After Talking Water Supply, Cause of Quakes, Drilling Task Force Gets Down to Business

Water, water, everywhere -- more than ample supply to frack, according to Jody Puckett, the director of Dallas Water Utilities, who spoke at yesterday's gas drilling task force meeting. She clarified that, sure, there's a drought, and conservation is always important, but she also insisted that water for fracking isn't an issue for the Dallas water supply. While it might be taxing on smaller water providers, she told the task force, it's a drop in the bucket for Dallas, which also supplies water to smaller surrounding cities.

She explained: Though there's no fracking in Dallas, the city sells untreated (or "raw") water from Lake Lewisville and Lake Grapevine to gas companies drilling outside city limits, as well as other municipalities, such Grand Prairie or Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, that may in turn sell water to other gas companies. "One of the important aspects of our utility system is our raw water supply," she said.

Some of the water comes from the same sources as the city's drinking water, but there's enough to go around, Puckett says -- honest. "We see this [drilling] business as just another customer," she said.

That's not to say there aren't concerns.

She noted that precautions must be taken to ensure that pad sites near lakes are properly contained. And while selling water to fracking companies is a transaction like any other between the city and an industrial client, disposal is a more concerning issue. The EPA has strict pretreatment standards for liquids entering the wastewater system, according to Puckett's slideshow.

Which brings us to the presentation by Philip Dellinger, Regional Ground Water/Underground Injection Control Chief for the Environmental Protection Agency, whom task force members questioned extensively about injection sites for the disposal of produced fracking water that has been mixed with sand and chemicals.

His regional office of the EPA does not believe fracking itself is responsible for earthquakes that have impacted the area in recent years, but improperly planned injection sites that are significantly deeper than frack sites could be a culprit. "If [seismic activity] is induced by injection, it's the disposal wells, we believe," he said of the link between fracking activity and earthquakes. "You're changing stresses down there," he said of injecting the produced water deep into the ground.

Task force member John McCall asked for clarification about who determines the locations, limits and lifespans of injection wells. Dellinger said the state Railroad Commission vets the sites.

As to whether Dallas should be concerned about injection sites coming into the area, Dellinger said it's possible that a company would apply to place an injection well here. Fort Worth recently placed a moratorium on the sites, but that means more truck traffic carrying produced water from frack sites to disposal wells elsewhere -- a situation that highlights the rock and hard place frequently encountered by regulatory bodies.

When created properly, drilled into the Ellenburger Formation (deeper than the Barnett Shale) and away from fault lines, injection wells have a "really good" track record and are "the best thing to do for the waste," Dellinger said.

He brought up another concern the task force hadn't heard much about: drilling mud, a mixture used to aid the drill head, keep it cool and bring the drilled materials to the surface. Once used, he said, the mud is scattered over large swaths of land.

Task forcer Cherelle Blazer raised a concern about the mud releasing volatile organic compounds as vapor, and task force member David Biegler jumped into the fray for clarification. He said most of the VOCs in this circumstance are released during drilling, and mud isn't just something you throw away -- it's expensive. Farmers actually ask for it to be dispersed on their land because it acts as a good fertilizer, he said. Blazer remained skeptical of the process.

Following the two presentations, the task force reviewed the list of issues they plan to address over the next few weeks, a list city staff is using to guide their research as they compile comparative information from the ordinances of nearby municipalities. Task force chair Lois Finkelman noted several times that they must determine what can and should be regulated on a city level, and she bottom-lined issues such as, "No. 1, should we have a variance process [to adapt the regulations to certain circumstances]; No. 2, what should it look like?"

While last week we pointed out that the task force had very little discussion during meetings, yesterday marked the first day there was a back-and-forth among members. Several chimed in with additions and modifications to their working list of issues.

In the midst of the mostly practical discussion of issues to be addressed at upcoming deliberation meetings, Biegler addressed a contentious point, the elephant that's been hiding in the room throughout the task force process. "What happened to the money [accepted by the city for gas company leases]?"

"It's been spent," Kris Sweckard, director of the Office of Environmental Quality, said of the $34 million dollars.

Margaret Keliher took issue with the city's current leases influencing the task force's mission of recommending changes in the city's drilling ordinance.

"Everything in life is a balance," Biegler said. "I'm not saying it's determinative." Keliher said the current leases should be the "city council's balancing act" and shouldn't concern the task force.

At the task force's first meeting in July, Finkelman told Unfair Park that the city's current leases would not figure into the task force's recommendations, and he reiterated her point yesterday. "We would not make a decision, I hope, based on the fact that the city's accepted money. I don't think that's our charge," Finkelman said.

At their next meeting on October 4, the task force will review the ordinances of surrounding cities, then they begin deliberation about the ordinance for the City of Dallas. Tuesday afternoons at City Hall are about to get very interesting.

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