The former mayor of Dish, Texas, spoke in Santa Maria on Friday, July 25, sharing his firsthand experience of what happens when the fossil fuel industry is allowed to rapidly expand drilling operations. As mayor, it was Calvin Tillman’s job to know.

Tillman opened with a Google map image of the town he used to live in, an image scarred with a disease-like array of oil and gas well pads and facilities. He and his family left Dish — a town that gave up its name, Clark, in exchange for 10 years of free satellite television service and DVRs for all residents — because it was no longer the community they wanted to live in. Not only had the rural town, located in Denton County, just north of Fort Worth, been transformed by increased extraction, Tillman’s children’s health suffered and his backyard featured a view of a massive gas processing facility.

Tillman challenged many of the arguments that the industry makes in defense of its track record, arguments that this county will no doubt be hearing extensively before November’s election. Measure P, which would ban new fracking, acidizing, and cyclic steam extraction operations in Santa Barbara County, will be decided by voters this fall.

For example, the oil extraction industry contends there are no proven links between the past decade’s fracking boom and groundwater contamination. Tillman explained the industry is being misleading in this regard. Technically, the term “fracking” only applies to the actual rock fracturing process. Proven aquifer contamination is more often linked to well-casing failures and spills, he said, rather than the actual breaking up of rock deep underground. Second, the fracking process is exempt from the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and a few other key environmental safety mechanisms, so federal agencies are not monitoring it as much as they should be. And last, nondisclosure agreements are a legal way for the industry to get people to shut up, Tillman told us. Many neighbors of drilling operations or those with wells or oil facilities on their land have signed agreements like this. The industry offers to pay to replace the water that has been contaminated by their operations, or gives a sizable check. In return, the signee can never discuss the terms of the agreement or the operations they concern.

Tillman also spoke about air contamination, a problem that affected his family in Dish and the reason he moved away. Volatile organic compounds, such as propane and benzene, are an often-overlooked and dangerous source of air contamination. Tillman explained that these substances are not visible to the human eye and are often being expelled from sites that appear to have little, if any, emissions.

Santa Barbara County stands on the verge of a boom in unconventional, risky oil extraction. Thousands upon thousands of new well sites are waiting to be drilled, oil and gas companies operating in this county are excited, and they expect that their profits will soon be on the rise.

“We don’t do what we do for money, and that’s the difference.” With this statement, Tillman struck at the heart of the issue. The Santa Barbara County Water Guardians have been accused of being a part of a “cottage industry of activists” coordinating nationally. This is partly correct; there is a wave of concerned citizens across the United States of America who are standing up to the fossil fuel industry and saying no more. No more water contamination, no more sick children, no more false promises, no more lies. Communities are reaching out to each other, forming networks, and sharing information. Not in order to make a profit, but to protect our homes.

Calvin Tillman ended his talk with a simple reality. We here in Santa Barbara can choose to do nothing and allow what has happened in Denton County, Texas, to happen here. Or, we can do something about it. We can take a stand, and who knows? Maybe we will have prevented disaster. The Santa Barbara County Water Guardians have already gotten the ball rolling; now we need you to join us.


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