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Dish Mayor Calvin Tilman Testifies at Railroad Commission

The Mayor of tiny Dish, Texas, north of Fort Worth, continues to stir up controversy with his claims of air pollution from oil and gas activities causing health concerns in his community. The mayor appeared at the RRC’s January 12 open hearing. You can watch his testimony here (go to item 17 on the agenda). The mayor’s appearance was prompted by an item placed on the agenda by Commissioner Michael Williams, which in turn had been prompted by a letter sent to the Commissioners by State Rep. Ron Burnam. Rep. Burnam’s letter asked the RRC to place a moratorium on permits for wells in the Barnett Shale around Fort Worth until the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has finished its investigation of air quality in the area. In response, Commissioner Williams proposed that the Commissioners write a letter to the Texas Attorney General asking for a formal opinion whether the RRC has authority to issue such a moratorium. (Rep. Burnam has also asked the City of Fort Worth to issue a similar moratorium on well permits in the city limits.) I have written about the controversy concerning the town of Dish in a previous post.

Mayor Tilman read a prepared statement to the Commissioners and then answered questions. He said that Dish has 180 citizens and a budget of $70,000. The town marks the intersection of eleven gas transmission lines and eleven compressor stations serving the Barnett Shale. When citizens complained of noise and odors, the Mayor began complaining to State regulators, including the RRC and the TCEQ. Dish commissioned an air quality study which found elevated levels of benzene in the air. Mayor Tilman encouraged further air quality studies but said that, until recently, he had received no responses to his complaints. He alleged that there is “no safe level of benzene,” and that reduction in emissions will not take place until mandated by regulation. He said that failure to act will cause leukemia and birth defects. (A nearby town, Flower Mound, has requested that the Texs Department of State Healt Services investigate a higher than normal incidence of leukemia in two zip codes in Flower Mound.) Mr. Tilman said that existing emissions control technologies can reduce emissions by 90%, that such technologies are being used in other states, and that the technologies are part of the EPA’s natural gas “Star” program for reducing emissions.

Mr. Tilman then responded to questions from the Commissioners. The Commissioners were obviously prepared for the opportunity. They questioned the veracity of Dish’s air quality study, and suggested that air contamination could be coming from sources other than oil and gas facilities. They questioned a health assessment questionnaire used in Dish. The Commissioners also made clear that air quality was not within the RRC’s jurisdiction. All three Commissioners announced that they gravely doubted that the RRC had authority to impose a drilling moratorium and in any event would not be in favor of one. They assured Mr. Tilman that they would work with the TCEQ to investigate complaints made by citizens.

Mr. Tilman has subjected himself to severe criticism, I think unfairly, by the oil and gas industry. From his testimony it is apparent that he is an upaid mayor simply trying to respond to complaints from his constituency, and he sincerely believes that there is an air pollution problem in his community. In his answers to questions, he said he believes that the source of the contamination is emissions from the gas compressors. He previously complained about noise made by the compressors and has convinced some companies to install noise abatement equipment. There is no question that the gas compressors emit contaminants, including some volatile organic compounds, including benzene.

The TCEQ, unlike the RRC, has made efforts to investigate the problem. On the same day as the RRC hearing, the TCEQ issued a report of three days of air sampling done in the Fort Worth area, and made a presentation to the Fort Worth City Council of its findings. The powerpoint of the TCEQ’s presentation may be viewed here: 
TCEQ%20Fort%20Worth%20Air%20Quality%20Test%20Results%20by%20Sadlier%201-12-2010[1].pdf. The TCEQ did not find elevated levels of VOC’s in its samples.

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