Butting Heads and Changing Minds Over Drilling in Dallas as Task Force Wraps It Up

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City ordinances governing drilling are based on the perspectives, experiences and whims of the group gathered at the table. It's the nature of creating rules governing a contentious issue with contradictory information and competing interests coming from both sides -- the drilling industry and anti-drilling activists. With that come differing opinions and changing minds of decision-makers, made more acute this week as the Dallas gas drilling task force is scheduled to conclude its deliberations.

To that end, task force member John McCall has dispatched another missive to the group explaining that he doesn't see a basis for having set-back distances more than 600 feet from drill sites to protected uses, such as homes and parks. "Based on multiple studies we have reviewed," he wrote, "600' is a distance that air quality becomes undetectable from a source."

At the end of January, he told Unfair Park he planned on revisiting the issue of set-backs, but said that he intended that the 1,000-foot setback distance, which he voted in favor of, protect only homes, not a list of other uses, including parks, which eliminate many more potential drill sites in Dallas.

In a list of items to revisit, task force member Terry Welch offered an opposite concern: that the set-back distances the task force originally voted on several weeks ago should be more inclusive.

Currently, the task force's recommendations state that a drill site must be 1,000 feet from a protected use with the option of lowering that distance to 750 feet with a council super-majority vote. Additionally, a drill site must be at least 300 feet from any structure with a certificate of occupancy, which ranges from an office building to a radio tower.

Welch says this may not be good enough. "One of the letters we recently received from several groups of concerned citizens equated this 1,000 foot/300 foot distinction as a 'separate but unequal' strategy. I agree. There are many weeks when I am at my office more than at home, and it seems that my health concerns would be the same," he wrote in his list of items to revisit this afternoon.

Citizen activists have been entering the debate with press releases, blogs and e-mails; they released a map of the city's leases last week, plotting possibly drilling locations included within the city's $30 million agreements with Trinity East and XTO.

This week, Zac Trahan of Program Director at Texas Campaign for the Environment wrote a response to McCall's letter. "Just because Mr. McCall hasn't been convinced that scientific evidence shows health risks beyond this 600 foot distance doesn't mean those health risks don't exist," he wrote. "In fact, health studies have proven difficult and inconclusive thus far, and that should lead the task force to use caution and recommend larger setbacks. Better safe than sorry!"

In the summer, when the council-appointed gas drilling task force began its charge of recommending ordinance revisions to council, there wasn't absolute irrefutable evidence of when a drill site's proximity to a home or school becomes a health hazard. Contradictory studies, stories of igniting faucets, health horror stories and rags-to-riches municipal and personal successes play against each other, forming a landscape that is as complex today, on the day of the last scheduled drilling task force meeting, as it was 20 meetings prior.

After deliberating on topics task force members requested they revisit, the task force will wrap up its recommendations and send them to city council, at which point the curtain rises on the next act of the drilling in Dallas saga.

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