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In Fort Worth, Railroad Commissioner Gets An Earful About Proposed Lake Arlington Disposal Well

At a community forum on Thursday night, Fort Worth and Arlington residents voiced concerns about a proposed saltwater injection well near Lake Arlington. The residents made their case to an audience of one: Ryan Sitton, one of three Texas Railroad Commissioners who regulates the oil and gas industry in the state.

The company behind the proposal, Tulsa-based Bluestone Natural Resources, says it needs the well to dispose of wastewater from nearby gas wells. But about 150 people who packed an East Fort Worth community center for the forum asked blunt questions and made their concerns clear to the commissioner: Putting a disposal well on the edge of a vital water resource strikes them as a terrible idea.

“Why are they trying to build an injection well just 9,000 feet from Lake Arlington dam?” asked Jane Lynn of Arlington. “We have our homes there, we have our businesses there, our schools. This seems reckless, in my opinion.”

If the lake gets polluted, who pays for the toxic waste cleanup?” asked Bryan Severns of Fort Worth.

State Rep. Nicole Collier of Fort Worth, a Democrat well liked by Texas environmentalists, invited Sitton to address questions about the permit process for concerned residents. Collier said she opposed the well, but urged residents to listen respectfully so they'd know how best to fight the proposed well.

The cities of Arlington and Fort Worth have sent protest letters opposing the well. Both have ordinances banning injection wells like the ones Bluestone wants to build. But those laws may not be much help to the cities since the Texas Legislature effectively overturned local oil and gas regulations in 2014, after the city of Denton banned hydraulic fracturing.

Nonetheless, Fort Worth Councilwoman Gyna Bivens wondered aloud to a supportive audience: “Do we have the right to govern our land use?”

Tarrant Regional Water District board member Mary Kelleher said the water district had already sent its own letter to the commission protesting the permit.

“I just want y’all to know that our agency is totally opposed to this injection well,” Kelleher said.

Sitton told the crowd he couldn’t discuss specifics about the permit application for the Lake Arlington well because it’s pending. Instead, he explained the permit process, and the way the Railroad Commission vets permit applications from the oil and gas industry.

“We have processes,” he said. “They’re not perfect, nothing we can do is perfect, but we work really hard to do it right.”

Sitton also played engineering professor, a role he's particularly suited for as the first engineer to be elected to the Railroad Commission in decades. He used charts and diagrams to explain how injection wells are built and tested. He said it’s generally pretty safe to pump water and other gas production waste into a porous rock layer thousands of feet underground. One concern he said is valid: the link between these disposal wells and earthquakes.

“As we look around the state, there are areas where we think look disposal wells could have very well have had an impact on seismic events,” he said. “And we’re being public about that.”

Sitton told his skeptical audience that the Railroad Commission cared about their concerns, that he understood it’s always personal when someone wants to drill in your back yard, but he also didn’t sugar coat.

“Popularity and public opinion is not what I’m statutorily charged to do,” he said. “My job is to look at it and see if it’s safe. If I believe the well is safe I’m going to vote for it. If I don’t believe it’s safe then I’m not.”

Next month, when the Railroad Commission holds a public hearing about the Lake Arlington well, Sitton and his colleagues can probably expect a lot of testimony arguing it’s not safe.