FORT WORTH (CBS 11 I-TEAM) – Rubin and Crystal Rodriguez did a lot of research before they bought their first new home, a handsome two-story in far north Fort Worth, with a big back yard for their 2-year-old son, Rubin Jr.
Before they signed on the dotted line, Crystal asked the developer about the vacant lot next door, and was told there was no immediate plan to build on it.
“They never said why or anything like that,” she said.
Crystal and her husband forgot about it and went on with their plans to buy.
Seventeen days after they moved in, the CBS 11 I-Team showed up at their door with more specific details on the vacant lot – it is a former natural gas drilling site, one that the city describes as “abandoned,” left in the slowdown of drilling in North Texas’ once-booming Barnett Shale play.
“I’m a little shocked, just because I know I asked the question,” Crystal said, standing outside her new home, the yard freshly sodded. “They should have told me something …I probably would have done research just so I could know exactly what could happen …or if there’s any danger,” she added.
Holding their young son, Rubin said, “If something’s wrong with my grass or something …I’d probably try to break the mortgage deal. I wouldn’t want to live in a house that had contaminated soil around it.”
Rubin and Crystal Rodriguez may have a hard time arguing their case.
In a four-month investigation, the I-Team has found few, if any, laws that govern how old drilling sites can be used in the future. And if homes or schools are nearby, no one has to tell the occupants.
That is different from long-standing laws that say, if you’re considering buying a home, you must be told of potential hazards – things like the existence of lead paint, or flooding or even if the house was once used as a meth lab.
“It’s an outrage that our laws don’t require a prospective home buyer to be notified that they live adjacent to – or on top of – a fracking tank,” said Tom “Smitty” Smith, Texas director of Public Citizen, a government and environmental watchdog group.
“All of us have had to sign that little piece of paper that says there was lead paint, perhaps, on this property,” Smith said, adding: “They ought to have the same right to know whether toxics that result from fracking could affect their health if they buy a piece of property.”
A spokesman for the oil and gas industry told the I-Team former well sites pose no hazards to the public, especially after they have been cleaned up and “plugged” with thick concrete.
“The land is perfectly fine. Once all of the equipment is removed, that land is going to return to its prior state,” said Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council.
The I-Team has learned, however, there are nearly 1,200 former drilling sites in North Texas that are still not plugged, including 396 in Tarrant County, 427 in Johnson County and 339 in Wise County.
The Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates drilling in the state, told the I-Team more than 1 million wells have been drilled in Texas with few pollution problems.
That includes 3,991 active wells in Tarrant County, 4,497 in Wise County and 3,336 in Johnson County. The TRC said there are only 30 active wells in Dallas County, which covers only the outside borders of the massive Barnett Shale formation.
In its investigation, the I-Team found an inactive well site – including the decaying remains of a “frack” pond – next to an elementary school in far north Fort Worth. Several teachers, as well as parents of students at the school, told the I-Team they were not aware of its existence.
“We need to have a clean-up plan to make sure there’s not a duck pond full of a toxic soup next to our elementary schools,” said Smith, the state director of Public Citizen. “To have kids around something this toxic is just an outrage, and should not be allowed under law,” he said.
The I-Team also reached out to the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which told us in an email it is currently doing “a study of possible impacts of hydraulic fracturing on water quality. Our work is ongoing and expected to offer valuable insight.”
But Ireland, the energy industry spokesman in the Barnett, says fracking ponds can turn into an attractive addition to someone’s property, after drilling has ceased.
“A typical landowner usually looks at what we call a frack pond, or freshwater holding pond, as something they get for free out of the deal. They get a tank, or a water feature …or duck pond,” Ireland said.
New homeowner Craig Dasse has mixed feelings about that. He and his wife recently bought their home, mainly because of the allure of what was behind the place.
“The green space that you see behind us was a big deal for us. We liked the view and the pond out back,” Dasse told the I-Team, adding: “This whole area behind me was definitely a selling point in buying this house.”
He didn’t know the “duck pond” behind his home was, in the past, used for drilling.
“It was quite a shock to me when you first showed up at my door about two weeks after we bought the house,” Dasse said.
He says he wishes he had been told ahead of time, though he still would have likely purchased the house.
“I expect we probably would have, although we may have wanted to see a little bit of due diligence in terms of an EPA statement, or something that said they’d cleaned the place up after they’d finished drilling,” Dasse said.
He even plans to go fishing in his new “duck pond,” though, with a grin, he adds: “I won’t eat the fish out of it.”
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