By: Leija Helling, Communications Intern

When landmen first arrived in Arlington, Texas, offering royalties and signing bonuses, everyone was talking about the money. But Ranjana Bhandari saw through the propaganda and refused to sign her mineral rights away. Since this first act of resistance, Ranjana’s fight against fracking has grown into an organized effort across her city through the group Livable Arlington, where she brings residents together to oppose fracking expansion. “Fighting fossil fuels in Texas is a pretty hard job,” she says. But her persistence is paying off. In a Living Room Leadership interview with CHEJ, Ranjana shared stories about urban fracking, corrupted local politics, how she started a community organization, and how her group has found success in an area largely controlled by Republicans to whom fossil fuels hold an almost mythical importance.

“Fighting fossil fuels in Texas is a pretty hard job,” Ranjana says, yet she has proven it’s possible.

Since 2005 when the fossil fuel industry set its sights on the Barnett shale, a reservoir of natural gas that sits below the city of Arlington, local officials have supported the industry in siting urban fracking wells near neighborhoods, parks, hospitals, and schools throughout the city. Urban drilling has become a popular method since the discovery of horizontal drilling, which allows drillers to access reservoirs of gas under built-up areas. Today the 100-square-mile city of Arlington is home to nearly 400 wells, many as close as 300 feet from homes and schools.

Drilling companies sold fracking to Ranjana’s community as a safe way to achieve energy independence back before much was written about the health risks of fracking. But the truth is that fracking uses a slew of toxic chemicals, many of which can have serious health impacts. The process involves pumping 4 million gallons of water, sand, and a mixture of chemicals underground at high pressures. A salty toxic waste called brine comes back out, often along with radioactive materials from deep underground. The risk of emissions of toxic volatiles like benzene and methane is high. Accidents are not uncommon either.

“When you breathe this stuff, it’s not diluted. It’s not occasional. It’s a continuous onslaught.”

Further, the companies did not deliver on the mailbox money they promised. Residents were told they would get royalty checks of a few hundred dollars every quarter for the next 40 years if they signed off on urban fracking, but according to Ranjana, most barely got $10 per quarter. Not only that, but the costs were never counted or even acknowledged. “The accounting was incomplete by design,” Ranjana, whose background is in economics, explains. Losses in property value, property damage, and health care costs were not accounted for. Asthma, for example, costs around $3300 per year to treat. And that’s not to mention the impending climate crisis, which is expected to wipe out at least 5% of the global economy in the coming decades.

Ranjana was the mother of a five-year-old at the time drilling arrived in Arlington, and knew someone needed to speak up for the community’s children, whose health is especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals. She started going to city council meetings along with a few others in an effort to oppose well permits, but their lone voices were easily ignored by officials. Ranjana had no background in community organizing, but knowing that an organization with a structure and a body of supporters would amplify their voice, she decided she should take a stab at it. “Individuals, however heroic, cannot carry the same weight as an organization,” she says. In 2015, she brought together a group of Arlington residents in her kitchen, mostly mothers and grandmothers, united in their conviction to be a voice for the children whose interests they felt were going unrepresented.

Amazingly, under Ranjana’s leadership, Livable Arlington has found ways reach across the aisle and unite the community around human concerns despite Texan commitment to the fossil fuel industry. Reflecting on a huge 2017 win against an injection well that would have threatened the drinking water of half a million Arlinton residents, Ranjana shared the key to her success: messaging. “We never mentioned drilling,” she says. “We talked about water: what our children are drinking, a universal value.”

“You can love fossil fuels, you can buy all the propaganda, but you still don’t want to poison your children.” 

By keeping their focus immediate and local, on children and not the climate, the group was able to find common ground within an increasingly polarized political climate. Optics helped too. “It’s hard for people to demonize you or argue with you when you get 80 women worried about their children lined up at a public hearing.” To be clear, though, concern for children was more than just an organizing strategy for Ranjana. “I did this as a parent,” she says.

Ranjana also told the story of a recent win against the permitting of wells by a preschool in a predominantly Black and Latinx neighborhood of Arlington. The area had the highest rates of COVID-19 infections in Arlington at the time. Livable Arlington was able to convince the city council to oppose the permits by highlighting the link between pollution and higher COVID-19 mortality. Where environmental racism issues intersect with a racialized pandemic, the disproportionate impact of barriers to health on poor minority communities becomes far too clear to ignore, she explains.”I hope we remember the things we’ve learned about how inequitable our country is,” Ranjana says. “Who bears the burden of keeping us going, who has the least protection, and who pollution impacts the most.” How can we do so?

“Hold grown-ups’ feet to the fire, speak truth to power, pin the blame where it lies.”