Texas residents protest drilling

October 16, 2009

Candice Bernd and Will Wooten report from Denton, Texas, on the battle of residents to stop natural gas drilling planned for their own backyard.

WHEN THE Denton City Council considered granting a special-use permit on July 21 to Fort Worth-based Range Resources to drill for natural gas on the Rayzor Ranch property--a site directly across from a neighborhood community, a hospital, a retirement center and a park--the council touched off a long campaign of community dissent.

The gas wells, which would expose the community to 90 decibels of drilling noise, light pollution, environmental damage, air-quality problems and the possibility of earthquakes, would also lower neighbors' property values, as the slant drilling would permanently damage their homes' foundations.

The local animal and plant life as well as underground aquifers would be threatened, and the roads around the area would suffer, too--from the tons of water that would have to be trucked in by 18-wheelers to keep the wells running.

After learning about the plan to drill, Brett Darr, a local Denton resident and engineer for Peterbilt, took action. He informed his neighbors, who in turn, informed the city council about their complaints. The city council, unsure and surprised by the sudden rise in questions about the drilling, decided to table the issue and delay the vote. City Council member Dalton Gregory called for the issue not to be tabled, saying he was ready to vote against the permit.

Dallas-based Allegiance Development--the surface rights owner, which plans to put in a Wal-Mart and Sam's Club on the site in a deal with Range Resources, which owns the mineral rights of the property--insisted on the most inconvenient drilling site for residents. The company had the choice of drilling on four different parts of the property, the others farther away from the residential area.

Darr began to petition the neighborhood when Denton International Socialist Organization (ISO) member Andrew Teeter, who lives in the threatened neighborhood, learned about the problem and began organizing around the issue. Teeter called a neighborhood meeting to begin planning a rally at McKenna Park, across the street from the proposed drilling site.

"The problem is not only this gas well; it's an ongoing trend of city leaders favoring corporations over its citizens," said Teeter. Neighborhood groups and the ISO organized a rally held at McKenna Park, which was attended by almost 150 people, including City Councilwoman Charlye Heggins, residents of the neighborhood, local activists, students from the University of North Texas and plenty of media.

The story aired on the local news affiliate CBS 11, and there were stories in the Denton Record Chronicle, the city's local newspaper, and the North Texas Daily, the student newspaper of the University of North Texas, as well as the Dallas Observer.

On August 4, the City Council again tabled the issue in order to give Range Resources and Allegiance Development time to negotiate over the drilling. This also gave activists more time to organize.

Denton ISO members began regularly showing up to council meetings with other community members and speaking out against the wells. They signed up to speak about unrelated city council agenda items in order to talk about the issue because the city council continued tabling the vote from August 18 through the month of September, not allowing the public to address the topic.

FINALLY, ON October 6, the council took the issue off the table. Mayor Mark Burroughs explained that Range Resources and Allegiance Development had finished negotiations, and the site could not be moved. With the council chamber at full capacity, citizens came prepared with scientific evidence on the health dangers of drilling and examples of other Texas towns that allowed drilling and experienced explosions, fires and earthquakes among other accidents.

Residents pressured their representatives to vote against the permit, speaking to the council's fear of litigation by reminding the council that Range Resources is already being sued by the city for $400,000 in unpaid royalties on another project. "Range Resources is like a used car salesman, they could tell you anything," said resident Jake Hendricks.

In addition to Darr's petition, which was signed by almost 200 neighborhood residents, another petition was presented to the council by a doctor from a nearby hospital, Charles Wahlert, who collected signatures from 100 of his colleagues. "About three years ago, we were denied a request from the city to build a doctor's office in the area because it would 'ruin the neighborhood,' and now you're letting this industry in to do much worse," Wahlert said.

Every citizen who spoke was in opposition to the drilling. The only person who spoke in favor was David Poole, a lawyer representing Range Resources. After finishing the public hearing, city council members expressed their frustration with Texas drilling laws, as a pre-emptive plea before the final vote.

Council member Chris Watts went so far as to say the vote was like the two corporations had put a "gun to his head," with the threat of legal action against the city if it denied the permit. Council member Pete Kamp told activists that they would have the council's backing if the issue was taken to the state level.

The council voted 6-to-1 to allow Range Resources the permit, with council member Heggins as the lone opposition. Gregory, who was initially opposed to the permit, said that he had been too quick in making that decision and changed his vote in favor of the drilling.

Still, the community's discourse and activism achieved 21 different conditions imposed by the city regulating how Range Resources operates on the site. These include heavy sound barriers, protective enclosures, atmospheric monitoring and specific terms about what roads the trucks may use, among many others.

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