ARLINGTON -- Environmental activist Kim Feil launched her battle against urban gas drilling last year with a respirator and a rap song.
Dubbed the "white lady environmental rapper," Feil's unconventional attempt to persuade the City Council in May 2010 to vote against a natural gas well site near her Arlington neighborhood included showing how difficult it would be to put respirators on if there was a drilling disaster near a school.
"I had been watching some City Council meetings. I saw people begging not to put a gas well in their area. No one was successful. They were voting everything in," said Feil, a musician and former substitute teacher. "I wanted to let them know I'd go to great lengths to get their attention."
Feil did not succeed in stopping the well, but she has become one of the area's most recognizable opponents of urban drilling in the Barnett Shale, teaming up with fellow activists to talk about the potential health, public safety and environmental risks of drilling.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Sometimes she brings along her respirator-wearing dummy Ben Zene, named after the cancer-causing chemical Feil says the industry is pumping into the air.
"It's been my full-time job without pay," said Feil, a regular contributor on the Barnett Shale Breathers Beware Facebook page. "That's all I do. It's all I talk about."
But, not everyone has been receptive to her message.
At City Council meetings, Mayor Robert Cluck has turned off the microphone during Feil's public comments and has asked police to escort her from City Hall when she continued calling out to council members after her time was up. While Cluck said he respects Feil's right to challenge city leaders' decisions on gas drilling matters, he said some of the claims she has made at council meetings are not substantiated by facts.
"I don't think she's telling stories, but she doesn't have all the information," said Cluck, who also called Feil's gas-mask demonstration excessive. "She is a dedicated citizen who wants to make sure we are protecting public health. I feel very strongly that we are."
"She thinks we're not. That's an honest difference of opinion," the mayor said.
Ed Ireland, executive director of the Barnett Shale Energy Education Council, also says there's no evidence that the gas drilling industry is making people in North Texas sick. Fort Worth's $1 million air quality study, released this month and believed to be the most comprehensive study of urban gas drilling to date, found five natural gas sites with high emission rates but "did not reveal any significant health threats" to residents, he said.
"Our air here in North Texas is about some of the most tested air around," said Ireland, pointing not only to the Fort Worth study but also the Texas Commission for Environmental Quality monitors that constantly sample air in the Barnett Shale.
"The air pollution around here comes from cars and trucks. The TCEQ says that. The EPA says that."
Rest assured, however, Feil will be among the first to comment if the Environmental Protection Agency meets a court-ordered deadline today to release new proposed standards addressing toxic emissions from oil and gas facilities.
Money from industry
Ironically, Feil is able to focus on her activism thanks to the money she and her husband received by leasing mineral rights on their Arlington properties to gas drillers.
She said they signed because she was initially told that Chesapeake Energy's Truman well site would not be in her neighborhood, where her family also owns rental properties. "To stop that Truman drill site to me was real important financially to us because we didn't want to see our properties next to a drill site," Feil said. "It's bad enough we have to live there."
Then, as she dug into the research, she became more concerned about the potential health problems that could be caused by radioactive waste and contaminants released into the air, soil and water during drilling activity.
Earlier this year, Feil kept her youngest son home for four days during the hydraulic fracturing of five wells near his junior high school and then had his blood tested to determine whether he had been exposed to benzene, heavy metals or other contaminants. He hadn't.
But Feil believes illnesses and medical conditions in her own family, including her son's recent asthma, are linked to the gas wells surrounding her neighborhood near General Motors and the University of Texas at Arlington.
She isn't alone. This month, Feil launched an online diary documenting health problems, such as unusual nose bleeds, rashes, dizziness and cancer being reported to her by residents near other North Texas wells.
Feil said she has e-mailed about 800 pages of information trying to alert city councils in the Dallas-Fort Worth area about gas drilling problems reported in Texas and elsewhere in the country. Arlington Councilmen Robert Rivera and Mel LeBlanc have asked not to be included in her e-mail list, Feil said.
Among her goals is to have Arlington, which has more than 380 active gas wells, and other cities require vapor recovery systems aimed at reducing the amount of smog-causing volatile organic compounds being emitted from drilling sites.
Feil criticizes the city leaders as too dependent on statistics and studies provided by the gas industry.
Though Feil is passionate, supporter Jane Lynn said she can understand how someone may find it hard to take seriously someone who raps or totes around a life-size dummy plastered with anti-gas drilling stickers. Feil's environmental rap, which includes the lyric "I am here to say in a different kind of way that we are desperate for leadership and pollution is not OK" has more than 5,700 hits on YouTube.
"She's an artsy person. Not everybody appreciates that," said Lynn, who said she became ill after a natural gas release in her southeast Arlington neighborhood.
Feil says if she could have one wish, it would be to "cap every one of those gas wells and say no more." But until then, she'll keep pushing for more air quality regulations even if no one seems to be paying attention to her.