Posts Tagged ‘Railroad Commission’

Ask most people what they think the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) is in charge of and most people will reply that it is railroads. Most people would also be surprised to discover that it is in fact, the wrong answer.  The RRC actually oversees the oil, gas and coal production within the state.  Ending this source of confusion by changing the name to something more appropriate seems like a no-brainer. This session, HB 237 attempts once again to change the name – to the Texas Energy Resources Commission, a name more in line with the actual work the commission does. HB 1818 offers a few of the reforms the RRC needs, but does not go nearly far enough.

Email your Texas State Representative to ask that he or she support amendments to HB 1818 that will offer real reform at the Railroad Commission.

Name vs. Mission

The Railroad Commission is 125 years old, making it the oldest regulatory agency in the state. When the commission was formed in 1891 its main job was to regulate the rail industry.  Once the Texas Oil Boom started the commission’s responsibilities were expanded to include regulating oil and gas. Over the years, as oil and gas became more dominant and railroads became less, most of the non-energy functions like the railroads were eliminated.  By 2005, when the RRC lost the last of any responsibility to regulate the railroads, its name became truly obsolete

Archaic Bond Limits and Unplugged Wells

One of the RRC biggest responsibilities is to cover the cost of plugging abandoned wells.  The way the RRC attempts to do this is by requiring companies to buy either individual or blanket bonds as insurance to cover the cost of plugging an abandoned well before they can drill. The cost of plugging a well is about $5-17 per foot for an average well. Unfortunately the bond cost has been stuck at the 1991 figure of $2 per foot. Bond funds usually cover only about 15% of the total cost to plug a well.  So in the end, the commission is only collecting a fraction of what is needed.  Last year the commission collected on average about $2,707 per well but spent about $17, 012.  That is an enormous discrepancy and therefore many of the wells remain unplugged. By the end of 2016, the total number of abandoned wells in Texas passed 10,050.

The environmental impact of unplugged wells is far reaching.  In Texas there are estimates that put over 50,000 improperly or not plugged wells.  These wells are often drilled over 1 mile deep and, if left unplugged there is the potential for salt water (4 times saltier than the sea) which is often full of heavy metals and radioactivity materials to flow up and seep into the surrounding land and into the fresh water aquifers.  Abandoned or improperly maintained wells retain their potential to kill the land and crops around them and taint the water supply for years. To properly close a well, hundreds of feet of cement must to be poured into the well at various levels.  SB 1803 would increase bonding requirements to ensure that unused wells are plugged.

Without a new statute that allows the commission to set realistic bonds based on the actual cost of plugging a well, this problem with continue to grow.  In addition, the oil and gas industry is in a slump right now with oil prices low and production down, which of course means that the revenues it generates is down and since the RRC gets most of their funding from fees, it will definitely make it even more difficult to do their job.

Enforcing Regulations with Meaningful Fines

Weak fines do not provide a strong enough deterrent to keep companies committing the same infraction over and over again. This can be clearly seen in the fact that over the past five years a mere 114 operators, representing only 3 percent of all the wells in Texas, have been responsible for over 22 percent of all the pollution related violations. If the RCC would increase its penalty for infractions that were set in 1983, from $10,000 a day to a relative current value of $25,000 a day, it would do much to discourage companies from repeatedly violating regulations.  SB 567 would bolster inspection enforcement and would increase revenue by increasing fines.

Insufficient Inspectors and Incomplete Inspections

The RRC is also in charge of inspecting all currently active and inactive wells within the state. This is a rather arduous task, considering that there are hundreds of thousands of well. The Texas inspector to well ratio is 2,340 active wells per inspector, one of the worst in the country.  In contrast, Alaska, a state that is also heavily petroleum based, has an inspector to well ratio of 370 to one! Due to insufficient numbers of inspectors, the Texas Sunset Commission reported that in 2015 only about 30% of all wells and only about 42% of active wells can be were inspected. They found that in 2015 more than two thirds of leases had not been inspected for at least two years and each lease can have thousands of wells on it. SB 569 would take the first step in fixing this, requiring the RRC to submit review of its policies on reporting and enforcement in a study by this September 2017. But, in the end, the of only surefire way to reverse this shortcoming is that the RRC must drastically increase the number of inspectors. To help offset the cost of hiring so many additional inspectors, an annual inspection fee should be instituted.

Outdated System Denies Public Needed Knowledge

The Railroad Commission desperately needs to modernize itself when it comes to public access to important information about oil and gas wells. As far back as 2011 the Legislature gave the RRC $16 million to help update their systems and make information easier to access, but, as of today, the RRC still does not have a comprehensive and easily searchable database for the public to look up complaints, violations, or penalties levied against oil and gas companies. Without an adequate system, it is very difficult for Texans to learn information about potential dangers to both their lives and their livelihood. This can impact everyone from a community trying to discover if the wells that operate outside their town are complying with regulations, or for the family moving to a new home who might want to see whether the well that operates just outside of their new property has repeatedly leaked dangerous pollutants. Inspections, complaints, violations, and enforcement actions should be accessible on a public website and searchable by operator, drilling company and or by the well, all year around. While HB 1818 includes nothing about this incredibly necessary function, HB 247 would greatly improve transparency.

Lax Limits Contribute to Corrupt Contributions

Another problem the RRC deals with, is the monetary influence that a company or individual can have on a commissioner who is seeking office.  While the RRC Commissioners were originally appointed by the Texas Governor, this was changed so that each of the three would be elected through public elections. And while greater accountability to the public is an improvement, it does come with its own set of potential issues that the current structure of the RRC fails to take into consideration. According to our own research here at Public Citizen, between 75-90% of all contributions for RRC Commissioner elections come from the very entities that the RRC is supposed to regulate, and much of it comes during non-election periods. In addition, Texas is one of the only states in the country that does not prohibit potential candidates with conflict of interests from running for Commissioner.

To address this situation, HB 464 would ban contributions during non-election years and prevent commissioners from taking any contributions from entities with contested case hearings pending before the RRC. Rules should also be added that officially require candidates to disclose any potential conflict of interests and only allow them to run if they can clearly demonstrate that they have resolved any conflicts.

All of these proposed changes to the way the RRC functions are crucial to make the agency operate in the interest of all Texans. Email your Texas State Representative to ask that he or she support amendments to HB 1818 that will offer real reform at the Railroad Commission.

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Small towns like Azle and Springtown, in the North Texas area have experienced about 32 earthquakes over the past two months leaving citizens concerned about what is happening to their home.

According to a recent study from the University of Texas, most earthquakes that are coming from the area are a few miles from the Barnett Shale region. The study also found correlation between injection wells and small earthquakes.  These disposal wells contain chemical contaminated wastewater from oil and gas drilling..  This is part of the process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”.

The Railroad Commission has not publicly acknowledge the link between disposal wells and quakes, even with evidence from several studies from Duke University, Cornel University, University of Texas, Texas Christian University, Southern Methodist University and other universities.

According to a story on NPR StateImpact, studies found that oil and gas wastewater disposal wells are a reason for the Eagle Mountain Lake quakes. Disposal wells that inject at higher rates are likely causing quakes.  Studies show that these large amounts of wastewater can cause inactive faults to slip, which causes an earthquake to occur.

In another NPR StateImpact story by Terrence Henry, he writes that under state law, the Commission cannot suspend a disposal well permit unless the operator is in violation of commission rules. There are currently no rules on seismicity, and without this rule the commission has no authority to shut it down. The article also goes on to say that the Railroad Commission is aware of such studies and research linking disposal wells and other drilling activity to man-made quakes, but publicly calls this evidence “theories.”

Young witness at RRC Hearing on Seismic Activity in North Texas - Photo by Sierra Club

Young witness at RRC Hearing on Seismic Activity in North Texas – Photo by Sierra Club

A town hall meeting in Azle, Texas hosted by the Texas Railroad Commission on January 2nd drew 850 residents. The residents had concerns about cracks in their property, sinkholes, earthquake insurance, and possibly having their ground water affected.  They wanted the commission to explain what was happening and asked if disposal wells were the reason for the recent problems. Click here to read more.

The Commission told attendees it would further study the issue of injection wells and quakes, but residents felt they were getting a runaround. Days after this first meeting the Commission announced it would hire a seismologist to investigate local drill sites.

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Two bills were laid out in the Senate State Affairs Committee on Monday – SB 1625 by Senator Davis (D-Fort Worth) and SB 1637 by Senator Duncan (R-Lubbock).  Senator Duncan summed up the issues before the committee. He said the key issues include: who gets notice and how; whether hearings are to be held by the Railroad Commission- the State Office of Administrative Hearings; which courts review the decisions on common carrier status- the local courts or ones in Austin; what are the standards used to determine if someone is a common carrier and can the Railroad Commissioner adopt rules to fix the problems without legislation.

Julia Trigg Crawford, a Paris area landowner whose land was condemned and taken by the Keystone XL pipeline, which declared itself a common carrier, and was given the right through an eminent domain decision.  The Texas Supreme Court has ruled that in order for a pipeline company to take land, they must prove they really are common carriers, but to date Keystone XL has not proven they will carry anybody else’s product. Crawford’s land is threatened with imminent trenching for the Keystone XL pipeline even though she has appealed the court’s decision that Keystone XL is a common carrier and has the right to take her land.

Texas law ought to protect landowners from Big Oil, but today in Texas the Railroad Commission rubber stamps common carrier permits.  As a result, I am days away from having my land destroyed by the Keystone pipeline and poisons being pumped through my pasture,” said Crawford.

What’s upsetting to those of us who live along the path of these tar sands pipelines — no matter if they are new pipelines like Keystone or repurposed lines like the 35-year old Seaway and the 65-year old Pegasus — is that no one knows just how toxic these tar sands are and there isn’t a safety plan in place for residents or first responders should there be a spill,” noted Crawford. “Many of the toxic substances in these products are deemed ‘proprietary’ and therefore first responders haven’t had and won’t have the complete information they need to address an incident when a spill occurs unless the legislature acts. Saving the health of my community and my water is more important than a private company’s worries about the “proprietary” information of their product. This puts Texans and those who are here to protect us at risk.

There have already been three spills in residential areas: one along the Kalamazoo River in Michigan about three years ago, one in Arkansas last month, and a small leak in Ripley County, Missouri less than a week ago, a month after the same pipeline spewed thousands of barrels of crude in Arkansas. Almost three years and $850 million later, the Enbridge tar sands spill in Michigan is still not cleaned up. Witnesses told elected officials today that they should have the right to know what is in these pipelines before they are declared common carriers, are given the right to condemn Texans’ land, and travel through Texas backyards and water sources

Tar sands are far more toxic than conventional crude, and as a result of the recent Pegasus spill in Arkansas we now have a recipe for disaster with several tar sands pipelines threatening communities throughout Texas.  Tar sands crude contains a toxic mixture of more than 30 chemicals that can cause cancer, brain damage, and even death.  When tar sands crude hits water, it doesn’t behave like conventional crude.  The benzene and hydrogen sulfide go airborne necessitating the evacuations of nearby citizens due to possible exposure to dangerous neurotoxins, meanwhile the heavier bitumen in the tar sands crude sinks like a stone and essentially paves the river bottom, comment Rita Beving, a consultant to the 391 Commissions that have formed in several East Texas communities to either oppose the pipelines or to get additional information about the pipelines.

In Texas, the 65-year old Pegasus pipeline runs from Dekalb to Corsicana and then turns southeast to Nederland carrying tar sands crude.  The 36-year old Seaway line comes into Texas at Grayson County passing through the east side of Dallas and onto Freeport.  Seaway is now being surveyed to twin the existing line to double its capacity to carry tar sands for upgrading and refinement on the coast.  Finally, the new Keystone line is being trenched, entering near Paris in North Texas and coursing through the state to refineries in the Port Arthur/Houston area.

Public Citizen is proposing a few suggested amendments that would make for a far better bills.

  • Right to Know: Landowners and citizens have a right to know what is being carried in the pipelines going through their communities, farms, ranches and school yards.  We like Senator Davis’ language on this subject pg 5 section 111. 0122 9 (a) (3)   This provision should be expanded to include the chemicals used to dilute the materials such as tar sands in the pipeline and to refer citizens  to a website containing more information about the toxicity of the  substances.
  • Notice: Landowners should have the right to actual mailed notice about the decisions being made on common carrier status so they can decide whether to contest the decision in a timely manner. We prefer Senator Duncan’s language but think it should be expanded to include neighbors and others who might be affected if a spill were to occur
  • Hearings: Protestants have the right to a fair hearing in front of an impartial judge.  Time and again we hear from local landowners that the local district court judges, while sympathetic to their plight, tell them that they don’t believe they have jurisdiction, and these same landowners hear the same thing from the Railroad Commission   We prefer Senator Davis’ provision that requires the use of the State Office of Administrative Hearings. They will be far more mindful of landowners’ rights and more impartial than the Railroad Commission who sees part of its mission to be promotion of the oil and gas industry, but regardless Texans need to have a clear path to follow to address these issues.  We do have concerns about the 30 day time frame and would urge the bill to be modified to allow hearings in a SOAH regional office
  • Test for Common Carrier status: It is important that common carriers are really serving the common interest. Thus assuring that the common is not so affiliated with one company that they are not just a private pipeline is key. We prefer Senator Davis’ language.

Things to watch out for:

Conclusive Determination:  One of the divisive issues in the House debate has been over whether the Railroad Commission’s decision on the issue of whether a RRC decision on common carrier status is a conclusive determination for the purposes of a judicial proceeding.  What this section means is that a landowner or other affected party can’t challenge the common carrier status in a later court even if they never really got notice.  Farmers, ranchers and environmental groups have all expressed their concern about this provision as have Tea Party and liberal groups.  This is a major issue in the Julia Trigg Crawford appeal and in several other appeals as well. The committee’s decisions on the issue of who gets notice, how they get it and what kind of information about the contents will determine a lot about how contentious this debate will be.

Confidentiality: Senator Davis’ bill provides in two sections that the information about the common carrier application and the substances in the pipeline are confidential if specifically identified as such by the company. The presumption should be one of openness unless the company can prove that real harm will result from disclosure that outweighs the public right to know. We can see company after company claiming that their tariffs and customers are confidential and that the substances and the toxins used to dilute the tar sands are confidential.

Think it couldn’t happen? Ask the people whose health and homes were ruined in Mayflower or Kalamazoo. Ask the first responders how long they had to wait to get information on what was in those leaking pipelines. In both cases information was withheld and declared “confidential”

Citizens have the right to know when an application has been filed, right to effective mailed notice, a right to know if the applicant really is a common carrier with real customers and real tariffs or just a private pipeline and what’s in the pipelines so they may decide how to react to an application.

Contact the members of the Senate State Affairs Committee and your senator and ask them to require disclosure of the chemicals flowing through the pipeline that will be flowing through Texas land, perhaps even your backyard, as part of the notification process and before eminent domain proceedings can begin.

Senate State Affairs Committee Members: Duncan (R-Lubbock) – Chair / Deuell (R-Greenville) – Vice Chair / Ellis (D-Houston) / Fraser (R-Horseshoe Bay) / Huffman (R-Houston) / Lucio (D-Brownsville) / Nichols (R-Jacksonville) / Van de Putte (D-San Antonio) / Williams (R-The Woodlands)

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Texas Barnett Shale gas drilling rig

Texas Barnett Shale gas drilling rig -Wikipedia

According to hearing examiners for the Texas Railroad Commission, Range Resources was not responsible for contaminating two residential drinking water wells in Parker County.

The Fort Worth company was accused by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in December of allowing methane and other substances from its Barnett Shale hydraulic fracking operations into the wells.  But the hearing examiners findings are saying that the more likely sources of the contamination was the much shallower Strawn geological formation, which also contains natural gas deposits.

The full Railroad Commission will act on the hearing examiners’ findings at its March 22 public hearing.  If you would like to watch the hearing click here to access the streaming video live, or watched the archived video a few days later.

Public concern has been high and it is unknown yet, how the citizens of Parker, Hood and surrounding counties are responding to these findings.

To see the hearing examiners’ findings and supporting material, click here.

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If you want to watch the hearing on streaming video, click here.  The hearing is being held at the Texas Capitol, hearing room E1.036 (scroll down to Video Broadcast #8).

The Alliance for a Clean Texas (ACT) is working with numerous concerned citizens who have come in from all over the state – Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Corpus Christi, San Antonio, Victoria, Abilene, El Paso and other smaller communities – to testify on improvements they think need to be made at the Railroad Commission and the TCEQ. 

Thank you to these everyday citizens who have taken time out of their lives to ask the state to do a better job of protecting all Texans from pollution.


By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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NO RRCPublic Citizen and Sierra Club agreed with many of the recommendations made by the staff of the Sunset Commission that was released yesterday for the Railroad Commission, but more must be done to protect the health and quality of life of all Texans. 

“Overall these recommendations, if adopted, will create a leaner, smarter agency – with a name reflecting its mission – the Texas Oil and Gas Commission. Eliminating the 3 fulltime elected commissioners and other changes would save the state an estimated $23 million a year. Under staff recommendations natural gas rate-cases would be moved to the Public Utilities Commission (also under Sunset this year), and enforcement disputes would be moved from being resolved by a judge beholden to the agency to the State Office of Administrative Hearings (SOAH). In addition the Commission would end the promotion of propane as a fuel, and rely more on administrative and regulatory fees to pay for their activities, rather than depend on general revenue” said Andy Wilson, a policy analyst for Public Citizen who studies good government, campaign finance, and climate change.

Advocates point out problems that are still likely to occur if staff recommendations are adopted, due to overlapping regulatory authority with other state agencies over issues including oil and gas drilling, coal ash waste, and uranium mining. “Sunset Staff has failed to clearly define which agency (TCEQ or RRC) will deal with what regulatory aspects of oil and gas drilling, particularly in the Barnett Shale,” said Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director of the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club. He added, “Texans deserve a single agency to regulate coal ash waste and uranium mining, rather than have regulatory authority at two different agencies, which confuses both industry and the general public.”

“Fracking or drilling in suburban areas represents one of the largest environmental issues facing Texas today.  Letting the Railroad Commission and TCEQ continue to share turf here is essentially punting,” added Wilson.

“Moving to an appointed board rather than an elected one is a smart choice, removing the inherent conflicts of interest and partisan politics created by our campaign finance system,” said Wilson.  “According to our analysis, over half of all campaign contributions to incumbent members of the Railroad Commission come from industries they are in charge of directly regulating.”

“However, there is no need to have a 5 person board when a 3 person commission will do.  Changing to this kind of board is already estimated to save $1.2 million— having a three person board will increase savings in this tight budget year,” added Wilson.

Also, according to Texas Open Meetings laws, two members of a five person board may confer with one another in private, while a three person board can only conduct business in public, open meetings.  “That could be a case of two steps forward, one step back,” said Wilson.


By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.

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The Energy Resources Committee of the Texas House of Representatives will meet to hear both invited and public testimony in the Fort Worth, Texas City Hall  located at 1000 Throckmorton St. at 9:00 AM on Thursday, November 18, 2010 to discuss interim charge #1. 

The 81st legislature charged the committee with surveying current local ordinances governing surface use of property in oil and gas development and recommending changes to the 82nd legislature, if any, to the authority of the Railroad Commission to regulate the operation of oil and gas industries in urban areas of the state, particularly the Barnett Shale.

If you have questions regarding the hearing, please contact the committee office and speak to Bernice Espinosa-Torres or Ky Ash at (512)463-0656.

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Citizens and environmental groups concerned about possible air and water pollution from the Barnett Shale spoke out last night in Arlington.  Nearly 140 people gathered to express concerns about the Texas Commission on Environment Quality (TCEQ) and the Railroad Commission (RRC).

Rita Beving, with Public citizen, says both face the Sunset Advisory Commission next month to see if they should change, or even continue to exist.  She went on to say “Our state has failed in many ways to respond to the public. That’s why the EPA has stepped in to pull authority away from the TCEQ.  Some of the people we’ve talked to have had horrible experiences including having their tap water catch fire.” (more…)

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Public Citizen, Environmental Defense Fund Call for Independent State Agency to Coordinate State’s Energy Efficiency Efforts

AUSTIN – In response to the Public Utility Commission’s (PUC) planned adoption of new energy efficiency goals, Public Citizen and Environmental Defense Fund today called for sweeping changes to the way Texas runs its energy efficiency programs. The groups said that a single independent state agency would better serve Texas because it could coordinate programs currently regulated by multiple agencies and reduce agency overlap.

“We have no confidence in the Public Utility Commission process,” said David Power, deputy director of Public Citizen’s Texas office. “The time has come to change the way Texas saves energy because the current setup is ineffective. It is time for the Legislature to take control and create a new state agency that can put consumers first and save more money.”

The groups plan to send a letter to state Sen. Troy Fraser, chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, and state Reps. Jim Keffer and Burt Solomons, chairs of the House Energy Resources and State Affairs Committees, asking them to support legislation in the upcoming session to create an independent efficiency agency.

Under current law, the PUC, the agency in charge of regulating most of the state’s “poles and wires” companies, is supposed to review and approve the energy efficiency programs of the utilities. But other state agencies oversee efficiency programs too, including the Department of Housing and Community Affairs and State Energy Conservation Office. Housing the coordination of these efforts under one roof would help streamline state regulation and create more savings potential for Texans, the groups said.

“Several agencies either run or oversee similar programs,” said Kate Robertson, energy efficiency specialist with Environmental Defense Fund. “In some instances, like market outreach, a single state agency could coordinate the activities of all efficiency programs instead of multiple people doing the same thing for their own programs.”

The groups also criticized the PUC’s negative attitude toward energy efficiency. Over the past year and a half, agency staff had been developing plans to increase the state’s goal for energy efficiency. On Friday, however, the three commissioners appointed by Gov. Rick Perry slashed the proposal dramatically, ostensibly for cost reasons, reducing the efficiency goal from 1 percent of peak demand by 2014 to a third of the growth in demand by 2013 – a much smaller increase. The PUC even has proposed curtailing the amount utilities can spend on efficiency measures.

“It is baffling to us that the commission thinks energy efficiency is not worth the cost,” said Matthew Johnson, a policy analyst with Public Citizen’s Texas office. “Ratepayers’ utility bills pay primarily for fuel like natural gas and coal, power plants and the grid infrastructure. Energy efficiency costs around a dollar per month on a typical $100 electric bill and it pays for itself by reducing the need for new, costly power plants.” (more…)

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A quick plug for an amazing five-part series currently running in the Denton Record-Chronicle about the problems drilling on the Barnett Shale is having.  Rig explosions, flooding, mudslides, neighborhood clashes, legal battles, vandalism– it’s like “There Will Be Blood” except happening today… and in Denton.  Somebody get T. Boone Pickens on the phone– isn’t he in this movie?

The really scary thing?  The Railroad Commission, which is supposed to regulate oil and gas drilling in the state, has two of its three members running for Senate in 2010 in a crowded field.   Competing for campaign donations, will either of them dare cross the gas companies?  Do we expect them to side with consumers and homeowners, or will they side with the corporate interests?  So far, at least, it doesn’t seem like anyone from the EPA to the Railroad Commission is looking after the health and environmental effects urban drilling is causing.

Quick Links here: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 Part 5

Part 1: Eminent Dominance Expansion of natural gas industry into Barnett Shale leaves Argyle families little recourse

Jennifer Cole stepped across the parched ground of a North Texas autumn, past her dirt-caked backyard swimming pool, inching closer to a roaring machine. She watched it force its way through the earth, pushing dirt from side to side in waves like an ocean’s tide. Day by day, the bulldozer was remaking the lot behind her home on Britt Drive near Argyle, changing a sloped meadow dotted with oak trees and cattle into a flat and lifeless expanse. She shivered when she thought about what would fill the void.

Since the dirt-moving process began, dust clouds became so thick that her boys couldn’t make sense of them. “Mom, look! A sandstorm,” one said. Her sons didn’t understand why she wouldn’t let them use the pool or play outside after school. She looked down at the pool where a layer of grime clung to the bottom like black frosting, then back to the rolling bulldozer on the other side of the barbed-wire fence.

Cole didn’t know that what was happening behind that fence would consume the next three years of her life. She did know what the bulldozer meant, though. A gas rig was coming. It was Dec. 4, 2005 — a Sunday.

“Sunday,” she said above the roar, “is no day of rest.”

Part 2: Perils Afoot Gas boom brings potential dangers closer to homes (more…)

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