Morgan’s background as an engineer and military officer has given him the experience and credentials that few others have for taking on oil and gas companies.
After graduating from Texas A&M University with a degree in civil engineering in 1967 and taking graduate- level courses at various universities, Morgan became an Air Force officer, eventually reaching the rank of major. As a civil engineering manager, Morgan oversaw projects such as the construction of three air bases in Saudi Arabia and subsequently held the position of director of operations for England Air Force base in Alexandria, La.
When Morgan retired from the Air Force in 1987, he went to work for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He spent the next 19 years as an energy engineer and environmental manager and retired from that career in 2008.
Morgan believes that his extensive credentials and outspoken stance against the oil and gas industry are the reason Anadarko sued him in 2010 for allegedly threatening a company employee.
“They are trying to discredit me,” he said. “They said I threatened their area manager, which is a lie.” The charge of phone harassment, a class B misdemeanor, was dropped two years later.
Several states have enacted laws to protect individuals from lawsuits aimed at intimidating them. Known as SLAPP (strategic litigation against public participation) suits, these lawsuits target critics with burdensome and expensive litigation with the aim of silencing them. Texas passed its first anti-SLAPP legislation, the Texas Citizens Participation Act, in 2011.
“When I tell someone as an engineer, they believe me,” he said. “Anadarko is trying to degrade my credibility. That’s their goal.”
Unfortunately for residents like Morgan, Texas has no law regulating noise due to gas industry operations, leaving local municipalities to deal with the problem. The EPA at one time regulated industrial noise levels under the Clean Air Act, but in 1981, according to information on its website, the agency concluded that noise issues were “best handled at the state and local level.”
Beginning in 2011, Morgan tried to interest state officials in such a law. His efforts brought him to the Texas Railroad Commission’s sunset review process in December 2012.
Testifying before the sunset review commission, Morgan cited numerous health concerns related to low-frequency noise from compressor stations.
“Cities have ordinances to control noise, but no one in Texas has authority to regulate noise generated in county areas,” he wrote. “Equipment such as gas compressor stations is generally located outside city limits. However, the low-frequency noise travels five to eight miles and thus affects people within cities as well as people in county areas.”
In January 2013, when the sunset commission was meeting to make final recommendations for changes at the agency, a legislator removed Morgan’s comments and many other items from the list of topics to be discussed, without giving a reason.
Morgan thinks he knows why. “They would have had to spend a little money to protect our people,” he said. “They don’t want to do anything to upset oil and gas. That shows you how we the people are not being heard.”
A bill filed in 2011 and again in 2013 by Sen. Wendy Davis would have authorized the Railroad Commission to regulate “noise generated by oil and gas operations within the state as well as other energy-producing operations.” The bill did not make it out of committee.
A much more modest bill authored by the Fort Worth Democrat last year did pass. Senate Bill 514 expanded the use of pipelines to transport fracking wastewater to disposal wells, cutting down on the need for trucks and other noisy equipment.
When Fort Worth Weekly asked about the 2011 and 2013 bills on noise restrictions, Davis provided an e-mail statement that talked about her work regarding gas drilling while she was a member of the Fort Worth City Council but said nothing about statewide noise legislation.
“People do not understand [this problem], and they don’t want to tick off oil and gas because they rule the state,” Morgan said. “[Wendy] Davis resurrected a [noise-restricting] bill, then she didn’t do anything with it. That was my only hope, and it just died.”
Lana Ward is a clinical audiologist who works in Denton but lives in Granbury. At UNT’s Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences, she works closely with Moore to treat patients with auditory problems ranging from hearing loss to tinnitus. She said that compressor noise problems recently forced a family who lived near her to leave their home.
The problems started when David H. Arrington Oil & Gas began drilling wells 350 feet from her property boundary, the minimum distance required by Texas Railroad Commission guidelines. Soon her home was surrounded by wells from multiple companies.
“You’d constantly hear the noise,” she said.
While Ward was able to manage living with the excessive drilling sounds and gas compressor buzzing, her neighbors weren’t so fortunate.
“They asked for sound barriers, and when that wasn’t enough, the gas company stopped listening,” she recalled.
In 2007 her neighbors confided to Ward that a representative of Cowtown Pipeline Partners, which was laying lines to service the wells, told them that if the family didn’t cooperate, the company would take their property through eminent domain. Six months after the confrontational representative stopped handling the negotiations, Ward and her neighbors were able to reach an agreement with Cowtown.
“These [companies] really throw their weight around,” she said.
Ward, who owns her home, said her neighbors had little recourse since they were renting and the oil companies wouldn’t listen. After several years of failed negotiations with Quicksilver Resources requesting adequate sound barriers, the family moved.
“They were a family of three with one son in elementary school,” she said. “They had a dream of raising their son in a small town and even had cattle. They had to give up that way of life because of the noise from the compressors. When something infringes on your way of life, [acoustically] or physically, there should be some recourse.”
Ward said in an e-mail that even though the gas companies worked within the Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards, it was of “little comfort to the homeowners who must continuously hear this incessant sound in what they thought was going to be their quiet neighborhoods or lifestyles of quiet country living.”
In 2011, Alyse Ogletree and her husband were considering buying their current home in Argyle. They noticed two large tanks not far away but didn’t think much about them — the realtor told the couple they were water tanks. Ogletree, a mother of two, said she didn’t have a problem with gas drilling until two years later, when a well appeared behind her home almost overnight.
Eagle Ridge Energy crews put up a large sound barrier as they worked on the well, but Ogletree said it had little effect.
“It’s been hell,” she said. “They were running their equipment 24 hours a day. We couldn’t sleep. My children were constantly being woken up at night, and we were all experiencing migraines.”
The problem was intensified by the fact that her son has a debilitating handicap and stays at home most of the day. Ogletree said she’s had to deal with anxiety that comes from wanting to keep her children safe while living near a well that periodically emits large flames into the sky (a practice known as flaring) and is a source of incessant noise day and night.
She said the low-frequency noises were the most painful and went “straight to her bones.”
“We can see the windows shake and feel the low-frequency noise,” she said. On numerous occasions she has seen cups of water in her home ripple from the noise and even videotaped the phenomenon.
When the noise became a problem, she called the Argyle police. At first the responding officer was helpful and said that the problem would be reported to the city inspector and her family would hear back from the city. She never heard back.
After several more complaints to the local police produced no action, she called a city official directly. The official said city workers had been to her neighborhood only an hour earlier and measured the sound at levels below the city’s allowable maximum of 65 decibels.
Ogletree said she and her husband have recorded sound levels as high as 90 decibels, but when the city employee arrives, the noise levels mysteriously drop.
“We suspect they know when the city is coming,” she said. “When I measure the sounds, I’m not screaming, ‘We’re the city officials.’ When your neighbor is having a party that is too loud, you can go over, knock, and ask them to turn it down. But when it’s a gas company, who do you talk to?”
She wishes she’d known what would happen before she chose her home.
“If they had knocked on my door and explained one-on-one what would happen, we would have left this house,” she said. “My hope is that future homeowners will make much better decisions and won’t have to go through this.”