Fearing for his children's health, Mayor Calvin Tillman is leaving behind his government position and getting out of Dodge... or rather, Dish.
Dish, Texas is a town consisting of 200 residents and 60 gas wells. When Tillman's sons repeatedly woke up in the middle of the night with mysterious nosebleeds, he knew it was time to move -- even if it meant leaving his community behind. In an exclusive interview with The Huffington Post, Mayor Tillman reveals that when it came down to family or politics, the choice wasn't a tough one to make.
Tillman, first elected mayor of Dish, Texas in 2007, has spent his time in office fighting to regulate natural gas companies that are drilling into the Barnett shale, which holds up to 735 billion cubic meters of natural gas.
According to the Associated Press, residents of Dish have complained of nosebleeds, pain, and poor circulation since the first compressor station was built in their town in 2005, though there is no hard proof linking the health problems to the natural gas drilling. The air over the Barnett Shale near Dish was found to contain high levels of the toxic chemical benzene, shown to cause cancer. The town's mayor is leaving it all behind.
Last Memorial Day was the final straw. Tillman's 5-year-old son awoke in the middle of the night with a severe nosebleed. As Tillman describes to HuffPost, "He had blood all over his hands, blood on the walls -- our house looked somewhat like a murder scene." In the weeks prior, both of Tillman's sons had experienced severe nosebleeds. At the same time, the town was surrounded by a strong odor from their natural gas facilities.
While Mayor Tillman acknowledges there could be other explanations, he feels, "It's one thing if I'm exposing myself to something... but with our children, it's just a completely different story. We just couldn't take the chance after that." Around the country, similar reports of nosebleeds can be found among residents living near hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," sites, though the energy companies insist that their methods are safe.
Tillman recently sold his house and announced that his family will soon leave the town. Tillman reveals to HuffPost that his older son, who has lived in their Dish home his entire life, is not thrilled with the move, although the boy has asthma that Tillman hopes will improve once they relocate.
The move doesn't only affect Tillman's family. His position as mayor is now in question, as the City Council can replace him before the upcoming May election, although he doesn't foresee this happening.
Mayor Tillman doesn't intend to involve himself in his new town's local politics, but he will continue work as co-founder of ShaleTest, a foundation that performs environmental testing for low-income families. But Tillman may not be out of the political arena yet. Regarding running for higher office, he tells HuffPost, "I certainly wouldn't rule that out. It has to be something where I could make a difference."
But when Tillman was faced with choosing between politics and family, the answer was clear: "I just couldn't risk the health of my children to stay here. I guess you could say that was the choice I felt I had to make. That's not a very difficult choice. My family is the most important thing to me."
According to Mayor Tillman, his small community understands. "They have been very supportive of me, and that's going to encourage me to stay involved in this little community and make it the best that it can be." Although frustrated with the situation, Tillman leaves his town proud that more controls are now set on nearby gas processing facilities.
While Dish may be supportive, Tillman admits that Texas as a whole can be a bit less encouraging. "I just went down to Austin... and you walk down the halls of the capitol, and you see people from the gas industry left and right. They have a strong presence; they have a strong lobby down there. You really see that when you try to take them on." Tillman continues that while he's never taken a position against the natural gas industry, he encourages increased regulations. "I'm not against drilling, but I am against being poisoned."
Thure Cannon of Texas Pipeline Association insists to HuffPost, "We've had a great working relationship with the mayor and the discussions we've had have led to some positive outcomes in the area." Regarding the Mayor's health-related claims, Cannon comments, "He needs to do what he thinks is best for his family."
Looking to the future, Tillman hopes for advancements in wind and solar power technologies. According to Mayor Tillman, "If we don't start truly weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels, then the manner at which we extract those fossil fuels is just going to get more risky." He cites hydraulic fracturing as a case in point.
Tillman worries, "I don't think that the oil and gas industry really truly wants to start that transition until they've pulled every single drop of hydrocarbon out of the earth."
Mayor Tillman isn't the first person to speak out about the dangers of natural gas drilling. Oscar nominees Mark Ruffalo and Josh Fox have both fought adamantly against hydraulic fracturing, much to the discontent of gas companies. Tillman is even featured in Fox's documentary, "Gasland." When Tillman's buyers signed their contract, Tillman included a stipulation that the buyers first watch "Gasland." He even included a DVD copy with the house paperwork. According to Tillman, the buyers never commented on the film, although they did return it to him a few days later.
Progress to improve natural gas drilling practices is being made by leaders like Calvin Tillman. But as the EPA proposes a plan to study the effects of hydraulic fracturing, and fracking bans pop up in cities ranging from Buffalo to Pittsburgh, drilling still continues in Mayor Tillman's small town of 200 people, whose population will soon be four less, as a result.