A year and a half ago, around the time four gas wells were being drilled in my Southside neighborhood, I was driving down Berry Street past Riverside Drive when my eyesight blurred. At first I wasn’t alarmed; I figured it was just pollen in the air and bought some eyewash. But the roads and signs remained unfocused for several days, though my eyesight seemed to improve when I drove to College Station to visit my son and his family.
After two weeks, with no lasting improvement, I went to see my ophthalmologist. I was worried that, at age 64, my eyes were failing badly. After a thorough examination, the doctor said my eyes had been inflamed by some kind of irritant. He gave me some eye drops, and my sight began to improve.
The night before that, I had spoken to a citywide forum at Will Rogers Auditorium. I remember being unable to read my notes as I joined groups like Fort Worth CAN DO and CREDO in asking Mayor Mike Moncrief and the council members to impose a moratorium until the environmental impact of the gas wells could be carefully evaluated.
When the four gas wells rose up around my walking path – and so many more around other paths in other parts of town – during that hot summer of drilling in 2008, a brown pall began to cover Tarrant County. Cold winter days and fresh rains wash the chemicals away, but there are now 28 gas wells within a 4.3-mile radius of where I live, according to Texas Railroad Commission maps.
Last week I decided to visit the site of each of the wells within two miles of my parkland retreat. I went first to the original rig I had noticed going up, the one behind Corbett Industries south of Berry Street. The road wound around to end at a massive Chesapeake gas well facility.
The next one was closer to my walking trail, at 1896 Berry St. The site is on a hilltop overlooking a cluster of low-income apartments, but the well itself, now that the drilling rig is down, is hidden from public view. Unseen but not unfelt. What are the pollutants emanating from the compressors and the wells there?
Farther north and east, just up from Cobb Park and a few hundred feet from Mitchell Boulevard Elementary School, is another site, a Chesapeake well with storage tanks and a large collecting pond. I wonder if that well site so close to the school has been thoroughly tested. I wonder if the children have experienced asthma or allergic reactions from the poisonous gases nearby.
The Fort Worth Star Telegram reported last month that one in five Barnett Shale well sites was found to be emitting high levels of benzene. So with 28 wells within my 4.3-mile radius, it’s likely that seven are emitting dangerous levels of that cancer-causing chemical.
Here’s my question: How many people have noticed an increase in their upper respiratory difficulties since 2005? Do they suffer more from allergies? Headaches? Nervous disorders? The Star-Telegram has also reported asthma disorders among children living in the Barnett Shale.
How about liver failure, nausea, sleeplessness? These are all health problems associated with environmental toxins produced by the oil and gas industry, according to Earthworks, a nonprofit group dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the destructive impacts of mineral development.
No city in recent times has been invaded by poisons in the way we have been in Fort Worth. Several elected officials including State Rep. Lon Burnam and State Sen. Wendy Davis have asked that all gas wells be monitored and the results made public. According to Fort Worth Weekly (“Greening the Gas Field?” Jan. 6, 2010), a large percentage of the chemical pollutants generated by Barnett Shale wells could be recaptured and eliminated with existing technology.
It is time to act. We need to know if our skies are safe, our air fit to breathe. If these wells are making people sick, they need to be retrofitted or shut down. We need a moratorium on all new permits and drilling until we understand the environmental implications of the ones already here.
How many wells are in your backyard? Along your walking trails? Look at the Railroad Commission map to find out. See how many are close to schools.
Write to your Fort Worth City Council representative, to state and federal officials. Ask them to stop the drilling.
The mayor and every city council member who sides with the industry over the safety of our people should resign. We should be working on solving the gas well problems, not creating more problems to solve.
Kendall McCook is a Fort Worth teacher and writer.