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As gas drilling expands in Tarrant County, east Fort Worth residents say they’re paying the price

Willie Miller.png
Haley Samsel
Fort Worth Report
Willie Miller, a 96-year old resident of Stop Six, stands outside his home directly across from the Mount Tabor drill site.

Stop Six neighbors report loud noise, air pollution and cracks in their homes from fracking taking place in their neighborhood.

The second Teena James stepped outside on Feb. 28, she could see clouds of black smoke filling the clear sky.

It was no mystery where the exhaust was coming from: the natural gas drilling site just down the block from James’ home, where only a road and a 6-month-old wall stand between residents and fracking.

Although the Mount Tabor drill site has stood on 3020 Village Creek Road for more than a decade, TEP Barnett – the Fort Worth branch of French energy giant TotalEnergies – began drilling again in January, this time creating four new gas wells.

Loud booms filled east Fort Worth’s Stop Six neighborhood at all hours of the night, according to James and other homeowners, and the machines extracting gas from the ground never seemed to turn off.

“When they first came in, that’s all you were going to hear,” said Dereck Collins, whose home is just a few hundred feet from the TEP Barnett property. “Boom! We used to hear this all night. Boom! You can feel it.” The noise was one thing. Black exhaust was another.

On that sunny Monday morning, James said she could taste the fumes in her mouth, causing her to vomit and later call an ambulance to check on her condition. But first, James pulled out her phone and began to record.

“I don’t know who I’m supposed to tell this to, I don’t know who’s supposed to listen and who can make a difference,” James told viewers on Facebook Live, pointing her camera toward the steady stream of exhaust entering the air. “But I’m letting you know as a mother, as a homeowner, as someone who stays in the community, this is not healthy for our neighborhood.”

Within hours, James called Fort Worth’s code compliance department and eventually filed a complaint with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which dispatched investigators to the site that day. Victoria Cann, a commission spokesperson, would not provide details on what was discovered at the site, but said the investigation is ongoing.

In a statement, TEP Barnett said a contractor’s pump at the Mount Tabor drilling pad began to fail and blew dark smoke on Feb. 28, though neighbors said they noticed some smoke as early as Feb. 25.

TEP Barnett said the pump was shut down and replaced within an hour. James recorded black exhaust coming from the facility just before 9 a.m., and again just before 1 p.m.

“Our neighbors were not harmed by the mechanical issue,” the statement reads. “We investigate any incident and draw on recommendations to continually improve our processes and procedures. TotalEnergies remains committed to operate this and all our sites in a safe and environmentally responsible way.”

The company also said officials conduct daily monitoring of noise and were in full compliance with allowable levels in the residential neighborhood. TEP Barnett logs “all inquiries” about drill sites and found that no inquiries were received from neighbors about drilling activities at Mount Tabor.

“For our recent drilling activities, we used an electric rig which operates on electricity and thus there were no emissions during the referenced action,” the TEP Barnett statement said. “We did not receive any citations for violating the Fort Worth gas drilling ordinance.”

Multiple neighbors said they tried to contact TEP Barnett through a phone number posted on the fence near the entrance of the drill site. They said they weren’t able to get through to anyone at the company despite repeated attempts.

Home Owners.jpeg
Dereck Collins
Dereck Collins, a homeowner in Stop Six, snapped this photo of the Mount Tabor drill site and the sound barrier wall separating his neighborhood and fracking activity.

Fort Worth has 600-plus drill sites, two inspectors

Brendan Skaggs, a gas well inspector for the city of Fort Worth, told the Report that he visited Mount Tabor the day after the incident was reported to the commission for a regular inspection he conducts on active fracking sites.

There are more than 600 drilling sites and 1,900 gas wells across the city, and two people are tasked with conducting annual inspections of each of them, along with urban forestry inspections, Skaggs said.

“I try to go to every site at least three or four times a year, and if there’s activity such as drilling, I’ll go out there once every two to three weeks,” he said. “It’s required to do every site at least once a year, but again, that’s not sufficient … It still needs to be done, it doesn’t matter if it’s two people or eight people that it takes to do it.”

He didn’t see any emissions issues while on site, but said he would not necessarily go to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which regulates the state’s air quality and industrial pollution, if he did spot a problem. Depending on the situation, Skaggs said, he would likely reach out to the person who filed a complaint or the gas well operator first.

City gas well inspectors are not allowed to do air quality emissions inspections because they are required to stick to Fort Worth’s gas well ordinance, which focuses on groundwater contamination inspections.

Code compliance officers in the environmental quality department do investigate air quality complaints in Fort Worth following investigation protocols set by the state environmental commission.

“They’re fracking out there, so there is probably a lot of dust and accumulation in the air,” Skaggs said. “But we don’t even have the equipment to do any kind of (air) monitoring, and we’re really not allowed to do that.”

A house directly across from the drilling site has served as Willie Miller’s home for 61 years. The 96-year-old said he often has to head inside and close all of his windows to keep from breathing in dust kicked up from 18-wheelers driving up and down Village Creek Road as part of the drilling operations.

“It has gotten worse since they started (drilling). They don’t give a damn about the human beings who live here and have to inhale all this stuff,” Miller said.

Calling a council member is often the best way to “get the ball rolling” on sending an inspector to a gas well site, Skaggs said.

Fort Worth has a record of James calling the city’s hotline to complain about the thick black smoke being released into her neighborhood, said city spokesperson Michelle Gutt. A code compliance officer responded on Feb. 28 and visited James’ house to investigate on March 3, James said.

But James wasn’t able to reach her council member, Gyna Bivens, or other elected officials, including the mayor’s office. Bivens, who represents District 5, said she did not receive a call from James but did hear from a Buddhist temple near the site that was concerned about the smoke.

“I got calls that they were drilling again, and that’s all I know,” Bivens told the Report. “The city has gas wells all over and, from time to time, companies see if they can get something out of them. I don’t see it as a really big issue.”

Stop Six not only neighborhood struggling with TEP Barnett

Stop Six neighbors are not the first group of Tarrant County residents to complain about fumes and health issues stemming from TEP Barnett’s drilling operations.

Last December, employees of Mother’s Heart Learning Center in east Arlington filed two complaints with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality after workers felt nauseated while spending time on a playground near the AC360 drill site on 2000 S. Watson Road.

Just a few weeks later, Arlington council members denied a permit that would have allowed TEP Barnett to drill three more wells near the daycare center and homes.

As the leader of environmental advocacy group Liveable Arlington, Ranjana Bhandari advocated for the permit denial alongside Mother’s Heart founder Wanda Vincent. After hearing about the recent incident in east Fort Worth, Bhandari said there is a pattern of residents not having a defined pathway for getting their concerns heard by either the gas operator or the government.

“We’re often told there are no complaints, but people don’t know how to complain,” Bhandari said. “This is a complaint-driven system of cleaning the air. (Investigators) come out after the fact. By then, the evidence of the problem has blown away.”