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Council expresses concerns on water monitoring

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

The Denton City Council declined this week to give much direction on a proposed program to test groundwater wells, and instead asked for a closed session with the city attorneys to discuss ramifications of the program.

Dr. Kenneth Banks, the city’s director of environmental services and sustainability, briefed the council on a range of policy issues related to the program during the council’s regular work session Tuesday. His briefing included considerations of when, where and what to sample. He was also seeking direction about how to order testing and how to handle any results.

Because the testing would require special equipment and protocols, the city would not be doing the work, Banks said. But he cautioned the council that it would not be a good idea for a landowner to be handed test results and not be counseled on the implications.

Assistant City Manager Howard Martin told the council that, when purchasing property with a private groundwater well, lenders often require an inexpensive test for biological contaminants. The testing being considered by the city would look for levels of heavy metals and chemicals, Banks said, and the likelihood that something would be found — even before drilling — was high because Texas has found many naturally occurring contaminants in groundwater.

The briefing was part of a council to-do list of remainders after adopting a comprehensive overhaul of the city’s drilling ordinance on Jan. 15. Air and water quality monitoring were not made a part of the new ordinance. Members of the council have said publicly that they wanted to keep the pledge to the community that monitoring issues would be addressed by city departments. An April briefing articulated issues related to air quality monitoring.

Denton monitors its watershed at 80 locations and has tracked down surface water contamination within that network.

But the testing of groundwater wells may require the permission of the owners.

Banks told the council that several other cities in the Barnett Shale require groundwater monitoring to varying degrees.

Some protections may be afforded by the city’s new, 1,200-foot setback between any new natural gas wells and existing groundwater wells, Banks said.

Currently, there are about 250 known water wells inside Denton city limits. But Banks also cautioned that there could be many more that are not in any official database.

There are about 280 natural gas wells inside the city limits, too, and many of them are closer than 1,200 feet to a water well, Banks said.

The city may find value in a Pennsylvania policy that has encouraged much more testing of groundwater wells before drilling begins, Banks said. Rather than landowners, operators have the burden of proof in a contamination case, and that creates an incentive to determine what contaminants are already present in a particular water well before drilling begins.

Some council members were concerned that the owners of water wells would not give permission for testing if they thought the results might become public.

Other council members were concerned what liability the city might have if it knew the water was unsafe to drink, but the well owner continued to drink the water.

Council members were also concerned whether the city had any enforcement authority, should it find evidence of contamination. Criminal enforcement is typically at the state or federal level. And council member Chris Watts wondered whether city-ordered testing would end up in a civil suit between a landowner and operator.

Council member Dalton Gregory asked whether the city might be able to order testing in the event of a known failure, such as the blowout that occurred at an Eagleridge well site last month.

All those items would have to be addressed in a closed session, said Mayor Mark Burroughs, and the city had not scheduled it on Tuesday’s agenda.

Council member Jim Engelbrecht said direction on water monitoring would have to wait.

“I’m not comfortable giving much direction right now,” Engelbrecht said.

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