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City approves drilling ordinance

Profile image for By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

Council amends final draft to help address residents’ concerns

Residents say they are deflated and disappointed after the Denton City Council finally approved, in a 5-1 vote, new rules for natural gas drilling and production that have been years in the making.

The council made several amendments to the ordinance from the dais Tuesday night, ostensibly to address some residents’ lingering concerns about weakness in the final draft — the city’s fifth since October. Those amendments addressed some issues with compression stations, setbacks, insurance liability limits and air and water quality monitoring.

Resident Amber Briggle posted her disappointment on Facebook.

“It’s better than what we had, but after so much time and energy, I’m just feeling a little deflated today,” Briggle wrote, saying that compressor stations were still allowed and that the zoning restrictions and setbacks — while increased from 1,000 feet to 1,200 feet — remained inadequate.

Residents had asked for a 1,500-foot setback, similar to what’s required in Flower Mound.

Council member Chris Watts made the motion to approve the ordinance with a list of amendments, beginning with the increased setback. He listed applying that setback to compression stations, along with other requirements.

The city had a 1,200-foot setback around Lewisville and Ray Roberts lakes that already was part of the ordinance, a measure required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, City Attorney Anita Burgess said in an interview Wednesday.

The new setback distance would be applied to all protected uses, which include homes, schools and other habitable buildings, although Denton has a variance provision when property owners agree.

Watts’ amendments also included provisions for the city to conduct air and water monitoring through city departments, rather than by ordinance, a measure that council member Kevin Roden said he wanted to see implemented as soon as possible.

Groundwater monitoring may require the permission of nearby water well owners, something that can’t be required in an ordinance, city staff members have said.

In addition, unlike other cities its size, Denton monitors its watershed at 80 locations and has tracked down surface water contamination within that network, according to Ken Banks, the city’s director of environmental services.

Council member James King helped Watts with the amendment that increased the city’s insurance requirements, though he ultimately voted against the ordinance.

The city already had raised worker’s compensation coverage to $1 million, according to Deputy City Attorney Aaron Leal. The amendment increases the operator’s liability to $25 million, with $1 million in general commercial liability and a $24 million umbrella for excess liability. Operators still must provide $1 million in auto liability and $5 million in well control insurance.

Although King said Watts did a good job tracking the feedback in the public hearing and turning it into amendments, King said he was concerned the amendments would keep the city’s new rules from being clear, defined and defensible.

“That’s why I voted against it,” King said. “But maybe it will work out perfectly.”

Watts’ motion came at the end of a five-hour meeting that saw more than three hours of public testimony, nearly all of it opposing the new rules, primarily on grounds that they were weak.

It was standing room only in the council chambers, which seats 114, and more than 30 people addressed the council. Many residents were dressed in green and stood up, some holding signs or wearing stickers, as others addressed the council with their concerns.

Thirteen speakers were escorted from the room after they refused to step away from the podium and cede to the next speaker.

Another resident, Batavia Russell, told the council she hoped they remembered her.

At the first public hearing on the rewrites, she told of her concern of increasing rates of asthma in young children and her frightening experience, as a child care worker, when a baby she was holding stopped breathing.

During her three minutes at the podium, she was silent.

University of North Texas professor Jennifer Lane told the council that, after coming to Denton after living in larger cities, she saw the character of the crowd’s civil disobedience as fragile and the response by those whose duty it was to shut it down as encouraging.

“It is tender and so gently done,” Lane said. “That spirit needs to be protected.”

Officer Brandon Hobon said he called Police Chief Lee Howell when he realized he would be asking people to leave the chambers. Howell came to the meeting, as did another officer, for backup, but Hobon said he didn’t need the help.

“I know these people — they’ve been coming here for four years,” Hobon said.

Thomas La Point and Vicki Oppenheim, members of the city’s official task force that made recommendations for the rewrites, wrote a report card on the fifth draft and sent it to the council a few days before the public hearing.

The pair had written a minority report offering more recommendations that didn’t make it through the task force last year.

During their team presentation in the public hearing, they evaluated the fifth draft against the minority report and gave the council A’s for addressing key items, including noise, closed-loop drilling, geographic information systems data sharing and public notification.

But they had given the council D’s and F’s on a number of other items.

Knowing some changes could be coming to the fifth draft after all, Oppenheim and La Point said it would take some time to re-evaluate how the council did. Roden prodded for new grades, and La Point finally relented.

“We could give you an incomplete,” La Point said.

The ordinance goes into effect upon publication, which will be in about two weeks, according to Burgess. New drill sites will have to use closed-loop drilling systems and “green” completions, as specified by the Environmental Protection Agency. Even though the EPA won’t require them until 2015, Denton now requires them, Burgess said.

Drilling pits, while not prohibited, cannot exceed the city’s low levels of allowed contaminants.

Similarly, flaring, though not prohibited, would be subject to the city’s noise ordinance, which could mean a fine of $2,000 per day, according to Darren Groth, the city’s gas well administrator.

When the new rules take effect, the city will repeal its moratorium on new drilling and production permits that has been in place since January 2011.

Burgess said the city staff and council are already talking about amendments to the city’s development code that would begin to address lingering zoning questions, including whether compression stations would be subject to special-use permits.

Resident Cathy McMullen, who has been pushing for new rules since 2009, was among the 13 escorted from the public hearing Tuesday night. She said she wasn’t sure what was next for residents. Some already were reaching out through social media with a talk of a new initiative.

“I’ll probably continue to be a pain,” McMullen wrote in an e-mail.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881. Her email address is .