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Beyond the Backyard
Jose Vivian built his dream house in south McAllen, but now cracks are making their way throughout the home.
Experts tracked them to the house’s foundation. Vivian said at first, he thought it was normal. “It's the heat. It's the materials,” he reasoned.
But the cracks continued to spread. “This is too much,” he said.
“There's no words to describe the feeling when you go to bed and thinking… ‘What is going to happen tomorrow,’” Vivian explained.
He isn’t the only homeowner dealing with the problem. Each of the houses CHANNEL 5 NEWS passed in Fairway Grande Village were covered in cracks.
Neighbors suspect the damage is linked to a natural gas well. It's a three-minute walk north of Vivian's home.
He said he doesn’t know what works being done, but he and his neighbors said they feel the effects.
Nora Mari Cavazos said there’s a lot of noise in their homes and they can feel the vibrations from the drilling. “The vibrating happens at all hours,” she added.
A dozen neighbors confirmed a stench of natural gas.
Alejandra Vivian also mentioned concerns about air quality. “It's an itch you get in your throat and nose when you breathe in the air,” she said. “My son had a cough for three weeks that wouldn't go away. I took him to the doctor. My son took medication. The cough wouldn't go away.”
Gracela Elizondo said the crews were gone for a while. “But then they came back,” she told us. “We didn't sleep. There was the odor, the vibrations, the lights, a lot of noise.”
The group of neighbors said they’ve complained to city hall for years.
McAllen Mayor Jim Darling said he understands their concerns. “I have a well within 200 feet of my house,” he said.
In Darling’s case, the drilling company didn’t notify him about the work or how long it’ll last. “In fact, in my neighborhood, within the last two weeks, they've put up the tractor-trailer trucks for noise abatement,” he said.
The mayor added, “Maybe it would be nice to know exactly what they're doing.”
There are thousands of active and inactive natural gas wells across the Rio Grande Valley. In Texas, oil and gas companies can operate near your home or business, and a new state law prevents cities from regulating drilling. This limits protections from noise and fumes.
However, companies need several permits to set-up shop. Cities issue permits based on their drilling ordinance.
McAllen's ordinance dates back decades. Commissioners can approve a permit without a public hearing, and the permit never expires.
In McAllen, only people living within 400 feet of the actual drill site must be notified about work. In the case of Vivian’s home, the oil and gas company didn’t need to get permission, because there weren’t any residences or commercial buildings within 400 feet of the drill site. But it came close to the neighborhood.
The city did issue a public notice about the work. The commission reviewed "sound-proofing" bullet points, before it approved the drilling permit in 2009.
Darling said, “If you're buying property next to an empty field, you ought to maybe do a little research.”
Cities can only enforce local code violations, like noise and dust. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality takes complaints about odors. The Railroad Commission of Texas oversees the actual work done at wells.
People in Fairway Grande Village said they didn't know that. Their complaints collected at city hall.
Neither TCEQ nor the railroad commission have received complaints about the site.
“The oil company could probably do themselves a favor by providing more information from that standpoint,” said the mayor.
Darling said that information could be required as part of the city ordinance. Commissioners would need to vote to change the citywide drilling ordinance.
McAllen, like other Texas cities, collects royalties from oil and gas. That's in addition to property taxes. Records show McAllen has received more than $26 million in royalties within the last decade.
At Fairway Grande Village, at least a dozen people feel shortchanged.
Rosalia Perez said, “It's very important that we pay attention because this affects us.”
CHANNEL 5 NEWS contacted OXY USA. The company is the latest to tap into the south McAllen well near the neighborhood.
We specifically asked OXY for details about what's happening at that natural gas well. We also asked about informational pamphlets it's required to send out and how folks can complain. This is the statement we received:
"We recently conducted routine maintenance on the McAllen well and completed work Wednesday. If residents see work being performed by Occidental and have questions, please call us.”
OXY is leasing the well from Shell Oil Company; 17 Fairway Grande Village residents sued Shell in 2009. CHANNEL 5 NEWS reported then a loud noise was heard when a hose burst. Shell settled the lawsuit with those residents in 2014.
As for drilling ordinances, they vary city by city and can be listed under a number of different departments.
Link: Texas Railroad Commission: Oil & Gas Complaints
Link: Texas Railroad Commission: Oil & Gas Well Map
Link: Documents from the City of McAllen regarding the well just north of Fairway Grande Village
Link: Oxy USA Compliance History