Thousands of Arlington’s schoolchildren are exposed to fracking fumes, report warns

More than half of Arlington’s public school children attend classes within half a mile of a natural gas drilling site, prompting concerns about the effects of fracking on their health, according to a new report published Tuesday.

A year-long investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting — which produces the popular news podcast Reveal — found that more than 30,000 Arlington kids go to school near a drilling site. Up to 7,600 infants and toddlers are dropped off at private daycares within the same half-mile radius of drilling, according to the center’s analysis.

The new data comes as Total, a French energy company which operates under the name TEP Barnett in North Texas, continues to expand natural gas drilling throughout Tarrant County, particularly in Arlington. The growing city of 400,000 is home to 52 drilling sites and hundreds of wellheads, many of which are earning greater scrutiny from activists, local officials and daycare operators worried about the impact of gas drilling fumes on public health.

Tarrant County, home to just over 4,000 wellheads, has the highest rate of birth defects among large counties in Texas, according to the center’s analysis. Drilling is also concentrated in neighborhoods where the majority of residents are people of color and lower-income, said Ranjana Bhandari, an activist interviewed extensively for the report published in the Texas Observer and Mother Jones.

As executive director of the environmental advocacy group Liveable Arlington, Bhandari has led several actions to increase the distance between school-aged children and natural gas drilling, pointing to scientific studies linking close proximity to drill sites with higher rates of childhood asthma, leukemia and birth defects.

Emissions from drill sites can include exhaust from diesel trucks or rigs as well as the chemicals used to frack, a method of drilling that involves injecting water, sand and chemicals into the ground to extract gas and petroleum.

“The public health research has already been presented to our city council, to people who make these decisions, so in some sense it shouldn’t be new,” Bhandari told the Star-Telegram. “I hope this will encourage them to think differently, because this is critical to the wellbeing of Arlington that we don’t keep worsening inequality and that we don’t keep adding to the health burdens that people already face because of environmental issues.”

In 2016, Johns Hopkins University researchers found that treatments for asthma, including hospitalizations and prescriptions, increased in areas of Pennsylvania where fracking had been introduced. But they backed away from stating what specifically caused those symptoms.

City officials are certainly concerned with the health of children and daycare operators, said Richard Gertson, Arlington’s assistant director of planning and development. But when it comes to what the city can do about drilling regulations, Arlington and other municipalities are limited by a state law known as House Bill 40, he said.

The 2015 law prohibited cities from banning drilling within city limits, as Denton did in 2014, and from implementing any regulations that are not “commercially reasonable.”

“It’s just the regulatory environment that we operate in is such that we can impose and enforce certain types of restrictions up to a point, but it can never rise to the point of a ban on gas well drilling,” Gertson said in an interview. “Regardless of how we feel about the health issue, we cannot do it.”

Kevin Strawser, a senior manager for government relations and public affairs at Total, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. He provided a statement to the Center for Investigative Reporting, in part stating that the multinational company works “diligently to ensure the safety and quality of life for our neighbors near our sites.”

“We operate our sites in a safe and environmentally responsible way that is compliant with the requirements of our business,” Strawser said.

Total’s controversial history in Arlington

Bhandari and fellow environmental activists in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex have also been critical of the city’s relationship with oil and gas industry representatives, including those from Total and the Texas Oil and Gas Association.

Amid vocal protests from residents, City Council members voted in June 2020 to deny a permit allowing Total to construct new gas wells near a residential area and just over 600 feet away from Mother’s Heart Learning Center.

There is no statewide law in Texas governing how far back natural gas drilling should be from buildings or “protected uses” like schools and hospitals. In other states. such as Colorado, state officials are establishing stricter regulations that prohibit new wells from being constructed within 2,000 feet of a home or school.

A few months after the rejection of Total’s application, the company received “administrative approval” for seven new gas wells at its existing Rocking Horse drilling site, near the municipal airport and day care center Childcare Network. The permits were not subject to a council hearing process because Total already received a permit in 2013 to drill in the area and council members had already voted to allow fast-tracked approval of permits, Gertson said at the time.

The incident, which sparked outrage among Liveable Arlington members and other environmental groups, prompted former council member and mayoral candidate Marvin Sutton to introduce an amendment to the city’s gas drilling ordinance. That change, approved in March, aimed to increase the amount of distance between daycare centers and gas drilling by requiring companies to measure 600 feet between a designated playground area and the company’s established “drilling zone.”

But Sutton and Bhandari were frustrated when the city made significant changes to the amendment after consulting with oil and gas industry representatives. Total officials were concerned that two existing sites would not have the ability to apply for permits if setbacks were measured between the daycare property boundary and their drill zones. That’s when playgrounds were added to the ordinance, according to a February staff report.

In emails obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, Arlington officials appear concerned that Total and other drillers could pursue legal action to challenge the ordinance if it were passed in its original form.

“I know staff is and will continue to look for possible solutions to avoid a potential legal conflict,” Galen Gatten, the city’s land use attorney, wrote in an email to Total representatives on Feb. 11.

Arlington staff members did not consult daycare operators because “they certainly already had an advocate” in Sutton and other council members, Gertson told the Star-Telegram.

“Since the council was about to look at a new standard that would negatively impact the operations of operators, that is why we consulted the operators,” he added.

Advocates won’t stop until urban drilling is ‘phased out’

To Bhandari, Total’s pursuit of changes to the amendment showed that the company has interest in expanding its number of wellheads in Arlington. While natural gas prices in the U.S. have remained relatively low since the late 2000s, there is growing demand for liquefied natural gas as an international export, according to the center’s report.

The city has to continue to balance the interests of constituents and what’s permitted under state law, Gertson said.

“Sometimes even that best effort is still going to show that gas well sites are located in proximity to the populace,” he said.

That answer is not satisfying to Bhandari or Liveable Arlington members, who continue to monitor drill sites in Arlington and field questions from residents new and old about drilling regulations.

Bhandari was one of several activists to testify at the Environmental Protection Agency’s public listening sessions this week on its efforts to “reduce methane and other harmful pollutants from new and existing sources” in the oil and gas industry, according to the EPA announcement. John MacFarlane, the chairman of the Greater Fort Worth Sierra Club, also registered to speak on Tuesday.

“The methane spikes that we’ve seen in the last few years are very clearly tied to America’s fracking volumes, and they’re going to affect the global climate,” Bhandari said. “That climate burden is going to be unequally distributed and our children are definitely going to face that.”

Those issues could be alleviated through better technology efforts that can detect methane leaks from drilling equipment and more thorough reporting and inspection requirements, Bhandari said.

The Railroad Commission and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality do not conduct enough inspections of wells in Tarrant County, according to Bhandari. In fiscal year 2019, the TCEQ conducted 93 inspections and followed up in 2020 with 134, according to data obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Bhandari said she won’t stop drawing attention to new gas well permit applications or potential violations of regulations until gas drilling near residential areas and “protected” areas such as schools and medical buildings is phased out.

“I don’t want to hear about inspections once every six months, or even once a month,” Bhandari said. “It’s immoral to put something this dangerous, this sneaky, this polluting next to our children and say somebody will come around once in a while and see if anything is emitting … How can a decent society do that? It has to be phased out for the future of all children.”