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Friday May 27th, 2022 5:49PM

Texas day care gets reprieve after drilling plan is rejected

By The Associated Press
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Parents who send their children to a day care center in Arlington, Texas, will be able to breathe easier after the city refused to let a major energy company drill more gas wells a few hundred feet from the center's playground.

The Arlington City Council voted 5-4 on Tuesday night to reject the request by Total Energies to drill additional gas wells, reversing a preliminary decision by the council in November to allow the wells to go forward.

Tuesday's vote marked a setback for Total and a surprise victory for community members who wanted to halt the drilling because they feared it could harm the children's and neighboring residents' health. The Associated Press reported on the dispute in November, with a deep look at people affected along the natural gas supply chain. A statistical analysis of the locations of Totals wells in Arlington found a higher density of them in neighborhoods that many people of color call home. Living close to fracking sites has been linked to health risks, including asthma, neurological and developmental disorders.

“I am elated! Relieved…. It was totally unexpected," said Rosalia Tejeda, who lives a few blocks from the drilling site with her three children. “I hope this means that the health and welfare of our children should come above anything else because they are the future, our future workforce, our future leaders.”

Total Energies said Wednesday that it was reviewing its options in the aftermath of the council vote.

"We work diligently to ensure the safety and quality of life for all our neighbors near every one of our sites,” Tricia Fuller, a company spokeswoman, told the AP.

The struggle between Total, a French energy giant, and Mother's Heart Learning Center, a family-owned day care that serves predominantly Black and Latino children, has persisted for more than a year. Total pumps gas from two active wells on the property, which were drilled by a prior owner, Chesapeake, about a decade ago. When Total originally sought approval to drill new gas wells at the site in 2020, at a time when Black Lives Matter demonstrations were arising in Arlington and across the nation, its request was denied.

But oil and gas companies in Arlington are allowed to re-apply for a permit every year, so Total applied again. In November, the council gave preliminary approval to Total's plan to expand the drilling zone, which would have paved the way for several new rigs near the day care. But late Tuesday night, it reversed that decision after Councilwoman Rebecca Boxall switched her vote from “yes” to "no."

Several council members had feared a lawsuit from Total if they denied the request. A Texas law makes it nearly impossible for local governments to obstruct oil and gas development. During the November meeting, Boxall had implored people to fight the diminishment of local control but still voted yes.

On Wednesday, Boxall declined to elaborate on her change of heart.

“Other than this was a very difficult vote for me, I have no comment at this time,” she said in an email to the AP.

Regardless of the reason for the reversal, some parents expressed relief.

“I'm beyond happy and grateful,” said Guerda Philemond, who sends her 2-year-old daughter, Olivia Grace Charles, to Mother's Heart.

During Tuesday night's council meeting, Wanda Vincent, who owns Mother's Heart, described two incidents in December in which she said she and others at the day care were overwhelmed and sickened by fumes that she believes came from the site. Vincent's daughter Mariah, who teaches at the day care, said she heard a screeching sound and then smelled a strong odor and felt nauseous after going outside to investigate.

“We love and care for our children, and it would break my heart if what I felt happened to any of my children,” Mariah Vincent said. “I call them my babies, and we do not want our children to get sick form this drill site.”

“What we experienced is proof that there is a problem," Wanda Vincent said. "Children playing and breathing this in is a major problem.”

Despite the council decision, Vincent said she is still concerned about the nearby wells. She is hoping for around-the-clock air monitoring at the site, or for it to be closed down completely, she told the AP.

“There's a lot of children, a lot of people, that are being exposed,” she said.

Ranjana Bhandari, whose group Liveable Arlington led the fight against the drilling plan, had filed a lawsuit along with Vincent against the city, claiming that the council hadn't properly followed procedures during its November vote. That lawsuit, Bhandari suggested, might have helped tip the scales on the council's final decision.

While relieved for the preschool and its neighbors, Bhandari said she was already thinking about which permit to focus on next, because it's “totally never-ending here.”

“I’ve learned to wait and see what they do next,” Bhandari told the AP. “But I hope this is the end.”

___

Follow @cbussewitz and @irvineAP on Twitter.

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