EDITOR’S NOTE: Because of a midnight embargo placed on information about the petition initiative, the Denton Record-Chronicle could not actively pursue reaction from city, state and industry leaders. All individuals quoted in the story are directly affiliated with the Denton Drilling Awareness Group. A follow-up story is anticipated for the Wednesday edition.
A newly formed group of residents seeking a ban on hydraulic fracturing will begin collecting signatures this week on a petition to force a ballot initiative in Denton.
If they are successful, Denton could become the first Texas city with a ban on fracking and the first city in the nation to ban fracking after permits have already been granted, according to the Denton Drilling Awareness Group.
The group, which is expected to announce the drive today, plans to formally launch the petition drive Thursday in downtown Denton. Once they start, they will have 180 days to gather the 571 signatures needed to put the measure before the City Council. Once the signatures are verified, the council can either approve the proposed ordinance or call an election to let voters decide.
The group has been working on the project for some time, according to Denton resident Cathy McMullen, a member of Denton DAG.
After energy companies returned in the past year to reinvigorate some of the city’s 270 old gas wells with hydraulic fracturing — pressure-pumping a chemical and water solution to release gas and oil from shale and other tight rock — several groups of residents became convinced that the city’s new ordinance was a failure, she said.
“With the developers, the industry and the city against the residents, we were convinced we had no other choice,” McMullen said. “It’s a brutal process that has no place next to people.”
Over the years, individuals have called for a ban on fracking but city leaders have said they didn’t believe such a ban would be legally defensible.
Residents in neighborhoods along Vintage Boulevard, Bonnie Brae Street and in Southridge have seen fracking as close as 250 feet from homes, even after Denton revised its ordinance increasing setbacks between well sites and protected uses to 1,200 feet.
The City Council adopted new rules in early 2013 that established a 1,200-foot setback between well sites and a number of places where people gather, including homes, parks, churches and schools. The council also included an exception, however, to allow developers to build homes up to 250 feet from an existing well. Among the opposition was a contingent from the Robson Ranch retirement community who filled the council chambers in 2010 asking to be excluded.
Developers in other neighborhoods have continued to build new homes close to existing well sites. One developer sought and received an exception granted this year after he pledged to disclose nearby gas well sites to future homebuyers.
Denton DAG member Adam Briggle, who frequently lectures on hydraulic fracturing, said gas drilling and fracturing have been going on in Denton, Wise and several other counties for more than a decade. But he said he still finds many residents, particularly newcomers, who are surprised when frack trucks come into their neighborhoods.
“People still have a shocked look on their face, or raise their hands and say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Briggle said.
The city faced opposition from energy companies, however, who claimed their vested rights in the property and prior permits meant the city’s new rules didn’t apply to their old wells.
The city sued EagleRidge Energy in late 2013 but dropped the suit soon after a Denton judge refused to grant the city a temporary restraining order. The city recently extended a “standstill agreement” while it continues to negotiate with the company.
Denton DAG organizers said attorneys at the national, state and local level helped the group draft a proposed three-page ordinance to ban hydraulic fracturing. McMullen said the group, which began several years ago at the request of at least one City Council member to help the city rewrite its new rules, has since organized as a nonprofit.
Longtime environmental advocate Ed Soph of Denton said the group formed as a nonprofit for a number of legal reasons, including protecting individual members from strategic lawsuits against public participation. The Texas Legislature passed a statute greatly restricting SLAPP suits, as they are known, in 2011.
Denton DAG decided not to pursue an extended moratorium similar to citizen-driven initiatives in Colorado and elsewhere, according to another member, Rhonda Love. Those initiatives call for a five-year moratorium in order to study impacts on health, property values and the environment.
“The information is already there for people who want to take the time to study it,” Love said. “It’s simply not safe for public health.”
Industry officials have maintained that hydraulic fracturing does not damage the ecosystem, harm the state’s water supplies or pose health risks for residents.
Two years ago, Love worked with two other residents to prepare a health impacts report on hydraulic fracturing for the Denton City Council based on what was known then. More research has come to light recently, she said, including the latest study from the Colorado School of Public Health. Researchers there found an increased risk of birth defects among mothers living close to well sites with fracking.
McMullen said the group plans to take the time they need to get the initiative in front of every Denton resident who has been affected, or had friends and family affected, by hydraulic fracturing. While she doesn’t think they will finish the petition drive in time for the May 10 city election, she expects that the answer to the question of whether a candidate supports the initiative will matter to many voters.
The group plans to hold more educational presentations and signing sessions in the coming months, Briggle said.
“We want people to make an informed decision about whether to sign,” Briggle said.
For more information about the initiative, visit the group’s website, frackfreedenton.com, which is expected to launch today.
PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.