Corps of Engineers Wants Gas Drillers to Move Farther Away from Joe Pool Dam

The threat of oil and gas extraction within 850 feet of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-controlled Joe Pool Lake dam in 2010 initiated a red alert for the federal agency that controls our nation’s dams. Corps officials pleaded with energy giants XTO and Chesapeake to stop exploration so close to the dam and reached out to the city of Grand Prairie and Senator John Cornyn for help, since the federal agency lacked the authority to force the energy companies to stop.

“Due to the potential for grave and irreparable harm to the dam and, as a consequence, the public, it is necessary for our engineers to conduct studies to verify that drilling and fracking activities will not affect the integrity of the project, increase the hazard rating currently assigned to the dam, or cause the Corps to incur substantial costs to mitigate any increased risks to Joe Pool Dam,” Col. Richard Muraski Jr., former commander of the U.S. Army Corps Fort Worth District, wrote in a February 2011 letter to Grand Prairie city officials.

The Corps has finally finished its study of Joe Pool dam and, in a surprising move, increased its oil and gas exploration exclusion zone from a 3,000-foot to 4,000-foot radius around the dam because the 20-year-old requirements were not adequate to safeguard the giant earthen structure, according to the Corps' announcement this week. The Corps' exploration exclusion zone includes drilling, hydraulic fracturing and extraction.

“The study results,” the Corps wrote in the press release, “were then used to inform a risk assessment of the dam, which identified potential failure modes associated with mineral extraction and the consequences of those failure modes on project performance and, most importantly, on life safety.”

Clay Church,  the Corps spokesperson, says the Corps will not extend this 4,000-foot oil and gas extraction exclusion to the other 24 Corps-controlled dams in the Fort Worth district, including Lewisville Lake dam, where the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency that manages public land, had planned to auction 259 acres in early April to gas drillers until it removed the parcel from the auction block in early March.  

"There are no current discussions to increase the exclusion zones," Church said. 

The Corps press release quotes Col. Calvin Hudson II, commander of the Fort Worth District, as saying that the federal agency welcomes environmentally sound oil and gas exploration and other mineral activities as long as they don’t pose a threat to the dam.

One major problem with the Corps’ new 4,000-foot exclusion zone is that the Corps can’t control what private-property owners choose to do with the minerals under the land, so the Corps action won't necessarily halt drilling near the dam. That's why Corps officials reached out to Grand Prairie city officials in the first place.

Amy Sprinkles, Grand Prairie’s director of communications and marketing, told the Observer that city officials just received the study and plan to evaluate the Corps’ findings and determine if the city’s 3,000-foot oil and gas exploration exclusion zone moratorium, which was passed in 2011, needs to be changed to a 4,000-foot radius.

“We need to have a conversation on the findings with City Council before we decide to take any action,” Sprinkles said. “So I don’t know if it will change the radius.”

The Corps requested a few years ago that city officials include extraction as well as exploration, but its request was denied because three wells are currently producing within the old 3,000-foot oil and gas exclusion zone.

Sprinkles pointed out that more wells were located within the new 4,000-foot exclusion zone surrounding Joe Pool Lake dam.

Sharon Wilson, an industry watchdog who operates the blog Texas Sharon's Bluedaze, was surprised by the Corps' changing the exclusion zone around the Joe Pool Lake dam. 

"The Texas Railroad Commission now stands alone regarding the risks of fracking-related earthquakes," Wilson said. "Texans should ask themselves if stringent independent review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the state of Oklahoma, Southern Methodist University, the U.S. Geological Survey, Canadian regulators and numerous other academics all suggest that we should be concerned with this risk, why should we trust the Railroad Commission when they stubbornly insist there is nothing to worry about?"