Water tower suit involving Exxon’s CEO prompts a fracking fracas

02/24/2014 6:59 PM

02/24/2014 6:59 PM

It can’t have been what Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson expected when he joined a lawsuit to try and stop a big water tower from being built near his Denton County horse ranch.

But that was before a report in Friday’s Wall Street Journal took the small-town dispute around the globe and spawned outrage over perceived hypocrisy.

“Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson Sues to Block Water Tower That Might Supply Fracking Operations,” cried the Huffington Post online news site. “Exxon Mobil CEO: No fracking near my backyard,” reported USA Today.

A congressman even jumped in. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., issued a news release saying Tillerson was “trying to prevent a hydraulic fracturing or ‘fracking’ tower from being constructed near his Texas home.” (Whatever a fracking tower is.)

Tillerson is part of a lawsuit filed against a water company by several property owners, including former U.S. House Majority Leader Dick Armey, who live near the tower site in Bartonville, a community between Flower Mound and Argyle.

But its argument is quite a bit more nuanced than most of the Internet headlines, which zero in on one sentence in the lawsuit which warns that water could be sold for drilling operations and lead to heavy truck traffic. The suit’s main contention is that the tower will be an eyesore and hurt the value of the million-dollar properties around it.

Michael Whitten, a Denton attorney who represents Tillerson, Armey and the other landowners, said Monday that he wishes he’d been more careful drafting the language in the suit.

“This is not an anti-fracking lawsuit,” Whitten said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Lloyd Hanson, the controller of Cross Timbers Water Supply Corp., the target of the lawsuit, doesn’t disagree. The new water tower is needed to meet growing residential and commercial demand in the area, he said, but the company hasn’t sold water to energy companies since about 2009, and even then sales were was minimal. And trucks do not draw water directly from a tower site.

Hanson said he has repeated this explanation to more media outlets than he can count.

“We’ve had The Times in London, New York City, the Detroit Free Press,” he said, plus Houston and local media outlets. “They all want to know if this is being built for fracking. That’s not accurate,” Hanson said.

A spokesman for Exxon Mobil, which owns Fort Worth-based driller XTO Energy, said the company had no comment on what is a private action by Tillerson.

According to the lawsuit, filed in Denton County state court in 2012, Armey and his wife, Susan, sought assurances from the town of Bartonville and the water company, then known as Bartonville Water Supply Corp., that a tall water tower would never be built on nearby acreage. Armey has a home in the area, and Tillerson and his wife own an 83-acre horse ranch adjacent to the tower site.

The suit said they and other neighboring property owners were all told that only low-rise water tanks were planned by the water company, which Hanson said serves a 20-square-mile area.

Instead, the suit claims, the water company began building a 160-foot water tank, calling it “this monstrosity” that will “create a constant and unbearable nuisance to those that live next to it.” The tank will be constantly lighted, make noise and “create an attractive nesting spot for invasive species of bird and other animals,” the suit says.

And then it adds that the water company will sell water to drillers for hydraulic fracturing, “leading to traffic with heavy trucks” on nearby Farm Road 407, and “creating a noise nuisance and traffic hazards.”

“I did enumerate the possible consequences” his clients faced from the water tower, Whitten told the Star-Telegram on Monday. But while some of his clients were concerned about truck traffic, Tillerson wasn’t and testified to that effect.

“I should have distinguished Mr. Tillerson’s position from the others,” Whitten said. “He thinks the tower devalues his property. Our objective is to get this thing torn down.”

According to Texas Railroad Commission records, about a dozen gas wells are within a mile of Tillerson’s ranch.

Hanson said there are only so many places the water company can put a tower, and the disputed site looked good because it’s near large electrical transmission lines and a 54-inch water pipeline. The company built its first tower, a 500,000-gallon version, in 1996, he said, and the second tower needs to be at the same elevation to equalize pressure in the pipes.

Now the tower sits partly finished, as another lawsuit, brought by the water company against the town of Bartonville, awaits action. The water company sued the city in 2011 after the city refused to grant the company a building permit, saying it violated zoning restrictions.

A state district judge found for the water company, but that ruling was reversed on appeal. Hanson said he expects a District Court to take up the case soon, and in the meantime, Whitten said, his clients’ suit against the water company is on hold.

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