City Hall

Gas Drilling Variances Denied Near Grapevine Lake, While A Pair of Federal Suits Allege Water Contamination from Barnett Shale Fracking

Worries about groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing around the Barnett Shale got a fresh wave of attention yesterday -- first with a pair of federal suits filed in Dallas, and then with the Town of Flower Mound's denial of a request to drill near to Grapevine Lake.

Keystone Energy was requesting a variance to drill closer than the 500-foot limit from the lake, which is a big drinking water source for Dallas, the Park Cities and Grapevine. Flower Mound's Oil and Gas Board of Appeals heard from lawyers for the company last night, along with folks concerned their operation would pollute the cities' drinking water.

Among those making a case against the variance: Angela Hunt, who's been outspoken about the issue on her blog, and tweeted updates as the meeting dragged along. She tells Unfair Park she'd planned on speaking during the 6:30 to 7:30 window on the board's agenda, but that they didn't take up the issue until after 10. Hunt says she was called up to speak around 11:15. "I told them, 'I don't need to tell this city that North Texas has problems ensuring that we have an adequate water supply," Hunt says. "We really cannot risk contaminating a major water supply like Lake Grapevine."

Hunt says what surprised her most was a presentation by Keystone's lawyer, who was also at the meeting to represent Titan Energy in a separate application, for a variance to drill closer than 1,000 feet from a school. "What was troubling to me was their attorney made not very veiled threats of litigation if the board didn't approve the variances they were requesting for Titan," Hunt says. After breaking into executive session, the board finally opted to deny both variance proposals well after midnight. "It really rubbed me the wrong way," Hunt says -- suggesting that "the board could be sued personally... It was really intimidation tactics."

Earlier Wednesday though, a pair of suits filed in Northern District Court of Texas put some heat onto three energy companies, alleging that the groundwater around homes Denton and Johnson County has been contaminated by fracking operations nearby.

Both were filed by Dallas personal injury lawyer and butterfly photographer Windle Turley, who filed another fracking-related water contamination complaint back in August. While plenty of similar cases have been filed in the northeastern United States, thsee three cases look to be the only ones so far alleging water contamination in the Barnett Shale. We reached Turley this morning to hear more.

Turley says he first got interested in complaints of property damage from natural gas production when he took on a case from Johnson County couple John and Linda Scoma, complaining about ground water pollution from a Chesapeake Energy operation near their property.

Chesapeake's a co-defendant in one of yesterday's suits, along with Encana Oil & Gas. According to that complaint, Grace Mitchell's ground water became contaminated "soon after" those companies began drilling and fracking near her property in Johnson County. (The Star-Telegram reports it's actually in Tarrant County.) Says the suit, Mitchell "can no longer use the water from her own well for consumption, bathing, or washing clothes because in approximately May 2010, the well water started to feel slick to the touch and give off an oily, gasoline-like odor." Tests showed the water was laced with "various chemicals, including C-12-C28 hydrocarbons, similar to diesel fuel," the suit says.

The other suit, Doug and Diana Harris v. Devon Energy, alleges ground water pollution beginning "approximately in April 2008, [when] their ground water became polluted with a gray sediment," which tests revealed contained a laundry list of heavy metals.

Energy company reps have maintained the safety of the fracking process before the Dallas City Plan Commission and other agencies between here and Fort Worth, and while Turley says he hesitates to call anyone a liar, he will say this: "They're deceiving the public. They know better than that," he tells us. "They're concealing the fact that there are fissures in this rock. Sometimes there are pockets of methane gas that get pushed to the surface, plus they have fractures in the bore hole sometimes that leak right into the aquifer." In other circumstances, pits of fracking fluid that's been pumped back up the line can seep into the ground.

"We're going to see a lot of these cases before long," he tells us this morning -- but Chesapeake Energy spokesman Brian Murnahan begs to disagree. "That is totally false," he writes in an e-mail sent moments ago. "It is irresponsible for lawyers to opportunistically prey on people's fears and misconceptions to encourage baseless lawsuits." Chesapeake, he says, "has established an outstanding record of encasing wells and protecting the region's ground water," and anyway, they're not the only ones named in the suit.

"We have no record of [Mitchell] ever attempting to contact us with concerns about her water quality so we have no information to assess her claims at this time," he says, pointing out the Johnson/Tarrant County mix-up, "so even the most basic facts contained in this suit are inconsistent."

From Encana Oil & Gas offices in Calgary, spokesman Alan Boras says that as of yesterday, they hadn't been served with the suit. "Regardless of that," he says, "it would take time to review a lawsuit of that nature. Encana has thousands of wells, he says, and he hadn't had a chance to look into whether Mitchell had directly complained to them before the suit. (We're still waiting to hear back from Devon Energy.)

Next month, Turley says he and his team are headed to Pennsylvania next month to meet with lawyers and experts who've been working slightly older cases in the Marcellus Shale. "Their cirstumstances are a little bit different -- the water table's a little bit higher -- but it's the same process. It's the same risk."

Turley adds that while in, say, Oklahoma, drillers must notify any property owners whose land sits above their well bores, "here in Texas, as far as we can tell, there's no such thing. They come and bore right across you and under you," he says. "Most all of the people in the Barnett Shale in North Texas are not aware that there are bore holes running right underneath their property." In Austin yesterday, the Sunset Advisory Commission's hearing on the Railroad Commission of Texas and the TCEQ was full of complaints that the agencies' lax regulation of the natural gas industry was leaving Barnett Shale residents at risk for water, air and soil pollution.

The Dallas City Council still won't be hearing XTO Energy's appeal to drill on city land for another month, Raymond Crawford with Dallas Area Residents for Responsible Drilling says these suits show how that there are high legal stakes along with the environmental questions the council's facing. "The city should carefully decide what's their liability in this whole thing. It's kind of a cart before the horse -- what they're doing now, they should've done before they voted to approve and take the money two years ago," Crawford says. "They're two years late and the clock is ticking."

"I know enough about it to know we need to know more," Hunt says, which is why she and Dave Neumann are advocating a city task force to study the potential drilling and fracking risks in Dallas: "What types of precautions should we look at, or is this a technology that just isn't safe in an urban environment?"