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Denton revisits monitoring of air quality

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

The Denton City Council circled back around and revisited an issue it left unfinished after updating the city’s ordinance governing natural gas drilling and production — air quality monitoring.

Several council members said during a workshop session Tuesday afternoon that they wanted to keep the pledge they had made to the community even as other council members questioned whether the city had the authority to enforce any violations they might find.

During a presentation from Kenneth Tramm, principal of Modern Geosciences, an Arlington environmental services firm, the council learned that it was possible a monitoring program would detect emissions that would be of concern.

“Every time we go out, we find problems about 25 percent of the time,” Tramm said, adding that when they show the operator what was found, the operator fixes it and that has its benefits, too.

Tramm’s group monitored emissions throughout the drilling and hydraulic fracturing of a well in Colleyville and found that emissions following fracking — during flowback — came close to exceeding off-site monitoring levels set by the state. Tramm told the council that there have not been many studies of emissions during flowback. Because the flowback at the Colleyville well had been small, he believed emissions at wells that produced greater flowback could likely exceed the state’s monitoring levels, he said.

Tramm has provided several cities in the Barnett Shale air quality monitoring at natural gas production sites in the past few years. Tramm also served as a technical adviser when Denton was drafting its latest ordinance.

Tramm provided the council an overview of the kinds of monitoring Denton might be able to do, including employing some low-cost but low-resolution equipment.

Tramm’s company specializes in open-path monitoring, which essentially takes the laboratory and monitors plumes at a fence line for extended periods of time and analyzes them, he said.

He suggested the city could use a tiered approach, bringing the equipment out more frequently when problems were suspected with a production site or if the site was close to a vulnerable population. The equipment could be brought out less often in places with less risk, he said.

He expected monitoring would have a beneficial effect, even if findings didn’t lead to a violation with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

“People behave differently when they know they are being monitored,” Tramm said.

However, he stopped short of providing the council estimated costs. Council members asked whether the city could implement a program that outfitted the current staff with equipment and training. Tramm said it was possible, but he said he didn’t think the city would want to invest the capital and maintenance needed for the fence line equipment.

Mayor Mark Burroughs said he wasn’t sure the council knew enough from this presentation to make a recommendation to the staff on what to do next.

Council member Kevin Roden asked that the research Tramm and others have done so far be summarized so that it could help the city ask better questions of what they want from a monitoring program, a recommendation fellow council member Dalton Gregory echoed.

Council member Jim Engelbrecht said he didn’t want to get too much further down the road until he heard at least one other presentation scheduled in the community next week.

Jay Olaguer, a research scientist with the Houston Air Research Center, will speak at 4 p.m. Monday in Room 125 of the Environmental Education, Science and Technology Building at the University of North Texas on new remote sensing capabilities for air quality monitoring.

In the end, members agreed with a recommendation by council member Chris Watts that the city staff, including Ken Banks, the city’s director of environmental services and sustainability, work with Tramm to come up with monitoring options that included prices.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.