Here’s the Drill

An extraction technique known as fracking has unleashed not only a frenzied gas boom across the country but also crucial questions about  contamination and regulation. For Barnett Shale residents Tim and Christine Ruggiero, the answers can’t come soon enough.

October 2011By Comments

A FRACKING MESS: Tim and Christine Ruggiero have sued Aruba Petroleum over toxic emissions and property damage.
Photograph by Van Ditthavong

Looking back, Tim Ruggiero told me, he really did consider firing his shotgun. We were sitting in his dining room this summer, almost two years after the men had first appeared on his land. But he remembered the day clearly: September 16, 2009. He had been on his way back from the airport, after a work trip to Miami. His wife, Christine, had left their quiet ranch home near Decatur at seven-thirty; dropped their nine-year-old daughter, Reilly, off at school; and headed to her office.

The couple had bought land in Wise County, north of Fort Worth, in 2004. It was their dream property: ten acres with a nearby pond that was stocked with fish. There was room for horses, and eventually they’d bought two, Ninya and Sweetheart, for Reilly to ride. In the summer of 2009, however, they began to feel uneasy about their future. Aruba Petroleum, an oil and gas exploration and production company based in Plano, had sent a crew onto the 38-acre property of the Ruggieros’ neighbors Jim and Pat Headen and drilled a gas well in the front yard. Incensed by the destruction on his neighbors’ acreage, Tim had posted protest signs on his land. A few days later, he’d found one vandalized with spray-painted images of genitalia and the words “U R Next.”

So when Christine received a phone call at work from Pat that September afternoon, her heart raced. “There are bulldozers on your land,” Pat said. “They knocked down your fence. Your horses are wandering around.” Christine jumped in her car and sped down U.S. 380. She arrived to find the fence around the horse pasture sliced apart with cutting torches. The property was full of men and pickup trucks and bulldozers. The horses were nowhere to be seen.

Christine found the site supervisor, Kasey Denson, and begged him to leave. Tim showed up soon afterward. He was furious. “I about lost my mind,” he recalled. “I was up in his face, screaming, demanding he get off my land.” They had met Denson a couple of weeks earlier, when he had knocked on the Ruggieros’ door to discuss Aruba’s interest in their property; they had asked that the company look elsewhere. Now, as before, their pleas were of little use. The crew, explained Denson, was under orders to drill two gas wells. It was then that Tim, in a blinding, speechless rage, had gone inside to find his shotgun. He loaded it with buckshot and began to head outside, the gun heavy in his hands.

“Then a little voice said, ‘Wait, is this a good idea?’ ” Tim told me. “I realized that they probably wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t legal.”

Which it was. Like a number of homesteads around theirs, the Ruggieros’ property had once belonged to a rancher named Herb Wright, who had sold off most of his one-thousand-acre spread but retained the mineral rights. (Surface rights and mineral rights are often sold separately in Texas.) The Ruggieros had learned that they were merely surface owners when they signed the title to their house, but they hadn’t thought twice about it. “Our agent just said that if we found oil on our land, it would belong to the mineral leaseholder,” Tim told me. “And we said, ‘Oh, that’s fine.’ ”

So when Denson showed up with his crew, saying that Wright had leased almost all his mineral rights to Aruba, there was little the Ruggieros could do. Denson presented them with a surface-use agreement that detailed Aruba’s intended activity and proposed compensation for damages. State law gives mineral rights owners full rein when it comes to getting at their assets, so the agreement was, in effect, a formality. Wright’s lease to Aruba, Denson told the Ruggieros, required the company to pay them only $1,500 per well. If they signed, the company would give them $15,000 per well. The Ruggieros signed.

Aruba, which has holdings in the Barnett Shale—a geologic formation that spreads in an arc beneath North Texas—drilled the two wells and then extracted gas by means of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The technique involves blasting shale rock thousands of feet underground with a million or more gallons of water, sand, and chemicals to release trapped oil or gas. Over the past ten years, fracking has unlocked many new natural gas reserves around the country, but it has also brought a wave of controversy. The rush to drill has occurred everywhere from Pennsylvania, which sits atop the Marcellus Shale; to Arkansas, above the Fayetteville Shale; to Texas, where fracking of the Barnett Shale began in earnest in 2005 and where the Eagle Ford Shale, to the south, now attracts workers from all over the world. Those in the gas industry say these reserves can create jobs, end U.S. dependence on foreign oil, and provide a cleaner alternative to coal. But reports of contaminated groundwater and high-profile spills have dogged the boom, prompting calls from state and federal agencies for closer regulation. And since many of the reserves sit beneath populated areas—the Barnett Shale, where Dallas and Fort Worth are located, had 15,269 fracked wells as of August—there have been frequent conflicts with landowners.

The Ruggieros’ home is decorated in traditional Texas-ranch style: Saltillo tile floors, rustic wood chairs, five-pointed Lone Stars everywhere. Framed Bible quotes hang on the walls. Tim and Christine do not seem the type to solve disputes with gunfire. But they do project the kind of resolve that comes from months of battle. Last November the couple filed suit against Aruba for devaluing their property and exposing them to toxic chemicals. Though Aruba has denied their allegations, this summer the couple attended several pretrial hearings, and they anticipate a trial this fall.

Tim is a solidly built fortysomething with graying hair and an air of uneasy, coiled energy. Christine is prim and fit. As we talked, she showed me videos, pictures, and tests documenting the changes on their land. Within a year of the drilling, a well on their property was one of the first in the Barnett Shale to receive a notice of enforcement from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for venting gases that included benzene, a known carcinogen, at elevated levels. Over the past two years, the Ruggieros have filed complaints with the TCEQ and the Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees the state’s oil and gas industry, more times than they care to count.

“I think about that moment with the gun,” Tim told me. “And some days I feel it was a mistake to put it down.”

A decade ago, it looked as if the United States might be running out of natural gas; now untapped shale deposits are being touted as the next energy revolution. How much gas there really is remains a question—the U.S. Geological Survey recently reported that initial estimates for the Marcellus Shale were off by 80 percent—but the scramble is on. Regulation, on the other hand, is only beginning to catch up. Thanks to the 2005 Energy Policy Act, fracking falls outside the jurisdiction of the Safe Drinking Water Act, which means that oil and gas operators have been allowed to pump fluids into the ground without having to identify their chemical content. The lack of big-picture data on the technology’s environmental impact, together with extensive media coverage, led to new hearings about gas drilling in Congress this spring. States like New York, New Jersey, and North Carolina have declared moratoriums on fracking.

Texas, the country’s largest gas-producing state, has helped lead the way in regulation. In June Governor Rick Perry signed an unprecedented fracking law, requiring companies to disclose chemicals used in gas wells on a public website starting in July 2012. Though the legislation, which exempts any chemicals deemed “trade secrets,” was far weaker than environmental groups had hoped, it was embraced by oil and gas executives eager to allay public fears about gas drilling. At the same time, those within the industry, as well as some regulators, have been quick to defend fracking. In late August, a Halliburton executive made a show of taking a swig of fracking fluid at a conference. Elizabeth Ames Jones, the chair of the Railroad Commission, testified before Congress earlier this year that allegations of water contamination were “fairy tales.” On a visit to Cuero, in the Eagle Ford Shale, she sought to reassure residents, saying, “There’s not one case where hydraulic fracturing . . . has contaminated groundwater.”

This may very well be true. Even known critics of the boom, like Houston petroleum geologist and analyst Art Berman, allow that contamination due to the fracking process is unlikely. “Fracking happens miles below the earth, and it’s difficult for fluids to just travel back up,” he told me. Still, there are plenty of other ways—like spills or waste dumping—for pollution to occur. In May a Duke University study of 68 water wells in the Marcellus Shale found that those closest to gas drilling sites contained, on average, seventeen times more methane than those farther away—a fact that suggests that gas drilling, if not necessarily fracking, may lead to serious contamination. (None of the wells showed evidence of fracking chemicals.) The results only underscored the need for increased research, and three months later, on August 11, a Department of Energy panel issued a report calling for better tracking of fracking waste, broader disclosure of fracking chemicals, and tighter monitoring of air pollution at drilling sites. Two weeks later, the Securities and Exchange Commission asked that oil and gas companies provide it with detailed information about their drilling practices.

For people like the Ruggieros, there’s also the shocking reality of having a drilling operation next door. According to Tim and Christine, in the first two months that Aruba began work, crews took over four acres with stadium lighting and trailers. Dozens of trucks rumbled up every day. The sound of banging steel pipes and squealing rig brakes was so loud that “it was like a semi had parked in our living room,” said Tim. Every few minutes, the rig belched diesel exhaust. Christine, convinced the company’s leadership did not know what was happening, wrote three letters to Aruba’s senior management.

She and Tim received responses from Aruba’s CEO, James Poston, and CFO, Jim Lovett, acknowledging their complaints. But the activity in their backyard did not stop. “We realized we were going to have to protect ourselves,” said Christine. By then, the couple had decided to record everything. That Christine’s job involves data collection and that Tim works as a loss prevention investigator, looking into insider theft and fraud, meant the couple was well practiced at gathering information. Soon they had filed a complaint with the TCEQ about the fumes in and around their home. After sending out an inspector, the agency noted in its report a few months later that it had found the concentration of nitrogen oxide on the Ruggieros’ property to be substantially higher than standards proposed by the EPA. The TCEQ recommended that Aruba take steps to reduce the diesel exhaust, but it did not impose a fine.

One day, Christine came home early to find thick, smoke-colored drilling mud—a chemical fluid that aids in drilling boreholes— spewing out of the rig site. It took workers a good while to stop the gushing. Two hours later, when Christine called the Railroad Commission, which oil and gas companies are required to contact in the event of a spill, she discovered that she was the first to do so. The agency sent an inspector, who told Aruba to clean the site but did not impose a fine. When he left, crewmen began collecting the mud in buckets and tossing it over the fence, onto neighboring property—until, according to Christine, she went and got a video camera. They promptly switched to dumping the mud into a waste pit instead.

That fall brought torrential rain, and the same waste pit overflowed, its contents seeping into the Ruggieros’ front yard. The workers would later collect what waste they could, spreading it out over an acre to let it dry before carting it away. But since then, say the Ruggieros, their hillside has been bare; though Aruba has tried to seed it with grass, none will grow. For the couple, this is proof of contamination. But they also offer other evidence: unlike many families in the Barnett Shale, they had the foresight to test their water as soon as the first bulldozers showed up; they later also sampled their soil and the nearby pond. Tests on their water, conducted by Stevens Ecology, showed that in September 2009, their well was clean; by the following March, results suggested contamination from unleaded gasoline. The analyses also showed trace amounts of benzene and xylene, which are chemicals found in fracking fluid. Other tests revealed that xylene, toluene, and acetone, readily detected in the waste pit, were present in the pond as well.

The Ruggieros have now become two of the most outspoken critics of gas drilling, as well as colossal irritants to the industry. (When I contacted Aruba’s spokesman, Fred Stern, he said, “Oh. Them.”) They have reported gas emissions, waste dumping, and mud spills on an almost-monthly basis to state regulators. They have recorded hours of video. In February they finally experienced their first tangible victory when the TCEQ fined Aruba $35,500 for emissions violations on their property. Separately, the Texas attorney general’s office has sued the company for unsanctioned dumping and excessive air-polluting emissions on the Headens’ land. These moves, though, are small comfort. Tim and Christine say they’ve gotten rashes, headaches, and nausea from Aruba’s drilling. Neighbors downwind from them, Lisa and Bob Parr, say they’ve had nosebleeds and migraines.

For its part, Aruba has stated publicly that it has done its best to accommodate the Ruggieros, erecting a fence, building a horse shed, and installing a device that reduces emissions by burning them off. (The company declined to comment for this story, citing the pending litigation.) “We believe their lawsuit is totally without merit,” Stern told the Marcellus Shale–area Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this spring. The TCEQ fine was Aruba’s first; at a hearing in Austin, TCEQ commissioners stated that the company did not have a history of violations with the agency. In preparation for trial, Aruba has undertaken its own testing of the Ruggieros’ property.

Meanwhile, Christine updates her logs daily. She and Tim have told their story to 60 Minutes, and he has become an activist of sorts, testifying before committees and agencies and traveling on speaking tours. (I asked Tim what he tells people. “If you don’t own your mineral rights, you may find out you have no rights,” he said. “That’s it.”) Together with Calvin Tillman, the former mayor of Dish (also in the Barnett Shale), Tim founded ShaleTest, a nonprofit that aims to provide affordable environmental testing. (Tillman, who appeared in the 2010 documentary Gasland, left Dish in February over concerns that gas drilling is affecting his family’s health.) The Ruggieros are also being included in a four-year nationwide study of fracking by the EPA, the findings from which are scheduled to be released in 2012.

When I went to visit the family one last time, we stood outside, leaning against a metal fence surrounding one of the wellheads. There were motion-triggered cameras and alarms to prevent anyone from getting too close. The couple was stuck: they couldn’t very well raise Reilly there, but they would lose everything—their home, their horses, their credit, their community—if they walked away. Their property, which they bought for $250,000 and spent $50,000 on to improve, was appraised in September 2010 at $78,000.

Still, the Ruggieros had decided to move on, no matter the cost. They would wait to see how the Aruba suit went; if they won a settlement, they’d perhaps be able to afford to move. “If not,” Tim said, “we’ll have to figure something else out. But we can’t stay.”

For now, they were counting on their reports. “Let’s say we get cancer in twenty years,” Christine said. “There has to be some sort of record. That’s all I can do to protect us.”

She surveyed what had once been her pasture. “I wanted Reilly to grow up outside,” she said. “I wanted her to know that she could breathe the air and drink the water.” She sighed. “And we got that. For a while.”

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