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DISHed Out

As he has taken on natural gas companies and the agencies that regulate them, DISH mayor Calvin Tillman has become a media darling, an unlikely face of oil and gas reform and a public speaker crisscrossing the country. Now he’s ready to give up — and to leave town entirely.

Calvin Tillman, Mayor of Dish, Texas

Calvin Tillman, the mayor of DISH, Texas — the tiny hamlet named for the network that gives its residents free satellite TV — sits in his City Hall office, matter-of-factly telling a documentary filmmaker about how somebody’s going to accidently “blow up the town” someday.

The roughly 200 residents of DISH live atop the natural-gas-rich Barnett Shale in Denton County. And so Josh Fox, the director of HBO’s Gasland — which chronicles the dangers of natural gas drilling and related air and groundwater contamination — has come to hear Tillman's woes.

“It’s humorous — but it’s not humorous,” Tillman warns before describing one of the local natural gas compressor sites in DISH for the cameras. “There’s a sign that says no open flames, no smoking — and there’s a barbecue grill sitting underneath it. So, some guy is going to be cooking his hamburger one day and blow up the town.”

Fox’s documentary, complete with that scene, premiered on June 21 to the consternation of oil and gas producers. The tone used to describe DISH marks a stark change from the one struck the first time the town was featured on cable. The jokes were better then. In a Jan. 10, 2006 segment on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, correspondent Ed Helms chronicles the bickering between and former mayor Landis Clark — who founded the town in 2000 — and then-mayor Bill Merritt over the decision to change the name from Clark (as in Landis Clark) to DISH.

The goings-on in DISH aren’t funny anymore. Lately, Tillman, who became mayor in 2007, has been fighting for the town’s survival as natural gas companies have laid miles of pipeline through residents’ property and constructed multiple compressor sites. Air quality has consumed much of Tillman’s focus, though residents also complain of noise from the facilities, of having their property turned over to private companies against their will and most recently of contamination in their drinking water. As he takes on the companies and the agencies that regulate them, Tillman has become a media darling, an unlikely face of oil and gas reform and a public speaker crisscrossing the country. But now, he’s ready to give up — packing up and preparing to leave the town entirely, along with his job as mayor. That’s if he can sell his house promptly, which will be difficult in a town where property values have plummeted.

"It's been one of those things, you know, we knew it was bad, but we just kept hoping it would get better," says Tillman, who is no longer confident enough in that hope to subject his kids to life in the shadows of natural gas facilities.

In his three years as mayor, Tillman’s chief focus has been on reducing the chemicals released into the air by the compressor sites, which didn’t exist when he moved to DISH in 2003.  Recently he has been forced to also cast his attention to what’s been happening underneath his feet. This spring, less than a mile from his house, Amber and Damon Smith began finding sediment and fluids in their tap water that they suspect are associated with the hydraulic fracturing — or “fracking” — process used to free the natural gas from the shale below. Currently, the Smiths, who also have young children, are the only DISH residents complaining of a water problem, but given time, neighbors fully expect it to spread. Besides the promise of free satellite television until 2015, the community of DISH is united by a mix of health concerns, declining property values and a palpable distrust of government.

“We’re mostly a good group of hardworking, honest folks," says Tillman of the mostly conservative town. “We’re not a group of radical tree-huggers. We’re hardworking, tax-paying honest American Texans, and we’ve been wronged.”

Energy in Depth, a coalition of natural gas producers, released a rebuttal to Fox’s “shock-u-mentary” featuring DISH. The group adamantly asserts that fracking does not contaminate drinking water. They include a May 2009 quote from outgoing Texas Railroad Commissioner Victor Carillo: “Though hydraulic fracturing has been used for over 50 years in Texas, our records do not indicate a single documented contamination case associated with hydraulic fracturing.”

Tillman acknowledges that some positive strides have been made. In terms of aesthetics, noise level, odor and environmental impact, Tillman says DISH is now among the most livable of comparable locations in the Barnett Shale region.  It hasn’t always been that way. “The companies have really cleaned up their act,” he says, though he credits the pressure of public opinion — not the force of regulatory agencies, which he charges have "rolled over" to big corporations.

Frustrated with slow-moving state agencies, Tillman convinced the town of DISH to fork over a significant chunk of its city budget to commission its own air quality study. Released in September 2009, the study concluded: “Air analysis performed in the Town of DISH confirmed the presence in high concentrations of carcinogenic and neurotoxin compounds in ambient air near and/or on residential properties. The compounds in the air indicate quantities in excess of what would normally be anticipated in ambient air in an urban residential or rural residential area.”

In April of this year, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality installed a permanent air monitor in DISH. In its first two months of operation, it has yet to measure any significant cause for concern. Occasionally, some of compounds will show a spike, often in conjuncture with an odor that Tillman describes as “like a sulfur smell.” He suspects it's exacerbated by glycol dehydrators that were installed about two years ago to remove moisture from the gas. This spring, Tillman’s son began getting nosebleeds on nights when the smell hung in the air, which prompted the family's decision to leave. “It is possible that something that is not tested for is causing the nosebleeds, or maybe this is just coincidence, but it disturbs me nonetheless,” he wrote on his blog (unsubtly titled when he announced his decision.

Tillman offers formaldehyde as an example of something that might be affecting his boys that TCEQ does not test for. “They are so far behind the curve on this, I’m not sure they know what to test for and how to do it,” he says. “I suggest something and they look at me like I’ve got two heads.”

He suspects that when he goes, the air pollution monitor will follow shortly thereafter. “I think it will maintain for a while,” he says. “Someone will come in behind me that will keep the pressure moving, but eventually it will go back to what it was.”

TCEQ spokeswoman Lisa Wheeler said Tuesday that the agency could not immediately comment for this story. (See their response, filed after this story originally ran, here.)

Upon request from the town, the Department of State Health Services agreed to test exposure levels in DISH residents earlier this year. It concluded that while some individuals had higher levels of known toxins, like benzene, those tested did not demonstrate a pattern consistent with a community-wide exposure to a single source, but were likely due to factors such as smoking or car exhaust.

Jim Caplinger was one of the residents tested. He “absolutely” did not believe the DSHS conclusion. “Even though all the things in my blood were given off by the compressor station,” he says, “the one thing they would not attribute it to was the compressor station.”

DSHS spokeswoman Christine DeLoma says the purpose of the study was only to determine exposure levels, not to identify a source of exposure. “As with any study, there are limitations, and we acknowledge that,” she says, noting that the measurement was only a onetime test of recent exposures — effectively a snapshot in time. DeLoma says DSHS remains open to conducting another study, but the town has yet to request one.

Tillman calls the DSHS report an “obvious political statement.” Aware that his detractors criticize such a response as indicative of an inability to accept any conclusion but his own, he says, “Frankly, the answer I wanted was that they hadn’t found anything, but they found some things. ... And based on my experience with other state agencies, I do firmly believe that they are here to protect the industry.” 

DISH residents Jim and Judy Caplingers are planning to leave town like the mayor and soon will put their house on the market, they say. They moved in at the beginning of 2005. “It was beautiful and peaceful when we first moved out there,” Judy says, “but it did not last long.” They’ve noticed the same smell Tillman has, but mostly they hate the noise from the compressor station — “like a 747 trying to take off,” Judy says.

Resident Chuck Paul’s property has been on and off the market over the last two years. In that time, pipeline companies have claimed portions of his land for the and installed pipe underneath it, so that he says only about 30 of his 64 acres are usable. “With the way they cut it up, you can’t do anything with the property except pay the taxes and grow grass on it,” he says. When he tried to auction it off, he was offered about 50 cents on the dollar and turned it down.

Of course, Tillman’s high-profile advocacy doesn’t exactly foster a seller’s market. “Naturally, I think it’s more important that word gets out,” he says.  Both the Tillmans and the Caplingers expect to incur significant losses when — if — they sell their houses. 

Tillman can’t imagine letting go completely — he expects to stay involved moving forward, even if from a distance. He acknowledges that his notoriety will likely wane if he relinquishes his role as a public official. “Walking away is going to be difficult,” he says. “These are my friends and extended family here. One of the things that really frustrates me about the situation is that this is my home.” He says he’ll miss the free Dish Network and doesn’t know where his next home might be, but “it will be away from the Barnett Shale.”

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