Researchers have found a disparity in the proximity of gas wells to elementary schools in certain Barnett Shale neighborhoods, suggesting that, if there is a health or social cost to bear, some communities could be more affected than others.
The research is among the first studies to come out of a new spatial database being built and used by the Department of Geography at the University of North Texas.
In essence, researchers found that the middle-class neighborhoods in Denton and Tarrant County - not the rich or poor neighborhoods - were more likely to have gas wells near their elementary schools.
The research results were unexpected, according to geography professor Chetan Tiwari. People wouldn't set out to have a lot of gas wells near schools, he said, but conversely, researchers wanted to know whether there was a pattern of affected areas.
"Are some communities able to say we don't want them [gas wells] nearby? It could be," Tiwari said.
Tiwari teamed with senior geography major Nathaniel Smith after Smith conducted a preliminary analysis of the proximity of gas wells to schools and other public places and found some economic disparities. They presented their research results in a public discussion at UNT's Willis Library last week, part of an ongoing series of panel discussions the library has been hosting to bring researchers and the community together. People came from as far as Arlington and Dallas to listen and question the panel.
Tiwari and Smith looked at proximity because, without other studies on health effects or pollution, it is hard to understand the impact of shale gas production on communities, they said.
According to the Texas Railroad Commission, more than 15,300 wells have been drilled in the Barnett Shale. Last year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality identified nearly 50,000 emissions points in a special inventory of equipment associated with natural gas production in 24 North Texas counties, including points along pipelines and at compression stations.
But one scale, known as the social vulnerability index, can provide an objective measure of differences in who is being affected, Tiwari said.
The index is often used by researchers studying disaster recovery. Social vulnerability looks at more factors than income and education levels to describe a community. The index considers other social measures, such as unemployment rates and language barriers, to examine the risk for a social disaster to follow either a natural or man-made hazard.
Tiwari and Smith classified Denton and Tarrant County neighborhoods around elementary schools - which they found to be the most meaningful measurement between gas wells and a neighborhood focal point - by applying a social vulnerability index. Generally, they found inner-city neighborhoods and their elementary schools to be the most vulnerable on the index.
Yet, while being the most vulnerable, they also found those neighborhoods were no more likely to have gas wells near their elementary schools than schools in neighborhoods found to be the least vulnerable. The least vulnerable neighborhoods fell, generally, in the outermost areas of Denton and Tarrant County cities.
One possible explanation for the similarity between the least and most vulnerable areas is that inner-city neighborhoods are already densely developed, leaving little room for gas wells and pipelines, Tiwari said.
But the study did find that neighborhoods between the inner-city and the outlying areas - those of medium social vulnerability - were far more likely to have a gas well somewhere between about 500 feet and 1,000 feet from their elementary schools.
The findings suggest more study is needed to understand the disparate impact, Tiwari said.
"Children themselves are a particularly vulnerable population," Tiwari said.
Because the analysis was conducted with such a large number of wells and affected schools, the researchers could compensate for other variables that would make it more likely for gas development to be close to a school, such as whether a district has leased the minerals under school property, Tiwari said.
Locally, school districts in Aubrey, Lake Dallas, Pilot Point and Sanger have not signed leases. Four other districts - Denton, Argyle, Krum and Ponder - have, according to documents obtained in open records requests.
In the research data, the Argyle school district was considered having low social vulnerability. Denton ISD had elementary schools in all ranges of vulnerability. The Krum and Ponder school districts were not included in the study, Tiwari said.
Tiwari and Smith focused on proximity in urban areas because Smith found problems with the Texas Railroad Commission's data on where wells were located in rural areas.
The Railroad Commission reported sites where there were no gas wells, and researchers also found gas wells the state agency had not recorded.
According to Denton ISD documents, leases and mineral pooling agreements for gas wells drilled near Denton schools including Guyer High School, which has a well site within 500 feet, and McNair Elementary School, which is about 1,000 feet from a gas well. The state's required setback is 200 feet.
A report by the Fort Worth League of Neighborhoods in February 2011 called for buffers of 1 mile, or 5,280 feet, between gas wells and schools to protect students from air pollution, although industry supporters disputed the factual basis for that recommendation.
The Fort Worth school district requires 1,200 feet between schools and gas wells when the district is leasing minerals, but the Denton school district has no such policy, officials said.
Since 2010, Denton city code has required at least 1,000 feet between Denton schools and other protected uses unless property owners get a waiver or variance, but wells permitted before that fell under looser distance requirements.
Denton school officials signed the lease allowing drilling at Guyer in 2003, and it remains the only lease involving gas wells on school property, said Randy Stout, an attorney for the school district. The district also has mineral interests in wells drilled off district property.
While the district has no written setback requirement, school board members have made their intentions clear for years, Stout said.
"If the educational environment's diminished [by potential drilling operations], the answer's no," Stout said.
Companies have approached the district about drilling on school property over the years, but the talks ended after district officials made it clear they would control when and where the companies drilled wells and placed pipelines, Stout said. At Guyer, the district required that drilling take place when school wasn't in session, and the lease does not allow compressors, he said.
Few people dispute that natural gas development adds to air pollution in a region already failing to meet federal air quality standards. But studies have produced differing findings on the significance of the industry's impacts.
In Fort Worth, the city allows wells within 600 feet of schools, and city leaders have declined the school district's requests to pass a 1,200-foot setback, said Clint Bond, a Fort Worth school district spokesman.
In a city-commissioned report released last year, the Lexington, Mass.-based environmental research firm Eastern Research Group Inc. determined the 600-foot setback in Fort Worth was adequate for the "overwhelming majority" of sites studied, but the report called for more detailed study of emissions known to be combustion byproducts of compressors.
"The school board felt that was a safety issue, considering children would be close to those operations," Bond said, explaining the district's stricter setback. "That [1,200 feet] is a requirement, but unless we're actually signing a lease with a company, it's an unenforceable requirement because the city enforces that."
State Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, filed a bill last year to prevent drilling within 1,200 feet of public schools statewide, but the measure was one of many proposals that died after facing industry opposition. Burnam said he would continue pushing the measure but believes industry-friendly lawmakers will continue thwarting all but "watered-down" laws.
"We're going to get that natural gas out; the question is risk management," Burnam said. "I believe right now public policy is geared toward private profits at the expense of our children."
Staff writer Britney Tabor contributed to this report.
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WHAT IS SOCIAL VULNERABILITY?
Researchers haven't settled on a precise definition, but in developing disaster preparedness and recovery plans, they have identified key elements that make a community vulnerable. Here are the elements University of North Texas researchers used to determine whether the surrounding neighborhoods had high, medium or low social vulnerability when considering proximity to gas well pad sites:
• percent of individuals below the poverty line
• percent unemployed
• percent without a high school diploma
• percent of single-parent households
• per capita income
• percent of minority groups
• percent who speak limited English
SOURCE: University of North Texas Department of Applied Geography