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San Angelo City Council Keeps Its Distance from Frac Sand Debate

Pump jack near Andrews, TX. (Photo source: Zorin09 via Wikimedia Commons)

City council members in San Angelo have voted down a proposed resolution to "acknowledge the considerable public opposition" to franc sand businesses within city limits.

On Tuesday, council members said they've received hundreds of phone calls from San Angelo residents voicing their opposition to a proposed frac sand depot that would be located in the middle of the city.

San Angelo businessman and philanthropist Lee Pfluger wants to build a frac sand transport facility on an approximately five-acre lot in the center of the city. Rail cars would bring in sand used for hydraulic fracturing, which would then be loaded onto trucks and sent out to oilfields across the Permian Basin.

Pfluger says the process would be enclosed, but some nearby residents are worried about sand-filled air and heavy truck traffic affecting their quality of life.

Mayor Dwain Morrison called the resolution before the council on Tuesday "toothless," noting that it wouldn't have any effect on whether or not the facility is built.

"It is totally and completely in the hands of the Zoning Board of Adjustments," Morrison said. "They are the only ones in the this city who have any authority to do anything about this."

City Spokesman Anthony Wilson describes the zoning board as a "quasi-legal judicial body" - not quite a court, but a body with more legal authority than a city advisory board, one that has the ultimate say in whether a plan like Pfluger's gets the go-ahead.

Attorneys for Pfluger and his opponents are presenting their cases for and against the frac sand depot to the city's zoning board on February 2. The board has already ruled the facility meets the "light industrial" zoning code for the Hill Street area, but opponents are appealing that decision.

Meanwhile, the city's legal counsel has advised officials to keep their distance from the debate., telling council members on Tuesday to shy away from explicitly mentioning Pfluger's plan.

"It's extremely important that this council not take any evidence, any statements, any public remarks about a particular development," he said. "That is scheduled for public hearing."

"We are walking a legal line here," Mayor Morrison said. "We've had legal counsel on this and he's said 'do not take comment.'"

Wilson says the city's taking careful steps not to influence the zoning board's ultimate decision on Pfluger's plan, especially since it has no legal authority to decide one way or the other.

"They want the zoning board to look at the evidence and make a determination based on the evidence they have, without the political influence of the city council," he said.

But not everyone on the council wants to play along.

Mayor Morrison and other council members initially tried to tip-toe around mentioning the Pfluger plan explicitly on Tuesday, but that delicacy quickly faded.

"We can hide our head in the sand and play like we don't know what this is about," said Morrison, "but we know exactly what we're talking about."

The detente eventually faded altogether, with the idea of re-writing the resolution to specifically mention opposition to the Hill Street facility surfacing at one point. Council member Johnny Silvas - who's district covers the area where the depot would be built - expressed his blunt opposition to the plan, as did Mayor Morrison.

"It would tickle me to death to make a strong statement," Mayor Morrison said. "I am very much opposed to the sand plant where it's going."

The council has been split on the issue, with some feeling the resolution was simply a waste of time, others feeling it would send an inaccurate message that the city opposes any franc sand operations, and still others plainly opposed to Pfluger's plan.

Don Vardeman, the member who proposed the resolution, said it was meant to reassure citizens that the city is aware of the public outcry against the depot, but also that its hands are tied.

The intent of the resolution "was to answer my citizens who think we are basically doing absolutely nothing," he said, "but to point out that we're doing what we can do - which is basically nothing at this point."

Vardeman also said he's not against frac sand businesses within city limits, so long as they're in the right zoning district.

"The one that's in my district right now I have no problem with," he said.

Wilson suggested the opposition to the frac sand facility also represents something of a class divide in San Angelo, with the outspoken opponents of the plan coming from a more privileged background than their nearby neighbors.

"You have some people of very low socio-economic means, and there's others on the complete opposite end of the spectrum," he said.

"Those who are on the opposite end of the spectrum are very well-educated and informed about the process, and I think they're just attempting to use whatever means at their disposal in order to voice their opposition to this particular project."

The council's resolution to acknowledge the public outcry ultimately failed 4 - 3 on Tuesday. If the zoning board upholds Pfluger's right to build the frac sand facility within city limits, residents fighting the depot could chose to take the matter up in the courts.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.