Under Denton’s gas ordinance, wells cannot be drilled any closer to a residence than 1,200 feet. However, there’s no limit at all on how close to an existing well a new home can be built.
Ogletree said she was outraged to find this loophole after buying her home. The gas well behind her family’s home is 250 feet away. One neighbor’s home is only 187 feet from a well.
Eshbaugh-Soha turned to art to help her son cope with the fumes and noise coming from the Eagle Ridge gas well site near their home.
“It was simply the result of our frustration and feeling of powerlessness,” she said.
At the height of the fracking process last January, her son drew “before” and “after” pictures of their home to express what he was feeling. Eshbaugh-Soha said she has tried to erase the memories of her ordeal because they were so horrible.
“It was a constant, loud, horrible grinding sound” she recalled. “Being a home-school mom, we kept having to leave our own home to study. That added extra costs to the schooling. I was pulling my hair out. Neighbors would tell me that their blood pressure had gone up because of the noise.”
Adding to their noise-related problems, a nearby Acme Brick kiln installed a new industrial fan in February. A kiln is a type of oven used to harden clay into bricks. She said the fan emitted an incessant low-frequency hum at all hours.
Eshbaugh-Soha turned to the internet to research the dangers of low-frequency noise and to learn how other people have addressed the problems.
“I was sure that I wasn’t the only person going insane,” she said. “It’s a worldwide problem that’s messing with people’s lives.
“Now I know why people in these situations have killed themselves,” she said. “Low-frequency noise gets into your head. You can’t protect yourself from it.”
Acme Brick responded to the public outcry by promising to use an acoustical wrapping around the fan. Eshbaugh-Soha said the wrapping has reduced but not eliminated the noise problem.
Cathy McMullen, president of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group (DAG), said industrial noise is difficult for companies to control and for cities to regulate.
“It’s part of working with heavy equipment,” she said. “That’s why we never should have done drilling this close to residents. You can’t control this noise, and it’s a very hard thing to regulate. The noise levels I can tolerate are different than what a small child or someone with a migraine can.”
McMullen, 55, moved to her home in west Denton five years ago. In 2010, Range Resources, and subsequently Legend, began drilling a gas well in a development called Rayzor Ranch, which was 1,600 feet from her home. She describes the sound of gas flaring as “horrendous” and similar to a “jet engine.”
“It’s enough to wake you up,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep. It’s a constant noise that really gets inside your head.” As a nurse, she worked varying schedules, and being able to sleep at different hours of the day was crucial.
After checking with Denton city officials, she found out that noise levels were supposed to be kept below 70 decibels.
“I would go measure the noise levels and they regularly spiked above 100 decibels,” she said. But the city ordinance applies only to constant kinds of noise, “so that doesn’t affect clanging pipes, [work-related] yelling, or gas flaring.”
When she realized how entangled Denton neighborhoods and homes were with gas wells, she founded DAG to educate residents about the problems. The nonprofit also tried to convince city council members to revise the gas ordinance.
“We started in 2010 by trying to work within the system. We spoke to our state representatives, city council, the Railroad Commission, Austin, and the state legislature’s sunset commission … . All of that failed, so we tried to make the [Denton] ordinance more protective.”
McMullen said she immediately ran into resistance from council members and industry representatives.
One vocal opponent was Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, which provides information to the public about gas drilling. The group disputes claims of fracking-caused water pollution. Ireland’s personal website lists his experience in “countering anti-fossil fuel advocates’ claims.”
“He responded to every proposal with, ‘It isn’t feasible,’ ” McMullen said. “When we talked about our concerns with low-frequency noise, he said the industry couldn’t comply with our request.”
Ed Soph, DAG director, said the fracking industry is following the same misinformation tactics as tobacco, lead, and asbestos industries.
“They are trying to say that the scientists can’t connect the dots, and [they] discredit anyone who questions them,” he said. “They’d like to paint us as liberal commie pinkos, but this isn’t a political issue. We have Tea Party folks who are worried about their property values. The onus of proving that something is dangerous should not be on the public. Until fracking is known to not be dangerous to our air and health, we should take the precaution of banning it.”
Among the requests McMullen and her supporters proposed was a limit of 5 decibels above normal noise levels during the day and a special request to minimize low-frequency noise.
In the end, council members lowered the maximum allowable sound level from 70 to 65 decibels but did nothing else. As the ordinances stand, they provide little recourse for those with drilling-related noise complaints.
“Police officers have told me they can’t enforce the code,” McMullen said.
Frustrated with what she calls the city’s “industry-friendly gas ordinance,” McMullen and her supporters are working to completely ban fracking in Denton.
McMullen said she knows that there is little chance of the council voting for the ban, but she is more optimistic about the November general election, when Denton residents will vote on the ban directly via a referendum. She said her group recently submitted more than 1,500 signatures on the petition seeking the referendum.
“It’s hard being the first,” she said. “But it’s about giving hope to others and a blueprint that shows the way.”
Whether her group succeeds in banning fracking in Denton or not, McMullen sees an ongoing need for the educational work they do.
“When I was dealing with these problems, there was no one to help me,” she said. “There is always going to be a need for our work as long as they are drilling in neighborhoods.”
Fort Worth freelance writer Edward Brown can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.