Boris Fishman

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Trading Places

“Gas Drilling and Tamarind,” the subject line said. Naturally, we opened the e-mail. “Mayor Calvin Tillman of Dish, Texas, will be visiting our area this week and sharing his first-hand account of how drilling for natural gas has affected his community.” The sender was a woman who runs a natural-foods store in Delhi, in Delaware County three hours north of New York. The rest of her message concerned a shipment of tamarind concentrate that had arrived at the store – “something we’re sure many of you have been longing for.”

We happened to be full up on tamarind, but we remained interested in Mayor Tillman’s visit. What was the mayor of Dish, Texas – population 181 – doing in our own middle of nowhere? A little research revealed that Dish is actually DISH. The town voted unanimously in 2005 to rename itself in exchange for ten years of free television and a free DVR from the DISH network. DISH (the town) also happens to sit on the gas-rich Barnett Shale. New York’s Delaware County, in turn, sits on the largest natural-gas deposits in the Lower 48, newly recoverable due to improved technology. But its reservoirs also feed the watershed that supplies New York City’s drinking water, which has raised concerns about drilling. Was the Mayor of DISH coming to vouch for corporate beneficence?

Delaware County is far enough from the city that homeowners stock shotguns in addition to tamarind, and the radio is just as likely to be playing a Bible sermon as Pink.

But while they might know their Luke from Ecclesiastes here, they also like their water clean and their produce well-sourced, thanks in no small part to the weekenders from New York City who’ve settled the area. Downsville, the tiny hamlet where Mayor Tillman spoke on Wednesday, is as economically depressed as upstate New York gets, but its bantam-sized natural-foods store survives. Still, proud as locals are that their water fills the glasses at Babbo and Craft – the school where Mayor Tillman spoke borders the watershed’s most pristine reservoir – some don’t like having their economic future beholden to the folks down in “the city.”

On Wednesday night, they came from as far as an hour away, wedging into the purple bleachers of the Downsville Central School basketball gym. Seemingly in solidarity with their town’s economic troubles, the Downsville Eagles appeared to be going through a drought of their own – section champions from 2000-03, they were winless since, judging by the rafter banners.

“Thank y’all for coming,” Mayor Tillman said. He is a diminutive man with a baby face, quick eyes, and round, owlish glasses that – added to his slightly oversize gray suit – give him the appearance of a castaway from the Harry Potter books rather than northeast Texas. “The first things folks ask me when I tell them I’m from DISH is, ‘Where the hell is that?’ Well, I can see the Texas Motor Speedway out from my front door.” The crowd – displaying the full range of upstate regalia, from knit caps and peacoats to construction boots and Carhartts – seemed to remain unenlightened on the subject. Tillman tried a different tack. “We are the Grand Central Station of the Barnett Shale. We’ve got 11 natural-gas compressors operated by 5 different companies and 18 gas wells inside corporate limits of two square miles.”

Tillman told some horror stories about the impact of drilling on DISH: Intolerable odors, neurological disorders, indifference from state regulators and gas companies. When one family complained about an enormous well-tower that had risen near their home, its operators allegedly beamed its lights into their windows. “The people who staff these operations, they’re transients,” Mayor Tillman said. “Would you want to let your 9-year-old daughter play outside while they’re part of your community?”

“As long as I got my gun!” someone in the audience said.

The question-and-answer session lasted longer than the talk. The assembled seemed to be of the view that every Texan also possessed a gun, the difference being that they didn’t hesitate to use it. “If it’s so dangerous, how come we’ve never heard of the workers who run these wells getting sick?” a man with a buzz-cut said. “Because as soon as the workers complain, the gas companies take them out and shoot them,” a woman answered.

A young organic farmer with a Tolstoyan beard raised his hand. “The reason our situation is different,” he said “is that we’ve got another thumb on the scale. We stand to make a windfall, but we’ve got the city telling us what we can and can’t do.”

“Did you get money to be here?” someone else asked Tillman. The mayor had not. He had been invited by local groups, but had paid his own way from Dallas-Fort Worth to Albany earlier in the week.

His visit had earned enough publicity for the pro-drilling American Natural Gas Alliance to send a flak down from Washington. As the talk broke up, he tried to explain that the problems in Texas would not repeat themselves in New York.

“They’ve got all those compressors there, it’s different,” he said.

“So they wouldn’t have compressors here?” we asked.

“No, they would.”

“So, how would it be different?”

“It’s a good question, yeah.”

A local bed-and-breakfast owner wandered up. The PR man introduced himself.

“Ah, you’re the enemy,” she said matter-of-factly.

The man hung his head.

We approached Mayor Tillman to suss him out on the novelty of ending up in snowbound Delaware County. “Oh, we had a lot of snow last week,” he said, spooning turkey soup out of a stainless-steel dish supplied by one of the organizers. Something else had gotten his attention on his first stay in the area. “You’ve got all this organic, healthy, delicious food,” he said. “I mean, this turkey soup – it’s probably organic. In Texas, you’ll find, maybe, a corner of the supermarket for organic stuff.”

“You know, we have a small garden,” the Mayor said almost apologetically, as if it couldn’t compare to the bounty of upstate New York. “Tomatoes, cucumbers, jalapenos. That’s a Texas thing, I guess. We gotta have that spice.”

The mayor was a bit down on Texas at the moment. “Texans have a certain arrogance,” he said. “The drilling process was a gold rush. What I call, ‘Ready, Fire, Aim.’ Everyone’s attitude was, ‘Shut up, you’re gonna ruin it for all of us.’”

“You have a lot of natural beauty in these parts,” he said wistfully. “All we’ve got in northeast Texas is rolling plains. With drill-pads. Hell, if they say no to the drilling?” he said pointing at the milling crowd. “I may just move up here.”

Published
February 18, 2010