Parents sending their children to a daycare center in Arlington will be able to breathe easier after the city refused to let a major energy company drill several gas wells a few hundred yards from the center’s playground.
Arlington City Council voted 5-4 on Tuesday night to reject Total Energies’ request to drill additional gas wells, amending a preliminary decision by the council in November to allow the wells to move forward.
Tuesday’s vote marked a setback for Total and a surprising victory for members of the local community who wanted to stop drilling because they feared it could harm the health of children and neighbors.
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 location of Total’s wells in Arlington found a higher density of them in neighborhoods that many colored people call home.
Living close to fracking sites has been linked to health risks, including asthma, neurological and developmental disorders.
“I’m elated! Relieved. It was completely 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 well-being of our children should come above everything else because they are the future, our future workforce, our future leaders.”
Total Energies said on Wednesday that it was reviewing its options in the wake of the council’s vote.
“We work diligently to ensure the safety and quality of life of all our neighbors near each and every one of our sites,” Tricia Fuller, a spokeswoman for the company, told AP.
The battle between Total, a French energy giant, and Mother’s Heart Learning Center, a family-owned daycare center that serves predominantly black and Latino children, has been going on for more than a year. Total pumps gas from two active wells on the property, which was drilled by a previous owner, Chesapeake, about a decade ago. When Total initially sought approval to drill new gas wells on the site in 2020, at a time when Black Lives Matter demonstrations were taking place in Arlington and across the country, its request was denied.
But oil and gas companies in Arlington are allowed to apply for permits again each 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 more new rigs near the daycare. But late Tuesday night, it reversed the decision after councilor Rebecca Boxall switched her vote from “yes” to “no”.
Several council members had feared a lawsuit from Total if they rejected the request. A law in Texas makes it nearly impossible for local governments to prevent oil and gas development. During the November meeting, Boxall had asked people to fight for the reduction of local control, but still voted yes.
On Wednesday, Boxall refused to elaborate on his heartbreak.
“Besides this was a very difficult vote for me, I have no comments at this time,” she said in an email to the AP.
Whatever the reason for the turnaround, some parents expressed relief.
“I’m more than 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 in day care were overwhelmed and sick of fumes that she believes came from the scene. Vincent’s daughter Mariah, who teaches day care, said she heard a screaming sound and then smelled a strong odor and felt nauseous after going outside to investigate the matter.
“We love and care about 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 from this practice site.”
“What we experienced is proof that there is a problem,” Wanda Vincent said. “Kids playing and breathing this are a big problem.”
Despite the council decision, Vincent said she is still concerned about the nearby wells. She hopes for air surveillance around the clock at the site, or that it will be shut down completely, she tells AP.
“There are a lot of kids, a lot of people being exposed,” she said.
Ranjana Bhandari, whose group Liveable Arlington led the fight against the drilling plan, had filed a lawsuit with Vincent against the city, claiming the council had not followed the procedures properly during the November vote. That trial, Bhandari suggested, could have helped tip the scales on the council’s final decision.
While she was relieved for the kindergarten and its neighbors, Bhandari said she was already thinking about what permission she should focus on next time because it “totally no end here.”
“I have learned to wait and see what they do next,” Bhandari told the AP. “But I hope it’s the end.”