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Texas Schools are Drilling for Dollars

Monday, November 1, 2010

By Alex Formuzis, EWG V-P for Media Relations

Pro sports teams regularly use signing bonuses to lure the star athletes they want. Now some Texas school districts are taking the bait, too. But the money isn't coming from The Dallas Cowboys; it's being dangled by energy companies drilling for natural gas atop a large swath of North Texas called the Barnett Shale.

Last week (Oct. 24), the Denton Record Chronicle reported that:

In 2008, the Argyle school district signed leases with Hillwood and Williams Production allowing gas exploration on about 110 acres of district-owned property. To date, the district has received $680,681.25 in revenue from the leases, including royalty and bonus payments, according to district records obtained through an open records request.

But along with the substantial amount of money the school district hauled in from its arrangement came some side effects that the students are now feeling. As Lowell Brown and Britney Tabor wrote:

Since gas drilling began near Argyle High School in recent weeks, her (Kelly Gant) daughter has experienced severe symptoms of asthma, a condition she had controlled for years, Gant said. Twice in the last two weeks, Gant said, she had to pull her daughter out of high school marching band practices because of dense fumes on the field.

Her daughter was dizzy, jittery. Her head ached and she couldn't concentrate. "She said, 'Mom, I just feel like pacing and I don't understand it,'" Gant said.

According to the article, reports of students suffering nose bleeds and complaining about feeling dizzy and disoriented started appearing in early October on a blog set up by the Argyle-Bartonville Communities Alliance - a group of concerned residents who are working to halt further natural gas drilling in the area. Another new drilling rig near a school On Sept. 27, the Forth Worth Star-Telegram's Robert Cadwallader reported that Carrizo Oil and Gas - another Texas-based company, had set up a rig near South Davis Elementary in nearby Arlington, Texas. In late September, the school board gave the go-ahead to the company to drill under the school to reach its "lease pool" of natural gas, which is located under another property in the area. The school district and Carrizo recently settled a lawsuit in which the district had argued the company owed it $3 million in bonuses.

It's not clear whether the companies plan to use a controversial natural gas extraction technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The school districts ought to do their homework and ask, because according to studies by the Environmental Working Group, the fracking process injects large volumes of several dozen chemicals listed or regulated as hazardous substances under six federal statutes, including the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and Superfund, but are largely exempted from these laws when used in oil and gas drilling.

Benzene at school, anyone? Last January tests conducted by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) found elevated levels of benzene near a number of drilling operations. Benzene is one of the toxic chemicals used in fracking. Chronic exposure to benzene is known to cause leukemia and other blood diseases. People are primarily exposed through breathing urban air, automobile exhaust and cigarette smoke.

Hillwood International Energy appears to be a privately held company. Carizzo is publicly traded, and its 2009 annual report describes the risks of its exploration and drilling operations in disquieting terms:

We are subject to various operating and other casualty risks that could result in liability exposure or the loss of production and revenues.

The natural gas and oil business involves operating hazards such as: well blowouts; mechanical failures; explosions; uncontrollable flows of oil, natural gas or well fluids; fires; geologic formations with abnormal pressures; pipeline ruptures or spills; releases of toxic gases; and other environmental hazards and risks. Any of these hazards and risks can result in the loss of hydrocarbons, environmental pollution, personal injury claims and other damage to our properties and the property of others.

"You can't put a price on keeping our kids healthy," said Susan Knoll, who is a member of the Argyle-Bartonville Communities Alliance fighting the drilling operations.

Agreed. Exposing school children to mix of toxic chemicals, or to the slightest possibility of any of these catastrophic events, seems like the height of irresponsibility.

[Thanks to cafemama for the playground pic]

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