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Texas fracking critics tour the Eagle Ford as complaints of contamination surface

Photo: Micahel Barajas, License: N/A

Micahel Barajas

Toby Frederick, who lives outside Cuero, stands next a well on his property pumping water that reeks of diesel fuel.

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

A natural gas compressor station outside Cuero, one piece of the Eagle Ford buzzing with oil and gas exploration.


Calvin Tillman set out on his weekend tour across South Texas hoping to alert area landowners about the dark side of the growing oil shale boom. Beginning at a Laredo forum packed with local farmers, environmental activists, and industry reps, Tillman worked his way northeast from the Rio Grande, crossing a region teeming with drilling rigs.

Tillman, who saw firsthand the Barnett Shale’s own drilling explosion as the mayor of Dish, cautioned locals bracing for the drilling frenzy bubbling in South Texas’ oil- and gas-rich Eagle Ford Shale, claiming lax state regulation cleared the way for air and water contamination that plagues his small North Texas town. Tillman warned, “You’ve probably heard and you’ll probably hear again that what happened [elsewhere] will not happen here. That’s what we heard.”

To the Laredo crowd, Tillman remarked, “I’m not opposed to natural gas drilling, I’m not some wacko environmentalist … I am against being poisoned, though, and I’m certainly against my children being poisoned.”

Heralded as a game-changer for the South Texas economy, industry is flocking to the Eagle Ford, one of North America’s hottest petroleum plays. Since its discovery, permits have exploded from only 26 in 2008 to nearly 1,000 within the first four months of this year, according figures from the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the industry. A recent study claims as many as 100,000 natural gas wells could dot the South Texas landscape when all’s said and done.

Stretching across roughly 400 miles of hot, dry terrain, the Eagle Ford currently sustains roughly 12,000 jobs across a 24-county swath of South Texas and under “moderate” projections could support nearly 70,000 full-time jobs within the coming decade, according to researchers with the University of Texas at San Antonio’s Institute of Economic Development.

But concerns over water contamination and damaging health effects have followed the drilling process, known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, nearly everywhere industry takes it. From the Northeast to the Southwest, critics have charged the method, which injects massive amounts of chemical-infused water thousands of feet underground to break up oil- and gas-bearing shale, taints local groundwater, though industry and regulators here claim it’s a geologic impossibility. And suffering through one of Texas’ worst drought in recorded history, observers wonder how to balance scarcity with a lucrative industry that requires massive amounts of increasingly precious water to operate.

On his trip, Tillman brought with him a vial of ashy gray sediment, which he said came from a groundwater well just 500 feet from a natural gas production site in his North Texas hometown. The water, when tested, showed high levels of arsenic, lead, bentonite, and benzene, compounds common in fracking fluid, also known as drilling mud. Tillman ties the contamination of that well, and several North Texas wells like it, to nearby fracking, though regulators dispute the claim.

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