By JUDY SHERIDAN
AZLE — There were lots of questions but few answers Thursday night as a panel of officials — including Texas Railroad Commissioner David Porter — gathered at Azle High School for a Town Hall on the recent earthquakes that have repeatedly shaken northeast Parker County.
A region midway between Reno and Briar has been identified by the U.S. Geological Survey as the epicenter of some 30 low-magnitude quakes since Nov. 5, which area residents blame for cracks in the walls, plumbing and foundations of their homes.
To the surprise and dismay of the hundreds who packed the auditorium, the Railroad Commission’s moderator, Chief of Staff Caleb Troxclair, told the first resident to step up to the open mic that the commission would not answer questions.
“Since we are on such a tight timeframe, we’re trying to keep it to comments only,” he said, as many in the somewhat disorderly crowd jeered.
As speaker after speaker rose to recount their experiences during the two-hour forum, it grew apparent that many believed the earthquakes were the result of oil and gas industry activities.
Several urged the commission to reduce the risk of quakes by shutting down disposal wells — which are injected with fracking waste — rather than wait for studies.
“The XTO Westlake saltwater disposal site is less than two miles from the epicenter,” Doug Howard said. “I think you should start with that one.”
One resident reported water springing up from the ground, another oil in their water well.
Residents worried aloud about the stress on pipelines, groundwater pollution from fracking chemicals, explosions that might result from shifting propane tanks and not being able to afford home repairs or earthquake insurance.
Jack DeShazo, a north Parker County resident and former Aledo ISD ag teacher, asked the commission to look at the crowd around them.
“These are blue-collar, working-class people that work for a living,” he said. “They can’t just up and move, so we need to solve this problem.”
DeShazo asked how many disposal wells were in the area and was told that 23 disposal permits had been issued in Parker County since 2005, with 15 between 2005 and 2008, the height of oil and gas activity on the Barnett Shale.
Troxclair told residents they could use the website’s GIS mapping system to find commercial disposal wells and the activities associated with those wells.
An Oak Harbor resident named Cathy said energy corporations “supercede anything the railroad commission can do in Texas.”
She warned that “toxic” chemicals used in fracking would pollute the water table and pointed out that city residents are asked to conserve water while frackers are permitted to use millions of gallons.
“So it’s kind of weird to me. I live in Azle, and I’m told that you have to water your lawn on every other day because water is so precious,” she said. “Somewhere down the line we need to stop thinking about money and think about what God gave us.”
Melanie Williams said she was living outside her home and had been paying for two residences for the last six months due to pipe issues. She refused to leave the mic until someone responded to her request for help, eventually obtaining a card from a commission representative. Quakes have been occurring since early November.
Reno realtor Tracy Sutton said callers are asking if the area is a safe place to live.
“We just got our feet back on the ground,” she said. “Whatever you have to do, do it quickly. Let’s put an end to it. Just pretend that you live right here.”
One resident asked whether the commission was monitoring the amount of water being injected into disposal wells and was told by Gil Bujano, director of the commission’s oil and gas division, that limits are established and monitored.
The crowd cheered and applauded when Jim Lasater questioned the validity of studies undertaken by the commission.
“I know the studies are inconclusive according to studies y’all have done,” he said, “but I was wondering how unbiased they can be since there’s so much oil and gas money that goes into the campaigns of elected officials.”
At the beginning of the town hall, Railroad Commissioner Porter told the crowd that the commission is concerned and involved, “but we have to make our actions on sound science and proven facts, not the speculation that appears in some newspaper articles and some blogs.”
“We’re going to take your feedback and factor it into our internal observations and studies, look at the academic studies that are going on at the same time and develop a plan going forward,” Railroad Commission Executive Director Milton Rister added.
After the town hall ended, Porter told the crowd he had talked with the state geologist and was “in the process of trying to get some studies formed to look at this situation closer to make sure that we have the evidence that we need.”
“We have a staff member participating in a work group with the EPA and a number of other state regulatory agencies as well as the USGA that are looking at this situation,” he said.
“We are continuing to monitor disposal wells in the area, making sure they are complying with the rules and regulations.”
Attending the forum were Rep. Charlie Geren, Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett, Parker County Judge Mark Riley, Parker County commissioners George Conley and Larry Walden, Rep. Lon Burnham, Tarrant County Commissioner J.D. Johnson, Wise County commissioners Kevin Burns and Harry Lamance and Reno mayor Lynda Stokes.
The offices of Rep. Phil King, Sen. Jane Nelson and Congresswoman Kay Granger sent representatives.
King’s Chief of Staf,f Ashley Westenhover, read a statement from King.
“Oil and natural gas production is a cornerstone of the Texas economy and employs hundreds of thousands of Texans,” she said. “It is important for all discussions about energy to be rooted in fact and established in science.”
Judge Riley said it would ease the frustrations and fears of his constituents if the commission would set timelines for answers as it moves forward with its studies.
Rep. Burnam, a Democrat from District 90, took the podium as the event concluded, in response to the shouts of someone in the crowd.
“I was disappointed because I had the understanding it was going to be a Q&A, because there’s a whole lot of questions out here,” he said.
“I know you gave the answer to a lot of those questions, but I think in the next month or two we need to have a forum with some real dialogue.”
Burnham said residents could call 512-463-7158 for assistance with the railroad commission’s website.
Parker County Commissioner George Conley, who asked Parker County commissioners to authorize a letter from Judge Riley asking the railroad commission for answers, said he was disappointed the commission chose not to give any.
“They’d better do it next time or they’ll be run out of town,” he said.