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When Drilling Starts: Holes in the Ruggiero's Health, Property Values & Landowner Rights

By Christine Ruggiero

I will start this story by saying that Aruba Petroleum has taken a great deal from my family, but they cannot take away our faith in God. This story may sound like one of defeat, but we are not defeated.

My husband Tim, daughter Reilly, and I purchased 10 acres and a wonderful home in Wise County, TX about six years ago. We thought that country life would be the best life for our daughter given her love of animals and nature. We have lived a peaceful life, improving our home when we could and striving to provide the best childhood possible for Reilly.

Aruba Petroleum turned that life upside down on August 29th 2009 with no regard for property or human health. We learned shortly after that day that our 10 acres were, unfortunately, a part of the 920 acre Wright lease held by Aruba Petroleum (as was our neighbors, the Parrs).

One morning, I saw bulldozer leveling the lawn in front of our neighbor's home. My neighbor called minutes later to say that a gas well was going to be drilled and there was nothing that he could do about it.

Given the number of uninhabited acres on the lease, we were frustrated that this massive undertaking was so close to their home and ours. They had a beautiful home on 40 acres and Aruba Petroleum chose to put the rig right in front of their house on their lawn that leads down to a lovely pond where their grandsons often swam and fished. Our neighbor is also of ill health.

On September 16, 2009, Aruba began drilling two wells on our property.

Harmed health and holed property value

Since then we have experienced several spills, what appears to be a methane seep where the bubbles ignite, and constant emissions from various stages of the extraction process.

We have several TCEQ air studies and private environmental testing that show exceedances including benzene at 120 ppb.

Our ten year old, Reilly, was recently diagnosed with asthma. And I have experienced rashes, nausea and memory loss. Tim has loss of sensation in his extremities. We have scheduled medical testing with an environmental doctor.

In September, the Wise County Appraisal Board devalued their property 75%. Originally on the 2010 tax rolls for $257,330, their home and 10-acre horse property are now worth $75,240. “I wouldn't sell it for $78,000,” said Patsy Slimp, a board member and former real estate agent. “I could not sell this house in a clear conscience.”

No notice and a lack of “say” in the process

Drill rig behind the Ruggiero's house. Photo: Sharon Wilson
Drill rig behind the Ruggiero's house. Photo: Sharon Wilson

We were also frustrated that no one had communicated with us that this was taking place. Due to the lack of communication and this intrusion, we expressed our outrage by placing two protest signs on our property.

Some time later, a man from Aruba Petroleum came to my home. He told me that they were going to put a gas rig in our fenced 3-acre horse pasture. I told him that we only had 10 acres. I was in shock that they would even consider putting a rig on such a small piece of property. I told him that this was the only place that I had to keep my horses and he said that he would talk to the managers.

Soon thereafter,, we discovered that someone had trespassed on our property and vandalized the protest sign nearest the county road. It was spray painted with vulgarities that indicated we would be next. I do wonder who knew that we were, in fact, 'next'.

Tim, called and spoke to the Aruba representative to attempt to persuade him not to put the rig on our property based on the simple fact we had very little land and no reasonable place for it, and also to request that a sound barrier be put up between our property and the rig on our neighbor's property. When Tim asked if Aruba Petroleum was going to put a rig on our property. Aruba asked if we were going to take the signs down. Tim told the Aruba representative that they were already down and their representative advised Tim “probably not”.

Under pressure to sign an agreement

On the evening of September 12th I was going from room to room in my home trying to find the quietest place as the rig was making unbearable screeching noises constantly and we could not sleep. I became frustrated and emailed Behrens and Associates, makers of environmental noise control sound barriers to see how much it would cost to rent a sound barrier on our own. I did not receive a response from Behrens, but later learned from Aruba that on September 16th that they had contacted Aruba Petroleum instead. I did not ask that they do this, nor do I believe that I gave them Aruba Petroleum's name in the email. I really just wanted to see if we could afford to put one up ourselves.

Aerial view of the Ruggiero home -- surrounded by drilling. Photo: Tim Ruggiero
Aerial view of the Ruggiero home — surrounded by drilling.
Click to learn more about an Aruba spill near their house (and view
larger and more aerial photos). Photo: Tim Ruggiero

On September 14th my neighbor contacted me concerned that water wells were being drilled by the mineral right owner and that the water was being sold to Aruba Petroleum. I was concerned given the millions of gallons of water necessary to drill that we may at some point run out of drinking water. I contacted the Trinity Ground Water Conservation District to, at the very least, make sure that this was acceptable. I was told that it would be looked into and that I should be concerned about loss of water on our property.

Late on the morning of September 16th while at work, I received a phone call from my neighbor asking me if I knew that my horse pasture fence had been cut, that bulldozers were on the property clearing the land and that the horses were not contained. I told her that I did not know, hung up, and raced home. I arrived at our home to see the fence cut and bulldozers and other heavy equipment and dozens of work men everywhere. Someone had at that point put the horses in their corrals. No one came out to speak to me so I made my way through the mud to a white truck in the middle of the property. The Aruba representative was in the truck. I told him that he was trespassing and that he did not have a drilling permit. He told me that he didn t need one, he had the mineral lease. He asked me who had told me that they were there and I told him my neighbor had called me.

We received no prior notice of any kind in any form that this was going to take place on September 16th.

I was in a panic and told Aruba again that I had no place to put our horses. Their representative told me that he would help with the horses. The Aruba representative asked me who had contacted a company in California about a sound barrier, and he asked me to get in his truck and I showed him the area for the fence that needed to be put up so that I could move them. The Aruba rep took out a piece of paper from his pocket, a 'surface use agreement', and we went to the front porch of our home.

I felt like Aruba was trying to explain the intrusion, but I still couldn't believe that this was happening and that it all seemed so normal to their representative. I felt like we were under attack and had no choice but to cooperate, and maybe that was truly the case.

Tim came out of the house and we talked about the surface use agreement. The representative said that Aruba Petroleum would be drilling two wells on our property and he would pay us $15,000 each. I told him that this was not enough and that where Aruba Petroleum was putting the wells at the entrance of our property would ruin our property value.

I told Aruba I just wanted to leave. Their representative said that this was more than what was usually given and that Aruba Petroleum only had to pay us $1,500 per well. He said he was already going to be given a hard time about the agreement but that he had to keep the peace with everyone out here.

I told the Aruba representative that I was worried about our family's, especially my daughter's, safety and our pets because of the vandalism to the sign and because the drilling would be so close to our home. He said he didn't think his guys vandalized the sign and that we were safe. I told the Aruba man that Reilly wouldn't be able to go out to the barn because the rig would be too close and asked him if he would let his daughter that close to a rig. He said he would not.

Tim asked repeatedly why the rig needed to be on our property when there were so many acres further from homes. I told Aruba that I didn't know how we were going to explain to our daughter when we picked her up from school that day that when we got home, the horse pasture would be gone.

We sat there and looked at the surface use agreement. I told Aruba I needed a shelter for the horses and a place to put them. Considering what this might do to our property values, Tim asked that at the very least trees be placed around the drilling area when done. We reluctantly signed the agreement.

Regulation and Enforcement When Accidents Happen

Drill rig outside the Ruggiero kitchen window.
Drill rig outside the Ruggiero's kitchen window.
Photo: Tim Ruggiero

On October 6th as I looked out my kitchen window in the pouring rain there was a rig so close to my home I could throw a rock at it. A sound barrier had been put up which was not long enough to cover the length of the house and I have a clear view of the rig and the waste water pit from half of my house.

The rig is so close to the sound barrier and thus our house that the barrier does little to even reduce, much more block the noise from the diesel generator that runs 24 hours a day, blowing massive amounts of exhaust into the air around our home.

This pipe fence that used to be an attractive entrance to our property and served to house our horses now serves as an enclosure for Aruba Petroleum's rig, heavy machinery, camper trailers, satellite dishes, barbeque pit, and other assorted pieces of equipment.

On the afternoon of October 29th, I was in the kitchen making lunch for Reilly when I looked out the window and saw black smokey liquid shooting across the pit onto the ground and into our neighbor's trees. To my surprise there wasn't an Aruba Petroleum employee in sight. Two hours later, I contacted the Texas Railroad Commission (TRC) and made a formal complaint about the spill and inquired what precisely was in the liquid.

Only after the TRC arrived and made them, did Aruba Petroleum begin to clean up the spill. Even then one Aruba Petroleum employee just started shoveling up the contaminated soil and slinging it over the fence onto my neighbor's property. No one informed my neighbor of the spill. We had to call and notify her ourselves. TRC took their first sample of the spill 5 days after the spill occurred. Apparently the TRC is only testing to make sure the soil is now 'clean'. After 5 days of watering it down with water trucks, I'm sure it is. Now it's headed to our water supply. The TRC found additional problems with the pit and they are still cleaning up the spill and trying to fix the pit.

I was told that Aruba Petroleum would conduct its own tests and report its findings to the TRC. That's how it works according to the TRC. Apparently it's a self-report system. Don't self-report the spill and you don't have to self-report what was in the spill, clean it up, and fill out all that paperwork.

I was told that the cause of the spill was a jet left unattended . I was told by the TRC that they would test for such things as chlorides and benzene, and TPH (total percent of hydrocarbons). If these carcinogens aren't commonly found in drilling mud, why are we testing for them?

What Now? Working Together to Make Reform Happen

Everything that we have worked so hard to build over the past six years was destroyed in a day with no regard for our property or health. Our property and its value have been destroyed. The clean air we used to breath is being polluted. The clean water we drink may very well be contaminated. The night sky so beautiful with stars cannot be seen because of the blinding lights of the rig 400 feet from our home and the burn off flames a mere mile away. Worst of all my belief that there is good in all people, even the senior executives of Aruba Petroleum, is now in question. They exist for profit and profit only. Surface right owners are a mere nuisance and are expendable.

As I said at the beginning of this story, it is not one of defeat. We are not defeated. I am telling our story to possibly help others in similar situations, to prepare them for what they might face when Oil & Gas comes knocking at their door, and to raise awareness of what is happening in Texas.

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