A Texas Town Takes on Fracking as a Racial Justice Issue

Arlington, Texas, became one of a number of U.S. cities to pass racial equity resolutions in recent months after the police killing of George Floyd, acknowledging the “devastating impact” of Covid-19 on the African-American and Hispanic communities. The resolutions also committed to lifting up “the medical and social needs” of the marginalized.

With racial justice now prominently elevated to the top of Arlington’s agenda, it didn’t take long to test the resolutions’ political gravity. Just after the city council adopted them, what would normally be a standard fracking approval vote turned into a forum for residents’ concerns about the environmental and health risks of gas extraction near Black and Latino neighborhoods. 

“Everybody that we talked to was opposed [to fracking] and the main concern was air pollution, exposure to emissions, and what it would mean for their children’s health,” said Ranjana Bhandari, who disseminated information about several new proposed wells through local nonprofit Livable Arlington. 

The pushback prompted city council members to reject the request to expand a drilling sitewith three new wells, in a move that could pit local lawmakers not just against French oil and gas drilling company Total, but also potentially against a state law that bars some local regulation of fracking. 

It’s unclear whether the permit rejection will be challenged under this law. But the council members’ action shows how proactive measures to elevate racial justice can affect outcomes in local decisions. 

“As more and more cities, counties and health departments examine health disparities and look at the link between environment and health, they will start to make those connections in terms of racial justice and racial equity and health outcomes,” said Robert Bullard, an urban planning and environmental policy professor at Texas Southern University often called the “father of environmental justice.” 

The vote also comes at a time whenoil and gas operations are being permitted to skirt environmental monitoring because of the coronavirus outbreak, according to an Associated Press investigation. 

Before the decision, community members testified about the proposal’s impact on a neighborhood of predominantly Black and Hispanic working class families in East Arlington, where communities have some of the highest rates of Covid-19 in the city. As in much of the U.S., data shows that residents of color in the surrounding county of Tarrant havedisproportionately high rates of Covid-19.

Arlington, a midsize city of almost 400,000 people situated between Dallas and Fort Worth, sits atop the Barnett Shale, thought by some experts to have thelargest reserves of accessible onshore natural gas. The new wells would have been an expansion of a site that has existed since 2010.

Total representative Kevin Strawser said during the hearing that there had been “no violations, complaints, or issues” reported to the company about the existing wells, and that it would use an electric drilling rig and install sound walls to avoid noise and pollution. But when asked by a council member about plans to conduct air monitoring to gauge its impact, Strawser said it doesn’t do its own monitoring but would welcome government monitoring on its site. 

“If there is a concern we will address it immediately,” said Strawser during the June 9 hearing when asked about how the company plans to address environmental concerns. 

The drill site, which is in a higher-density working-class neighborhood, sits next to a daycare center, prompting concerns about nearby children’s health. 

“We could probably throw our balls out to the fence,” said Wanda Vincent, owner of Mother’s Heart Christian Learning Center, remarking on the single barrier that separates her business from the drill site. “Some of our children do have asthma and sometimes we see respiratory issues even in our baby class. They are just babies and already have problems in that area,” she said, suggesting a potential link between fracking and these breathing issues. 

Formally known as hydraulic fracturing, fracking is an alternative to standard oil and gas drilling. The process involves deep underground drilling used in combination with high water pressure to break rock that draws out gas. Studies haveassociated fracking with health effects that can include respiratory problems, birth defects and cancers just from air pollution. In some cases, fracking has also been linked to groundwater contamination and even earthquakes. 

Fracking wells have landed far more frequently near neighborhoods with high populations of people of color, likely due in part to what Bullard calls the “path of least resistance” in fuel extraction companies choosing neighborhoods without enough political power to oppose them. 

A 2017 NAACP study found that African Americans are 75% more likely than the “average American” to live in fence-line communities — areas near industrial or service facilities that are directly affected by the facility’s operation. These areas are subject to more problems with noise, odor, traffic and chemical emissions. 

“ZIP Code is the best predictor of health and well-being in this country. If you tell me your ZIP Code I can tell you how healthy you are,” said Bullard, who conducted much of his early research to establish environmental exposure disparities in Texas.

In Arlington, advocates argue it is not just the location of these drill sites that is drawing concern, but the lack of communication about drilling plans to surrounding communities. Bhandari, of Livable Arlington, said many residents first learned about the drilling expansion proposal when her organization went door-to-door to find out what residents knew about a nearby fracking expansion.  

“We discovered that hardly anybody had been notified within the quarter-mile circle,” said Bhandari. Those left out of the loop include the management of an apartment complex located across the street from the site, housing roughly 500 families, she said. 

Livable Arlington joined with other local social justice groups to pass out thousands of flyers in both English and Spanish informing residents of the risks that fracking could have. “I sent a letter to the city in February about notification being so poor. Our organization pretty much did all of the notifications,” said Bhandari. 

Notification of residents within a certain distance of drill sites is a mandatory component of Arlington’s approval process. Total, which didn’t respond to CityLab requests for comment, said during the hearing that it sent out 1,100 notices to those living in the immediate vicinity and that no community stakeholders showed up to the neighborhood meeting. But Bhandari questions who received these notices. 

After months of collecting supporting documents and citizens’ complaints, the activists managed to persuade the city council to deny Total’s permit request. 

But that council’s decision could be just the beginning of a long fight. State law HB 40 blocks local governments from banning fracking, and some members of the council were concerned that denying Total’s permit would violate that law. HB 40 went into effect after another Texas city, Denton, voted to ban fracking in its town in 2014 by ballot initiative. The city was sued by the Texas Oil and Gas Association, prompting the preemptive measure. 

Arlington council member Ignacio Nunez said he voted in favor of the expansion because he believed HB 40 would be an obstacle, even though, as a retired physician, he did understand the health concerns. 

“I can’t see the city wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars that go to needy people in our community, just so we can fight a losing battle,” said Nunez about possible chances of litigation. 

But council member Marvin Sutton, who voted against the new wells, thought racial justice was worth the fight to show the repercussions of this kind of state law.

“We are responsible for protecting all of the communities,” said Sutton. “You can’t hide [behind] House Bill 40 and say, ‘Our hands are [tied] we can’t do it,’ because the outcome would be different in affluent neighborhoods.”

Others on the council weren’t so sure the permit denial would violate HB 40 at all, given that the council wasn’t rejecting the drill site writ large, but simply this particular expansion. 

“My thought was we weren’t really denying them because they are already drilling multiple wells in that location,” said Council Member Dr. Barbara Odom-Wesley, who also voted against the expansion.

Arlington Assistant City Attorney Galen Gatten said he wasn’t aware of any legal challenges to the council’s decision but that he believed the denial could very well survive legal challenge under HB 40. “I think it is clear that the city was exercising its authority to set reasonable setbacks,” said Gatten.

For now, drilling expansion plans have been put on hold at the site. Strawser, the Total representative, has sent letters to council members that voted against expansion asking them to reconsider, according to Sutton. In the meantime, Total secured approval of seven more wells approved in a different area close to a preschool, without having a public hearing at all. These wells were approved through an administrative agency and never went through the council on the rationale that they didn’t expand the zone in which Total was drilling.

If the battle does escalate over those original three wells, the council members who voted to reject the permits will view that as an opportunity to elevate the wells’ disparate racial impacts. 

“I want the people who live around this drilling site to have a say in what it looks and feels like, what are their feelings about the safety,”  said Sutton. “If they are not being heard we need to have a different conversation with the developer.”

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