Weeks after former Liberty Pressure Pumping employee Bob Pilger publicly alleged that he became sick after being exposed to silica dust, local “watchdog” Bill Gordon has taken up the cause.

In a letter written to State Representative Sid Miller and Senator Troy Fraser, Gordon asked that they expedite the process to either shut down the plant or force them into compliance with state air pollution regulations.

The letters were sent after Gordon learned that an investigation by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) found that Liberty did not obtain proper licensing with the state prior to construction and operation of the facility.

Jason Cooper, environmental investigator with the TCEQ, said the report is being reviewed by management and will be released to the public this week.

Pilger, who was hired by Liberty in January, says he became ill in May. Four doctors have diagnosed him with acute bronchitis, most likely due to silica exposure. Now, the 54-year-old carries an oxygen tank and labors to breathe. He is out of work and the insurance company is refusing to pay his claims.

Pilger’s Mountain Lakes’ neighbors and several Bluff Dale, Stephenville and Morgan Mill citizens are helping him with living expenses. They are also circulating a petition to force Liberty to comply with state air regulations.

The Liberty plant is located in Bluff Dale and provides materials used in the hydraulic fracturing process for gas wells drilled in the Barnett Shale field.

One of these materials is “frac sand,” which contains crystalline silica.

According to an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) report in publication No. 3177, crystalline silica is classified as a carcinogen that can cause lung cancer. It can also cause silicosis and other breathing disorders, such as the one Pilger has been diagnosed with.

Gordon has been involved with the Barnett Shale natural gas drilling activity in

Erath County for the past two years and has researched the affects of silica dust. He said his main concern is the potential health risk for Bluff Dale citizens.

“Silica dust is a health hazard and the oil and gas exploration and

production industry are exempt from complying with some environmental

regulations,” Gordon said. “The material handling equipment (conveyors) at the Liberty plant for off-loading this material from the railroad cars is open to the atmosphere. This is causing a serious problem when considering the prevailing winds in our area.”

Gordon said Rep. Miller and Sen. Fraser have promised to look into the situation, but Gordon remains frustrated at the pace in which officials with TCEQ and OSHA are moving.

“They have not shown a sense of urgency in correcting this issue,” he said. “TCEQ told me that the Liberty plant could not be cited for contaminating the air because they did not have an air quality permit. They also told me that shutting down the plant for non-compliance would require a decision and order from the Texas attorney general.”

Cooper confirmed that it would be up to the attorney general’s office to close down the plant, but said Liberty would first be given the opportunity to comply.

“They need to get authorization to operate,” Cooper said. “If they are not going to do that - then they need to shut it down.”

Gordon said he remains concerned that the oil and gas exploration industry has become a “self-regulated” industry.

“It has been my experience that no state agency, especially the Texas

Railroad Commission or the Environmental Protection Agency, desires to enforce federal and state regulations on the industry,” Gordon said. “This needs to change and citizens all over North Central Texas are getting involved and putting pressure on these agencies.”

Meanwhile, Pilger has hired Fort Worth attorney James Schull to represent him. Schull said his office is still investigating Pilger’s case but will more than likely file a lawsuit against the company soon.

Pilger has also filed a sexual discrimination charge against Liberty with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, claiming that “pornographic images” were repeatedly shown to employees during the training safety course.

Sara Vanden Berge covers courts, law enforcement, and business and political issues for the Empire-Tribune. She can be reached at sara.vandenberge@empiretribune.com. Her work number is 968-2379, ext. 240.