Years after Fort Worth city leaders approved widespread natural-gas drilling, they are asking tough questions about whether what's been an economic windfall may come with an unintended environmental cost -- polluted air.
"It is important that we know and our citizens know for sure whether there are dangerous qualities in our air," said City Councilwoman Kathleen Hicks.
But an official with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality provided few answers at a City Council meeting Tuesday.
Keith Sheedy, an engineer in TCEQ's Austin headquarters, had little information to share and gave only a general overview of the agency’s work involving air quality.
At one point, he seemed unfamiliar with photos he was showing in a slide presentation.
Mayor Mike Moncrief asked where one picture was taken.
“Oh, let’s go back,” Sheedy said. “I really don’t know your area that well.”
Sheedy also could not answer the council’s basic questions about whether drilling in the Barnett Shale is releasing harmful amounts of chemicals into the air, such as benzene.
"Obviously, we would like to see some testing here in the city to give us an idea if we have a problem or not,” Moncrief said.
Sheedy would promise only to “take that into consideration,” prompting a testy exchange with the mayor over the lack of information.
"If we don't have that (information), that's not our job, that's yours," Moncrief said.
Sheedy defended the agency’s staffing and said it was up to the job.
"We're not ignoring this issue,” he said. “Hopefully, everyone feels we're up and on it as fast as possible."
But the council didn't seem convinced.
"I would strongly urge you to get a sense of urgency about this city,” said Councilman Zim Zimmerman.
"I don't feel like my concerns have been alleviated by what I've heard,” Hicks said.
Councilman Joel Burns suggested natural-gas companies voluntarily do their own air testing.
Meanwhile, some environmental groups are calling for a moratorium on new natural-gas drilling.
"Increasing numbers of people are saying, ‘Let's call a halt to this until we can figure out what's going on with the air quality,’” said Esther McElfish of the North Central Texas Communities Alliance.