DISH, Texas Mayor Calvin Tillman Visits Binghamton – Marcellus Drilling News was There

This will necessarily be a long article. As a regular reader of Marcellus Drilling News, you have come to expect brief articles highlighting information useful for landowners and other interested parties in the Marcellus Drilling debate. Last night, your faithful scribe attended a local meeting in Binghamton, NY at Binghamton’s East Middle School, to hear DISH, Texas Mayor Calvin Tillman and his views on natural gas drilling. I went with an open mind to evaluate whether Mr. Tillman and the other speaker of the evening—lawyer Helen Slottje from Ithaca—would present information that would challenge my views that drilling can be done safely when it’s done right.

I would say it’s a fair statement that if you went to the meeting as a supporter of drilling, or as an opponent, your view was not changed by the presentations. I attended on behalf of the average landowner, even though I do not have land for lease in the Marcellus myself. I tried to be your eyes and ears at the meeting. Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated with, nor compensated by, anyone in the drilling debate on either side of the debate. I’m just an interested blogger and advocate for landowners and the rights of private property owners.

This is an account of what happened last night…

Upon arriving, parking was an issue. There were a lot of people pulling in for the meeting, and finding a spot was a challenge. I arrived about 15 minutes before the meeting was to start—which was supposed to be 7 pm. It didn’t get started until 7:20 pm. When I walked through the door, there were several tables set up and a nice woman asked me to register, which I dutifully did. I also accepted several pieces of anti-drilling literature from her. She was from the Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition (BRSC), an anti-drilling group that organized and sponsored last night’s meeting. No worries. I was not there to make trouble—just to observe and record.

I found a seat part of the way back in the large school auditorium, on the isle so I could snap a few pictures. As I sat there and people were coming in, I noticed some calling out to others, old friends and comrades in arms in the great fight against drilling. It was kind of like a church service, or maybe a country auction, where people spot their friends and wave them over to sit with them. I would estimate there were a good 250 people in attendance. I have to be honest, my impression was there were a lot of gray heads in the audience, quite a few of them men with pony tails (and no hair on top). It seemed to me the audience had a healthy number of 60s hippies who have found a new enemy to fight, and they’re enjoying every minute of it. But not everyone was over 55 in the audience. There were younger members as well, at least a few university students.

To get the evening started, Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan (Democrat), welcomed everyone and said a few brief words. Then came Mayor Ryan’s aide, Tarik Abdelazim, who is Director of Planning, Housing, and Community Development for the City of Binghamton. Mr. Abdelazim was moderator for the evening. A note here: I found it very strange and disturbing that Mayor Ryan and Mr. Abdelazim were the hosts for the evening. Seems to me the Mayor should be impartial in this debate. I have no problem with him attending to listen and gauge the interest of residents and hear differing opinions. Or perhaps to participate in a panel discussion. But Mayor Ryan and Mr. Abdelazim were not there to listen. They were there to cheerlead and support (stoke?) anti-drilling sentiments.

Mr. Abdelazim started with a few introductory comments, including the statement that he’s proud of landowners who have banded together to “fight the wealthiest industry in the world.” Similar comments would be made throughout the evening. What better way to whip up the faithful than use the David vs. Goliath metaphor? After a few more anti-drilling jabs, Mr. Abdelzim introduced DISH, Texas Mayor Calvin Tillman, the star of the evening.

My impression of Mayor Tillman is that he’s a very nice man, and perhaps a good mayor. I’m sure he gets around to shake hands with the townspeople. He likely knows every one of the 181 residents of DISH, renamed from Clark a few years ago when everyone in town got free satellite service from DISH Network—a publicity stunt. Mayor Tillman is certainly no wild-eyed, burned out hippie. He was dressed in a business suite and started his talk by answering the very question I was thinking of: He stated that he paid his own way to come to our area, and he was not being compensated in any way for his talks. That opening statement gave him instant credibility—a savvy move on his part. He earned my respect right up front.

But let’s just say that Mayor Tillman’s PowerPoint presentation was not on par with Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” slide show. Using slides with lots of text and a few pictures, he outlined the number of active wells in and around DISH: 18 wells in the town limits, 50 wells outside of town. He also told us that DISH sits in the nexus of drilling activity in Texas, the very middle of where 11 high pressure natural gas pipelines all converge, each one of them 36” in diameter. By comparison, the Southern Tier of New York has one pipeline—the Millennium Pipeline—and it is 32” in diameter.

DISH sits on top of the Barnett Shale deposit, a “shale play” that’s been drilled for a number of years now—probably the most productive and active shale play in the entire country. Because the Marcellus Shale deposit covers a larger land area than the Barnett, it may one day rival the Barnett in output. But such is not currently the case. It stands to reason if problems of pollution happen because of drilling and associated activities, like the transportation of gas, it’s going to show up in the Barnett. That is exactly what Mayor Tillman says is happening.

Along with the 11 high pressure pipelines in DISH come 11 large compressors that move the gas through the pipelines, and Mayor Tillman says the compressors are loud. Not only loud, but odors emanate from the 25-acre facility where the compressors and pipelines are located, a facility located a few short miles from the town. So Mayor Tillman went looking for help in addressing the noise and smell. He claims he tried working with the energy and pipeline companies to address his concerns, but ultimately they told him there are no problems. At that point, Mayor Tillman allocated 15% of the town’s $70,000 annual budget to have Wolf Eagle Environmental Engineers & Consultants (as referenced on a slide) perform a study of the air quality in and around DISH. What they found surprised Mayor Tillman and the residents of DISH. Wolf found carcinogens and neurotoxins in the air, in sufficient quantities to be considered a health risk for residents. It seemed to me Mayor Tillman was saying the pipeline facility and not the wells themselves were the potential problem—but I’m not sure. He was not clear on that point.

Mayor Tillman decided more research was needed, so he next contracted with the Oil & Gas Accountability Project (OGAP) to survey current and former residents. This survey asked residents questions about their health. OGAP spoke with 31 people from DISH and the resulting report showed some people have had breathing difficulties, dizziness, allergies, nausea and other health problems. Recently, tissue and blood samples were taken from residents but those results have not yet come back—they are expected in a month or so.

It’s at this point Mayor Tillman’s credibility starts to crack with me. I did my own research before going to the meeting and found that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) reviewed the study done by Wolf Eagle and concluded “it is not possible” to draw the conclusions Wolf did in their report—that is, that the pipeline (or wells) are causing air pollution. In essence, the TCEQ says the report by Wolf and the way it was conducted, along with its conclusions, is flawed. Not only that, but Wolf Eagle Environmental Engineers & Consultants was recently forced to remove “Engineers & Consultants” from their name because they did not, and still do not have, a single licensed engineer on staff. It calls into question the credibility of the original study done by Wolf.

As for OGAP’s health study, OGAP according to their own literature considers clean-burning natural gas a “filthy” energy source and is adamantly anti-drilling. Do you detect any potential bias here? Any reason you can think that their survey findings might be a bit skewed? And what about the small sample size of only 31 people? Mayor Tillman points out 31 people in Dish is nearly 20% of the population. But statistically speaking, it’s insignificant. Many of the “symptoms” I saw on Mr. Tillman’s slide from the OGAP study seemed to me common enough that just about anything could be causing it. Survey 31 random people in Broome County and some of them will have been dizzy, nauseous, etc. in the past year or two. Such a conclusion means nothing.

So Mayor Tillman’s slides and his talk were not convincing for me. I saw no direct correlation between the pipeline, nor nearby drilling wells, and what may or may not be happening to the health of some of its citizens. He did not make his case. I’m not saying there are no harmful impacts from drilling—don’t misunderstand! I am saying Mayor Tillman did not offer any concrete evidence—he connected no dots proving cause and effect. Instead, he offered emotional statements of opinion, not factual statements backed up by science. As an example, he showed a slide of a nine year-old DISH resident playing in her family’s backyard, near a well site. So what?! He did not say this young girl had contracted cancer linked to the well nearby, or that her life had in any way been adversely impacted by drilling. His arguments and accompanying slides were aimed at tugging at heart strings—not at convincing the mind, and my mind remained unconvinced.

Mayor Tillman finished his half-hour talk with his personal recommendations on what should be done to protect citizens and the environment should drilling commence—some of them good recommendations that any prudent landowner would embrace. But his sentiment of “should drilling commence” was not embraced by the audience. You could tell most people attending simply want drilling banned, period. For them, there is no safe way to tap the energy beneath us. One audience member shouted out, “Keep the drilling over the border in PA!” That was the general tone from those attending.

During a brief interlude between speakers, a member of the audience (man) strode up to the platform and without permission went on a one-minute rant about how drilling should be banned. He said, “Even the Oneida Indian Nation says so,” and, “We can defeat this, we need to fight it!” and other comments of that type. He was preaching to the faithful and the audience were applauding and hooting and agreeing. It was a bit of an embarrassment for the gentleman from the BRSC who was trying to fill in while technical glitches were worked out for the next speaker. The BRSC man essentially said, “No more of that. We’re here to listen to our speakers, tonight is not the time or place for that.” But it’s my contention this man reflected the prevailing opinion of most who attended. He offered a glimpse into the heart and soul of the anti-drilling movement. I would estimate of the 250 or so in the auditorium, about 90% of them were anti-drilling and perhaps 10% pro-drilling.

The final speaker for the evening was Helen Slottje, a Public Interest Lawyer from Ithaca, NY. Helen had a hard time getting her slides to cooperate, which perhaps rattled her. I found her points to be specious and her comments scattered, some bordering on incoherent. She made broad, general statements about energy companies like Halliburton having no concern for human health. And straw-man arguments about how companies claim there will be “some” accidents, and she then went on a riff about “some accidents” happening to this person or “some accidents” happening to that person, backed up by slides showing children or land that had been despoiled. She was trying to personalize the fight, as she sees it. And in the process, her arguments came off as kindergartenish.

Ms. Slottje did make one argument that needs to be addressed. She maintains that chemicals pumped into the ground will eventually migrate up toward the surface and will contaminate the water aquifer. She offered as evidence that in Texas all 9 major and 20 minor aquifers have some degree of contamination. But I ask, Does every resident in Texas now have to purify their water before they drink it? If they do, why is that not on the evening news every night? And if they don’t, how bad is the “contamination” really? And if the chemicals do migrate, do they also dissipate through all of those layers of rock and soil? Do the chemical become so dissipated as to not be a threat? You see, a little logic has to be applied to tease apart these emotional statements. Truth and solid fact is what is important. Once again, I am not categorically saying there is no problem. I am saying Ms. Slottje did herself and the anti-drilling movement no favors with her substandard presentation.

Ms. Slottje summed up her talk with with a jab at landowners who are in favor of drilling by saying that private property rights “have never granted you the right to harm your neighbor.” So there you have it—if you as a landowner allow drilling on your property, you are doing harm to your neighbors. It is a fallacious argument and being a lawyer, Ms. Slottje should know it.

When the speeches were over, and the Q&A started (you had to fill out and submit your questions on a card in advance), so I left, having had my fill, at about 8:45 pm. On the way out, a young man asked me if I was a reporter. I replied, “Just a humble blogger.” He proceeded to give me a fact sheet. He was from America’s Natural Gas Alliance, and he wanted to be sure the “other side” of the drilling story was told too. I just wanted you to know there were people from the gas industry present to witness the proceedings of the evening.

Bottom line for me: I believe drilling can be done safely and nothing I heard last night changed my opinion. But I also believe in accountability. Trust but verify. If dangerous chemicals get into the air from pipeline facilities and gas wells, and if those chemicals are in quantities that affect people’s health, don’t drill. If chemicals do migrate through the ground in sufficient quantities to be a hazard to water supplies—don’t drill. But what I see is many years of gas drilling in many different locations across the U.S. without these types of environmental catastrophes happening. Common sense and science—not emotion—must govern our decisions. Do you really think companies would wantonly pollute and kill people who are their own neighbors, and even their own families? I don’t. And neither, I suspect, do the majority of average citizens in the Marcellus Shale.

For more details on Mayor Calvin Tillman, consult the following page (which I used for some of my own research and comments above): //www.energyindepth.org/2010/02/seven-questions-for-the-mayor-of-dish/