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Interview: ‘It started with nosebleeds’ – what fracking did to one US town

Calvin Tillman was the mayor of a Texas town which was one of the first to encounter ‘fracking’. He tells what happened next.

Calvin Tillman with a map of gas pipelines around Dish
Calvin Tillman with a map of gas pipelines around Dish
Image: Mark Rogers/AP/Press Association Images

Calvin Tillman is the former mayor of Dish, Texas, a small community which was one of the first in the world to encounter ‘fracking’ – extraction of shale gas by hydraulic fracturing – after the technology was finessed in the late 1990s.

Early last year he moved his family out of the town, saying that the effects of fracking and industrialisation were causing health problems for his children. He has since become an advocate on the subject.

As the debate continues over the possibility of fracking in Ireland, Calvin told about the events that led to him leaving Dish.

When did you begin to think that the gas extraction might be causing problems?

My kids had started to get nosebleeds. Dish is a pretty rural community, so we became a target for pipelines. There’s a bunch of pipelines that run through the area, and a huge station that was put up to facilitate those. Natural gas doesn’t come out as a clean-burning hydrocarbon, it has to go through a process to have the impurities removed, using these plants called dehydrators which were installed around Dish.

So we noticed that my kids began to get nosebleeds pretty frequently. I had never gotten nosebleeds in my life, and I was getting them once in a while – but my kids were the predominant concern. And at that point it became hard to ignore what was going on with them. So I started paying attention to when my kids got nosebleeds, and whether there was strong odour coming from the processing plant.

The state of Texas had installed an air monitor, so we could tell whether the levels of chemicals, including ethane, were going up and down. And we were able to correlate those – the odour, the elevated levels, and my children’s nosebleeds – they all seemed to go up at the same time.

Initially I went and purchased a filtration system for my home, which are these good-sized appliances which would continuously filter the air throughout my house. And that worked in keeping the odour out of the house, to some extent. But it just became too much. So we put our house on the market. It took us almost a year to sell it, and I took a financial hit, but it was worth it. I actually made the buyer watch the documentary Gasland before I would sell the place to them.

Were there any other impacts in the local area?

Now that I’ve moved and I’m out of the drilling area, you realise just how much industrialisation goes on. If you took away all of the environmental impacts, all of the health impacts, you would still have a very heavy industrial zone. You’re going to have thousands of trucks going up and down the roads; these heavy equipment haulers and very good-sized pickup trucks; all of these big vehicles on the road. And then, I would urge you to go to Google and get a satellite image of Dish, Texas, and look at the land scarring that goes on and the number of wells. That’s what you will look like. You’re not going to have a nice quiet community any more once this comes to town.

Advocates of fracking say that it will provide much-needed jobs in rural areas. What’s your take on that?

Well, I don’t think you should write somebody a blank cheque just because they’re going to create a few jobs. But let me ask you this: How many pipeline welders are in the local community? How many people with experience drilling, or troubleshooting a compressor station? And I think that’ll tell you where your jobs are going to come from. I hope you guys like people from Texas, because they’re going to import the workers.

In Texas, we’ve had oil and gas for decades. But if you go somewhere like Pennsylvania, most of the locals who are working in the industry drive trucks. Or they work as security guards, or something like that. They’re not the high-paid decision makers in the industry, and it will take you decades to get to that point where they can be decision makers. And at some point people from the States will relocate there and stay there, and it’ll be a permanent part of your landscape.

The companies assessing the potential of the gas basins for fracking have acknowledged that there have been mistakes and environmental impacts elsewhere. But they say that they expect the process to be far better regulated in Ireland. Would that answer your concerns?

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I’ve travelled all around the world and I’ve heard that argument in every single place I go: ‘What happened there isn’t going to happen here. We’re going to regulate it.’ But this is the deal. How many of your governmental agencies know anything about shale gas? Where are you going to get that expertise? Your government can’t pay them what the energy industry can pay them, so for petroleum engineers who know what the problems actually are – the only way that you’re going to figure that out is learning when something bad happens.

Now I went to Canada, and I just got back from Austrian talking about this same subejct. Both of those countries signed mineral agreements that pay 10 per cent royalties. In Dish, two decades ago, they got 16 per cent royalties. And now the going rate is 20-25 per cent. So if your government has already signed a lease, look at that lease. Because they’ve probably already been taken advantage of. Do you think that they’re smart enough to regulate an industry that’s already taken advantage of them once?

What do you think is the future for this technology?

My goal is just to help educate people. What people get in mind of is that there’s going to be a whole bunch of jobs, we’re all going to get fat and be prosperous and make as much money as we want, and there’s going to be no downside. And that’s simply not the case. So if you make that decision, make it knowing that there’s going to be problems. There’s just no way around that.

Do you have any regrets about moving away from Dish?

When you make a big decision about this, you always wonder if you’re overreacting. Well, the nosebleeds that really bothered us were the ones in the middle of the night, while my kids were sleeping. And since we’ve moved, they haven’t had any of those. If they’ve had a nosebleed, it’s because they were picking their nose, or they got in a fight with their brother. It wasn’t the massive nosebleeds that we’d have seen in Dish. And we’ve been gone for a year. So I feel pretty comfortable that we made the right choice getting out of there.

Calvin Tillman’s website is here.

More: Everything you ever needed to know about fracking>

Column: Want to boost the economy and create jobs? Drill for gas>

Column: Never heard of ‘fracking’? You will soon>


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