Parents voice health concerns

12:18 AM CDT on Sunday, October 24, 2010

By Lowell Brown and Britney Tabor / Staff Writers

ARGYLE — Kelly Gant once worked for an oil refinery in Port Arthur — an area nicknamed “Explosion Coast” and “Cancer Alley.”

When she left the job, the company was in the midst of a $200 million government-mandated soil cleanup project, she said. She couldn’t flee fast enough.

Gant and her husband settled in Argyle, thinking it would be an ideal place to raise a family. Fifteen years later, she feels like she’s back in harm’s way.

Since gas drilling began near Argyle High School in recent weeks, her 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.

Gant described the scene for Argyle school board members Monday night, joining a group of parents, residents and local environmentalists with expertise on Barnett Shale community impacts, all concerned about increasing natural gas development in the area.

The concerns centered on two gas drilling sites along U.S. Highway 377 near Old Justin Road, where Hillwood Energy plans to drill up to 36 wells. Argyle Town Council members approved zoning changes to allow drilling at both sites in March, but drilling at the first site didn’t start until recently.

That site, known as the Whitehead pad, is about half a mile from Argyle High School, said Susan Knoll, a member of the Argyle-Bartonville Communities Alliance, a group formed in March that has fought the placement of gas facilities near homes and schools. The other drilling site, known as the Jenkins pad, is about 1,500 feet from Argyle Intermediate School and about half a mile from Hilltop Elementary School, she said.

Complaints about students with nosebleeds, dizziness, disorientation and nausea started appearing on the alliance’s blog in early October. Some residents reported smelling rotten eggs, a smell associated with sulfides, while others reported odors similar to gas, pesticides and fingernail polish remover.

The day of the school board meeting, the alliance posted a report titled “Substantial Endangerment,” which offered a detailed account of students’ recent health problems, including one who complained of unusual chest pains after running around the high school track.

DRC/Barron Ludlum

DRC/Barron Ludlum

Argyle parents say Hillwood Energy drilling sites, including this one pictured Thursday off U.S. Highway 377, are located too close to schools and are making their children sick.

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The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality responded to complaints in the area on three different days this month and took an air canister sample on one of the visits, spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said. The results were pending.

A call to Hillwood’s Fort Worth office seeking comment was not returned.

Argyle school board president Debbie Cantrell said board members “listened very intently” to the presentation Monday, but she declined to comment in detail.

“I would rather hold those [comments],” she said. “We’re not allowed to make any decisions or comments on those issues in a public forum or take any action upon them.”

Superintendent Telena Wright said she had spoken with a TCEQ investigator about the problem and was awaiting results from the air test. District administrators, whose offices are next to the intermediate school, have not noticed any odors, she said.

Administrators were concerned this week about air quality near Argyle Intermediate, Wright said, and the state responded to the concern Wednesday and Thursday with infrared cameras known as GasFindIR to test emissions and potential hydrocarbon emissions in the area. No odors were detected from the testing, but a dead skunk was found, the state reported.

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.

Wright said signing bonuses and other lease revenue from the 2008-09 school year — roughly $528,000 — allowed the district to balance its budget after incurring a deficit by opening a new intermediate campus. Royalty payments that go into the district’s general fund aren’t earmarked for a specific purpose, she said.

Knoll, the community alliance member, said the school district’s gas drilling revenues probably wouldn’t even cover the cost of treating one child with leukemia. A report released in January by the TCEQ detailed elevated levels of benzene at many of the natural gas facilities that inspectors visited. People who are regularly exposed to low levels of benzene can develop severe anemia, leukemia and lymphoma, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“You can’t put a price on keeping our kids healthy,” Knoll said.

She pointed to neighborhoods near Liberty Elementary School in Flower Mound that recorded cases of brain tumors, childhood leukemia and breast cancer in women younger than 40 after gas drilling began there years ago.

An analysis by the Texas Department of State Health Services this year found that occurrences of leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and childhood brain cancers in two Flower Mound ZIP codes were within the expected ranges from 1998 to 2007, while the number of breast cancer cases increased slightly. The average annual number of cases of leukemia, non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and breast cancer increased from 2007 to 2009, but state officials said they lacked enough data to draw conclusions from the results.

Natural gas production in North Texas’ Barnett Shale region has been linked to emissions of other harmful chemicals including formaldehyde, carbon disulfide, ethane, toluene and xylene.

The January TCEQ report analyzed more than 100 volatile organic compounds but focused primarily on benzene. Although most of the sites weren’t emitting pollutants at levels that required immediate action, state officials said the findings showed that long-term exposure to natural gas facilities could cause health problems.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency is working on new oil and gas rules, but finishing them will take time, said Sharon Wilson, a representative of the Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Project, which pushes for cleaner drilling practices and stronger regulations in the state. In the meantime, it’s up to local communities to protect residents from the industry’s harmful effects, Wilson said.

Parents at the meeting Monday urged school board members to have school nurses keep a detailed log of any student health issues, especially asthma cases; to encourage district employees to log and report any odors they smell to the TCEQ; to pass a resolution to consider fumes entering school property a nuisance and trespass; and to put other parameters in place for keeping students safe.

“Frankly, the health and environmental impacts of living near natural gas production are well known and well documented,” Wilson told Argyle school board members. “And anyone who disputes or ignores it at this time is just willfully ignorant or negligent.”