Panel tackles water issues

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Gas drilling task force recommends ban on open waste pits at sites

Denton's official gas drilling task force voted Monday to recommend a series of water-related regulations, including a ban on open waste pits at drilling sites and baseline testing of nearby water wells.

The task force also endorsed expanding a city ban on wastewater disposal wells into areas of the city's extraterritorial jurisdiction, although they were unsure whether the idea would pass a pending legal review.

The task force is meeting through March to help develop changes to the city's gas drilling and production ordinance. The City Council ultimately must approve any ordinance changes.

The proposals discussed Monday were meant to address concerns about the industry's use of water and its effect on water sources.

The task force voted unanimously to require "closed-loop systems," which eliminate the need for open pits to manage drilling waste, and to require operators to pay for independent baseline water well testing within 1,500 feet of a proposed gas well. Members also voted 4-1 to extend the ban on disposal wells outside the city limits and to expand "best management practice" rules to minimize sediment runoff from drilling sites.

The vote on sediment runoff came after city environmental services director Ken Banks presented the findings of a three-year, federally funded study by the city that found gas well sites had the potential to pollute storm-water runoff with metals and sediment. The study's findings included a call for better regulations, including possibly requiring closed-loop systems.

The city code doesn't mandate closed-loop systems, but the City Council required it as a condition for drilling at Rayzor Ranch development in 2009.

Ed Ireland of the industry-funded Barnett Shale Energy Education Council voted in the minority on several issues. Before the sediment runoff vote, Ireland said he had a "philosophical predilection against government overreach."

Several members of the Fort Worth-based pro-industry group CLEAN Resources drove that point home during public comments, saying overregulation threatened the industry's potential to create jobs and reduce the country's reliance on foreign oil. They also argued that drillers were being unfairly targeted when other industries used more water.

Other speakers raised concerns about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a practice common in the Barnett Shale region that involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground to break up rock and free the gas.

The federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 exempted fracking from certain drinking-water rules. Pressure to increase regulations has grown in recent years with reports of groundwater contamination possibly linked to drilling operations, although the industry disputes that fracking is to blame.

The practice is the focus of an ongoing nationwide study by the Environmental Protection Agency. Initial findings of the study, which was expected to include water wells in Denton and Wise counties, are due this year.

Little of the discussion Monday directly touched on fracking. The task force is scheduled to continue its discussion of water-related issues next Monday.

The City Council was expected to discuss gas drilling regulations - including a temporary moratorium on new permits - during a daylong planning session today at the facilities management building at 869 S. Woodrow Lane. The meeting begins with a closed session at 8:30 a.m.

A vote on a possible moratorium is expected Feb. 7.

LOWELL BROWN can be reached at 940-566-6882. His e-mail address is .


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