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Tiny Town of Dish, Texas Stirs Up Hornet’s Nest Over Air Pollution in Barnett Shale

Dish is a town of about 200 residents north of Fort Worth, Texas. The mayor and town council have recently become concerned about emissions from gas compressors in and around the town, from the Barnett Shale gas development. Large compressor stations are located near Dish; these stations have big internal combustion engines that compress gas to move it through gas transmission lines in the area. The town hired an environmental firm, Wolf Eagle Environmental, to conduct air quality tests and has complained to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The small community has now become the focus of the larger debate over the impact of Barnett Shale wells on air quality in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and the impact of oil and gas drilling and production activity on the environment generally.


Recently an environmental group, Earthworks, conducted an unscientific survey of residents in the area. According to Earthworks, 19% of those surveyed considered themselves to be sick, and reported “odor events.” According to Earthworks, “61% of the health impacts reported by participants are known health effects of chemicals detected in the air by Wolfe Eagle Environmental in August 2009.”

The town of Dish was recently featured in a national news feature by John Burnett broadcast on National Public Radio. Burnett reported that a local pediatric nurse and her two children, who live downwind from the compressors, started having headaches, dizziness, blackouts, muscle contractions, and other health symptoms, and she’s convinced that the compressors are the source of the problem.

The work of Wolf Eagle Environmental and the Earthworks survey have been criticized as unreliable. Gene Powell, Jr., publisher and editor of Powell Barnett Shale Newsletter, says that the Earthworks survey included 31 individuals between the ages of 4 and 69, many of whom could have been from the same families — 15% of a population of 200. Powell also says that Wolf Eagle Environmental is a sole proprietorship owned by Alisa Rich, who is not a registered engineer but has a Masters Degree in Public Health and was a teaching Lab Tech at Collins County Community College. The City of Forth Worth hired another environmental firm to evalute the Wolf Eagle report. Industrial Hygiene and Safety Technologies, Inc. opined (
FW%20Engineering%20Analysis%20of%20Air%20Quality%20Study[1].pdf) that Wolf Eagle’s report ignored other possible sources for air contamination, did not sample for compounds associated with gas well operations, had “generally exaggerated and speculative” discussions of chemical hazards, and “does not … provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate adverse impact from gas well exploration and operations….”

In response to Dish’s complaints and other complaints about air quality in the DFW area, the TCEQ has gone into action. It has conducted an air sample monitoring program in the area. It has set up a website explaining its actions. And it has issued a memorandum to all regional directors directing that “all complaints received regarding oil and gas activities in the Barnett Shale will be given an ‘Immediate Response’ priority.  An on-site investigation will be conducted by the Dallas/Fort Worth Region staff within 12 hours of receipt of the complaint by the regional office.”  The TCEQ will conduct an investigation at the site complained of using a GasFind IR (infrared) Camera and will take air samples when warranted. TCEQ’s initial air sampling in Dish led it to conclude that “the monitored concentrations of benzene at several of the sampling locations could pose a long-term health risk to residents in the area if the concentrations are representative of normal and prolonged ambient conditions.” TCEQ will conduct additional sampling in the area.

Personnel from TCEQ attending a Dish town council meeting said that the agency is making air quality in Dish a top priority. “We hear you,” said Susana Hildbrand, the TCEQ air quality division chief engineer. “You’re our top priority now.” Not satisfied, Dish town commissioner William Sciscoe called for a Congressional investigation into how TCEQ and the Texas Railroad Commission have handled complaints about air quality in the Barnett Shale. Dish Mayor Calvin Tillman is rumored to be considering a run for a seat on the Railroad Commission.

The Texas Department of Health Services also said it will collect blood and urine samples from about 50 Dish residents next year, which will be analyzed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the presence of volatile organic compounds and toxins such as benzene and zylene.

The town of Flower Mound, also near Fort Worth and in the Barnett Shale play, recently considered but rejected a staff proposal to impose a moratorium on new gas drilling permits in the town limits until concerns about possible toxic airborne emissions from gas drilling and production activities are addressed.

Gene Powell of Barnett Shale Newsletter calls these developments a “benzene scare” in North Texas, based on “incomplete test results from only a few locations and private studies for which serious credibility questions have been raised.”


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