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Arlington day care, activists, sue city, as leaders prepare to vote on fracking expansion

Natural Gas Endangered Communities
Martha Irvine
/
AP
A fence surrounds an abandoned playground near a natural gas well site in Arlington. The playground at the Cornerstone Baptist Church and school was closed because it is about 400 feet from wells at the site, now operated by a subsidiary of French energy giant Total Energies. A new playground was built about 200 feet to the north, putting it just beyond the 600 feet minimum required by the city of Arlington.

The day care center at the heart of Tarrant County’s fracking debate and an environmental advocacy group are suing the city of Arlington, alleging officials jeopardized children’s safety and the center’s business.

Wanda Vincent, founder of Mother’s Heart Learning Center, and environmental advocacy group Liveable Arlington allege that elected officials violated their rights by approving three more gas wells by a 5-4 vote on Nov. 30.

“Children are being harmed. Somebody has to stand up for the mothers and families who are really distressed about this,” said Ranjana Bhandari, the executive director of Liveable Arlington. “This is a big step for us to take, but we didn’t see any other option.”

During the November meeting, a majority of council members told residents that they had virtually no choice but to approve a permit allowing more gas drilling at 2000 S. Watson Road in East Arlington, citing the possibility of an expensive lawsuit from French energy giant Total.

Now, ahead of a public hearing and final vote scheduled for Tuesday night, the dynamic has changed as activists argue that Arlington did not follow the process dictated by the city’s gas production ordinance when conducting the November vote.

Rather than requiring seven votes to approve a drilling zone within 600 feet of protected buildings like schools and homes, as the ordinance states, council members approved the redrawn drill zone by a simple majority, according to the suit. That map purposefully excluded an active well that sits within 600 feet of a residence, the lawsuit claims.

“We’re actually trying to preserve the rules and process that the city has,” Bhandari said. “It seems we are the only ones.”

The suit, filed Dec. 30 in Tarrant County District Court, lists Arlington Mayor Jim Ross, City Council members and Richard Gertson, assistant director of city planning and development services, as defendants.

City spokesperson Susan Schrock said Arlington officials learned about the suit Monday morning but had not been officially served as of late Monday afternoon. Total representatives did not return a request for comment.

Drilling previously approved by the city continues on the property, and Vincent recently filed two complaints with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality over air pollution that made staff members nauseated, according to Bhandari.

The commission’s official Twitter account said an investigator did not note any emissions or strong odors while investigating a Dec. 14 incident.

The suit also accuses Arlington of racial discrimination, arguing that the city is “far more likely” to deny gas well permits when opposition comes from affluent, white residents rather than residents living in poorer, less white areas. Mother’s Heart is attended exclusively by children of color in a neighborhood that is about 40% Black and 20% Latino, according to the lawsuit.

Vincent and Liveable Arlington seek to postpone a second, final vote Tuesday that would finalize a permit allowing TEP Barnett, Total’s Fort Worth branch, to move forward with expanded gas drilling at its AC360 site.

The second vote was previously scheduled for Dec. 14. A representative for Total requested a delay because not all voting members could attend. Ross was absent during the December meeting but joined four other council members to approve Total’s request in November.

The City Council’s final vote on the permit, as well as a public hearing for the individual gas wells, are the only items on the Tuesday special meeting agenda. Schrock did not immediately answer a question about whether the lawsuit might delay the votes.

A long history of controversy

This isn’t the first time Total has asked to drill more wells near Mother’s Heart. It is, however, the first time over half of Arlington’s elected officials have fielded the request.

Total requested permits for three new gas wells in June 2020 but was denied by a 6-3 vote. During the same meeting, the council created a task force to examine disparities affecting marginalized groups. Speakers challenged officials to consider the drilling’s impact on the surrounding community, whose residents are primarily Black, Latino and Asian.

But more than half of the council seats, including the mayor’s post, have changed hands in the last two municipal elections. The turnover included former council member Marvin Sutton, who pushed for greater distances between drilling and day cares. The updated policy approved last spring requires companies to put 600 feet between drill zones and playgrounds unless they obtain permission through a supermajority vote, or seven council votes.

In November, several city officials renewed the concerns originally voiced by dissenting council members in 2020: Denying gas well permit requests could land Arlington in legal trouble with energy companies.

City officials, including District 1 Council member Helen Moise, advised members of the public who spoke in opposition to shift their efforts to overturning House Bill 40 rather than fighting individual drilling permits.

The 2015 state law prohibits cities from banning drilling inside city limits and implementing regulations that are not “commercially reasonable.” Arlington typically weighs in on issues like noise control, the number of trees required for buffer zones and the required distances between drill zones and protected buildings like hospitals and schools.

“Put your energies to something that can have a difference statewide, not just one drill site at a time, or something that’s going to put the city at risk of not only paying legal fees, but paying business losses,” Moise said.

But officials have the power and responsibility to protect residents by challenging the state law, according to several Tarrant County residents and activists who spoke during the November hearing.

Several speakers pointed to a year-long investigation by Reveal, a podcast by the Center for Investigative Reporting, that found that up to 7,600 Arlington infants and children attend private day care centers within a half-mile radius of gas wells. More than 30,000 public school students attend classes within the same radius.

High stakes for Tuesday’s vote

The lawsuit’s immediate goal is to stop the council from holding a second vote, which will leave Vincent and Liveable Arlington without a legal remedy to “enforce their rights against the permitted gas wells,” according to the filing.

A second vote cannot be held legally since the permit’s initial approval was not a legitimate vote and did not earn the supermajority necessary to move forward, the lawsuit claims.

Citing a May 1 ordinance update, Gertson, the city planning official, said only a simple majority was required because the council has the power to reshape a drill zone to encompass only the areas that are more than 600 feet from protected buildings. Bhandari and Vincent say that the applicable law did not change and even under the amended ordinance, the drill zone must “enclose all the wells on the drill site.”

Ahead of the final vote scheduled for Tuesday, Bhandari and Liveable Arlington are rallying residents to appear in person and testify about the potential impact of more wells during the public hearing.

Vincent is concerned that her business will suffer financially from parents withdrawing their kids from the center due to concerns over safety and exposure to air pollution. The expansion of drilling jeopardizes her goal of providing a safe and healthy environment for children, she said.

“That’s what I’m hoping for – justice for our community and for our children,” Vincent said Monday.

Got a tip? Email Kailey Broussard at kbroussard@kera.org. You can follow Kailey on Twitter @KaileyBroussard.

This story was produced in partnership with Haley Samsel, the environmental reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Her position is supported by a grant from the Marilyn Brachman Hoffman Foundation. Email Haley Samsel at haley.samsel@fortworthreport.org. You can follow Haley on Twitter via @Haley_Samsel.

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