers, right? I mean, these are endocrine disrupters. So, all kind of health issues have been noted with exposure to these carcinogens.

So, here you are, and you're being exposed to these potentially deadly chemicals. You're having to listen to this horrific noise 24 hours a day. Your town has had to spend 15% of their budget now to deal with these energy companies. So, so far it's not looking good, this picture, right?

What else? I notice there are other issues that you're dealing with. What about the animals in your town?

Tillman: Well, this compressor site was moved in right next to a horse ranch, and as this thing continued to grow, the owner of that horse ranch started to experience some problems with his horses. And so, he had a couple of horses that aborted their foals -- a couple of mares that aborted their foals. And he had a couple of other horses -- one of the horses went blind; another one had some neurological problems and had to be put down; and another one died of some respiratory problems, so I think that was five total.

The key point to that is that right before this all happened, he spent $350,000 to build a big boarding facility, 'cause we're right on the edge of the Metroplex, so that would be the perfect place for people to board their horses if they lived in town. Well, of course, now nobody wants to keep their horses there, so that $350,000 barn is sitting there empty.

Artel:What does he do in this sort of case? What kinds of rights do they have when they have a situation like this? They can't sell; they sunk their money in; they've lost that. Their animals have died. What can they do?

Tillman: The only thing you can do at that point is a very long and costly lawsuit, and that's what he's doing. He is in litigation with them, and who knows when that will ever get settled? In the meanwhile, he lives there; he's subject to this; and he can't move anywhere else.

Artel:Well, that's what I was going to say, is that this is now ... You're all situated in a toxic town, so your homes have all become potentially deadly, and you can't get out, can you?

Tillman:Well, no. It's very difficult to sell a home in Dish right now.

Artel: So, this is something I think is very important for me to hear, for all of us to hear, isn't it? -- that on so many levels there are detrimental issues that are being caused by this industry. So, there are the health issues, which are very serious -- nobody wants to get cancer or a respiratory illness, or some sort of endocrine illness. Nobody wants to hear noise 24 hours a day ... not to be able to breathe because of respiratory difficulty. And then to be stuck there because you can't sell your house.

Tillman:Yeah, that's exactly right. And I think a key thing here is that Dish, Texas, is not the only place where this is a problem. Dish, Texas, is the only place that it's known, and Dish, Texas, has a mayor who's willing to fight for that.

And so, I think at the end of the day, we're going to end up getting this site cleaned up; we're going to make them put in the things that they need to have done to at least clean up our air quality to some extent. We are getting a permanent monitor installed in Dish that is a continuous air monitor, that will monitor the air there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and you can get on the internet and look at that anytime.

There's a lot of other places that won't have that. They won't know what's in their air. They have children living in subdivisions that are exposed to this kind of stuff. They're the ones that need help as well, because they don't even know how bad it is.

Artel: So, you're saying that the workers don't know how bad it is. Is that what you're saying?

Tillman: I'm saying that there is a lot of other communities in the Barnett Shale who have the same problems, but they haven't went out and spent 15% of their budget, and their mayor hasn't been as aggressive as I've been to get something done and to try and protect the citizens. And so, they're still living with it; they're living with an unknown.

Artel:And so, you're away, then, Mayor Tillman ... as you say, you're the "fighting mayor," right? This is happening and you're standing by your town, and you have two small children as well, right? So you have a family, you have two small children. You're protecting their lives, their future. What interests me is, how did you make that choice? What was your life pre-becoming Mayor Calvin Tillman, and now, and your life pre-gas drilling to now? And what has led you to say, "You know what? I'm digging my heels in; I'm not leaving, even at great loss to myself because I can sell, but somehow I'm going to figure out a way to get out, but I'm staying, and I'm protecting my home"?

Tillman: Well, prior to being mayor, I was on our Board of Commissioners in the town, and so when I decided to be mayor, it was highly because of the issues that we had from the compressor station. And so, I've seen the way that everybody was getting treated, and so I got more and more involved, became more and more vocal, became the leader of the community on the issue.

So, when I became mayor, it wasn't that big of a deal at the time as far as more of my personal time. But as I've continued to get into this, it's gotten bigger.

First off, the site has continued to grow. We've been continually inundated with more and more and more of this stuff to make it unbearable. We have been sacrificed. And when you try and get these companies to just do what any reasonable American should do to his neighbor, they just won't do it. And so, that is what has forced me to take the positions that I have taken, and to be as aggressive as I have been -- just to get them to do what any reasonable respectable company would do.

When I'm coming to places like here, I want you to know what has happened so that maybe you can prevent it from happening to you, so that you don't have to worry about your children or your neighbors or your animals or yourself.

Artel:So, what can we do? What can anyone do that is now dealing with the possibility and/or dealing with the gas drilling?

Tillman: Well, in a lot of areas up here, you're fortunate enough to not have started yet. And the best way to not have that is to fix it before it starts. Make these companies be responsible before they get in here because, otherwise like I stated before, you're going to be cleaning up a mess somewhere down the line. So, that's the best way.

For those who have already been affected, such as those in the Dimock, Pennsylvania, area, that's tough. They're faced with that same legal battle that Lloyd Burgess is faced with in Dish, Texas.

The town of Dish has been inundated with public information request after public information request after public information request, asking for personal medical information of my citizens; my personal e-mails; things such as that. And when we come to an agreement over something ... Let's say there was a health assessment done, and so we gave them some of that data, but it didn't have anybody's name, age, address. Well, they come back ... They agreed to that. They said, "Yeah, that's fine; we don't want that information." Well, then, when I don't give them the information they come back and they threaten to sue me. They threaten to turn me into the Attorney General for not giving required information to them.

And so, now, that has went from the companies and the organizations that I'm dealing with to national groups who represent these companies, who are personally attacking me and trying to make out that I'm some sort of environmental whacko, and things like that.

And so, you know, that's okay. I can deal with personal attacks. So be it. As long as we get something done and people give me a chance and take a look at what I have to say, I think you'll see that I'm a realist and that there's a lot of good information that people in this area can learn from.

Artel: Mayor Calvin Tillman, thank you so much. I know you're going off now to more meetings with people, and your presentation. But I wanted to thank you for taking your time today and for sharing with us what's happening in Dish, Texas.

Tillman: Sure. I'm glad to do it. And like I said, hopefully this can make some changes, and people will at least get to thinking about this stuff. So, I really thank you for coming along with me, and I thank everybody for touring me around. This Dimock tour was very enlightening. It's a sad situation, what these people got going on here. It's an unfair situation. As I said before, just like Dish, Texas, they've been sacrificed for the good of the shale.

Artel:Since Mayor Calvin Tillman and I traveled to Dimock, Pennsylvania, in February, his children have been having frequent nosebleeds, and health issues are rising throughout his community in Dish, Texas, in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area. Calvin Tillman has sadly put his house on the market, and is attempting to sell it. He has made an offer to the gas executives to live in his house, all expenses paid, for one year if natural gas drilling is so safe. So far, no takers.

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Sabrina Artel is the creator and host of Trailer Talk, stories from America's kitchen table. Her weekly radio show explores community engagement through conversations about culture, politics, the arts and the environment. To find out more about Trailer Talk's Frack Talk Marcellus Shale Water Project please visit Trailer Talk.
 
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