Digging for clues
When Lance Irwin moved to Mansfield 2 and a half years ago, he noticed the school and performing arts center south of his neighborhood of handsome brick houses and felt good about the location. He had no idea about the gas wells and infrastructure in between.
The Mansfield Compressor Station is the most visible of the sites, perched on a hill overlooking the two well pads, the school, the center and the neighborhood, but it’s no wonder he didn’t know what it was. The station looks like a couple of barns.
Then EagleRidge Energy drilled and fracked more wells on both pads last year, bringing the complex to the entire neighborhood’s attention.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, known as the TCEQ, sent investigators several times in response to complaints about diesel odors and a white plume rising from the pad sites in October 2013. They didn’t find any violations, and the residents who’d complained were duly informed.
But a separate “reconnaissance investigation” on one of those well pads that same month did end with a violation notice.
Irwin, whose son was at the nearby day-care center the day the air-quality violation occurred, discovered it only after he filed open-records requests for all documents associated with the sites. He wasn’t happy that the TCEQ hadn’t said anything to residents.
An agency spokesman, Terry Clawson, said by email that residents are notified about investigations into their complaints, but the overlapping reconnaissance effort was not associated with the complaint investigations.
The investigator showed up while EagleRidge was conducting “flowback” operations on a well, when the pumped-in water and chemicals come back up along with volatile organic compounds from the formation. That’s a point at which air pollutants can spike if not handled carefully, and the investigator found EagleRidge didn’t follow rules intended to reduce those emissions.
The company could have captured the flowback, a process known as a “green completion” that will be required of gas-well fracking or refracking operations in the country starting Jan. 1, or could have burned the emissions to destroy most of the chemicals. Instead, EagleRidge handled flowback from several wells on site by venting the emissions directly into the air, the TCEQ investigation found.
EagleRidge, which did not return calls seeking comment, told the TCEQ that Mansfield did not allow flaring — a method of burning emissions. It wasn’t clear from the report why the company didn’t opt for another combustion method, which the investigator said is permitted in the city, or a green completion.
When EagleRidge brought in a combustion device to deal with future flowback operations, the TCEQ investigator considered the violation resolved.
Irwin went looking for help. Sharon Wilson, perhaps Texas’ best-known drilling-reform activist, blogged about what Irwin had found, commenting that “breaking the law in Texas is actually cheaper” than getting required equipment.
“That’s how we roll in Texas!” wrote Wilson, who joined environmental group Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project after her own bad experience on the shale.
Irwin kept digging. He gathered information about potentially hazardous ingredients in the foaming agent EagleRidge used that landed in his neighborhood last year. About the gas leak Bounds discovered in September, five hours after it had started. About an oily substance neighbors found on their properties in May.
Some of his requests produced conflicting information. The material-safety data sheet provided to the TCEQ about the foam incident referred to one foaming agent, described as a skin and respiratory irritant in cases of a single overexposure. The sheet Irwin received from the local fire department referred to another product, that one “toxic to the reproductive system.”
Other efforts led to dead ends.
The TCEQ said the oily substance didn’t appear to come from an oil or gas facility, based on a microscope analysis that found plant and insect material in it. But the analysis also found a substantial amount of unidentified particles, and Irwin wondered if the compressor station could have been the source.
So he asked for documentation on whether the complex had a “blowdown” that day, a process by which gas and a mixture of compounds are vented. The TCEQ directed then-owner Texas Energy Midstream to produce the records operators are required to keep.
What Irwin got back was a blank spreadsheet.
“It very well could have been just some weird, anomalous thing that happened that has nothing to do with them,” Irwin said of the oily substance, “but the fact that they can’t produce a record … is ridiculous.”
Texas Energy Midstream, which sold the compressor station this fall, did not respond to requests for comment.
As he dug deeper, Irwin connected with other concerned residents, including Bounds. Mansfield Gas Well Awareness was born. The group’s year-long efforts to get more protections picked up steam in the last several weeks after Cook, the mayor, asked the council to hold the work session.
Cook said city staff will look at other communities’ rules and develop proposed changes to the ordinance that could be ready for the council to see in mid-January. He’s not sure what would be an appropriate setback, but he’s on board with the idea that emissions-control equipment can help.
“The technology is better and better every day, so we have to take advantage of the technology to protect our citizens, protect our property values, while at the same time respecting the rights that [mineral] owners have,” Cook said.
He expects Councilman Stephen Lindsey’s expertise will be helpful there, given his day job with oil and gas exploration firm Quicksilver Resources. Downwinders at Risk sees that as a conflict of interest, but Cook, noting that Quicksilver doesn’t drill in Mansfield, compared it to the way the council turns to him with some legal questions — he’s an attorney — and to an accountant on the panel when an issue is number-heavy.
Lindsey said he sits on the city council for the same reason he served in the Army after college and the State Department during the Iraq war: “I wanted to serve my country.” He said he testified before the state legislature last year to help stop a bill that would have taken away much of the local control cities have to regulate the industry.
“I do realize the confluence of growing activity among urban/suburban areas, that’s the friction point,” he said, speaking not as a Quicksilver employee but as a councilman. “My perspective is the industry could and should be doing a lot more things. … It is a highly regulated process with room for improvement.”
For Irwin, it’s hard not to be distrustful. Because new rules in one city can prompt action in others, he’s concerned that Lindsey — as senior director of governmental affairs for Quicksilver — has incentive to work against major change in Mansfield. Irwin figures that what he sees as safer standards to protect families, operators see as extra costs.
Lindsey said that if he ever thought he couldn’t “fairly provide perspective in my role as an elected official,” he’d recuse himself or resign.
On one major point Lindsey sees no potential push-pull between his two jobs. Because the state protects mineral rights, a drilling ban would be a nonstarter for a Texas city, he said. Both lawsuits targeting Denton’s fracking ban contend it’s unconstitutional because it would effectively stop drilling.
Bounds, a physical therapist assistant, said her allergies and asthma were worse during the period wells were drilled and fracked beside her neighborhood. It seems to her that companies think they have the constitutional right to pollute in the pursuit of minerals.
“I say, ‘No, you don’t,’” Bounds said.
Jim Morris of the Center for Public Integrity contributed to this article.