Trinity East Says Its Floodplain Fracking Plans Are Kosher With the Army Corps of Engineers

Join Unfair Park once again as we delve into the deep and thorny question: Where exactly can the fracking company Trinity East drill for natural gas in the city of Dallas? Today's episode: The Corps of the Matter.

A story this week in the Morning News pointed out that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers doesn't allow drill sites within 3,000 feet of levees and dams the corps oversees, for fear that fracking might compromise flood protection. The story appeared to be another turn in the screw for Trinity East, which has paid the city of Dallas $19 million to lease mineral rights under a stretch of city property running alongside the Trinity River from Royal Lane to west of downtown. Thus far, the company's plans have been delayed while city drafts its own rules about exactly where gas drilling is allowed in town -- for instance, whether drilling should be allowed in the river's floodplain.

And then there's the corps' rule. Would a 3,000-foot buffer keep Trinity from sinking wells on its leases? Trinity East officials say they've worked with the Army Corps of Engineers to verify that the company's proposed drill sites are outside the buffer and have the corps' stamp of approval. The corps, however, wasn't so clear.

Drilling close to the river would possible under rules drafted by a city-appointed drilling task force, if the City Council OKs them. But the draft regulations also say that any drilling permits the city wants to issue would need approval from the corps.

Trinity East has three pending zoning applications on file with the city -- two on city land, one on private property. Steve Fort of Trinity East told Unfair Park recently the company had the necessary corps approval and that floodplain drilling wasn't an issue, but that was before word of the 3,000-foot rule popped up.

So, Unfair Park contacted corps officials this week, who first said Trinity East did not have approval. And then we reached out to Trinity East, which said it did. And then we went back to the corps ...

The final stop of the daylong runaround was Wayne Hunter, Trinity East's engineering consultant at RPS Group. He said of course Trinity East had corps approval for its Dallas drill sites. It would be silly not to conduct every study imaginable on the land and get that approval before seeking a zoning permit from the city, he explained. It's his job to take care of such matters.

He said if he determined the land to be historically or archaeologically significant, or if it fell on wetlands or encompassed any number of other concerns, he would have advised Trinity East to stop, but that wasn't the case.

"If the corps wasn't going to agree to it, then it wouldn't make sense for them to go forward with an SUP proposal in Dallas," Hunter said. "I assure you we did obtain approval."

He added that the 3,000-foot rule did not come into play in the two sites -- the ones on city land with pending zoning applications -- he was hired to study. Both are in the floodplain, he said, they're just not within 3,000 feet of dams or levees.

"The 3,000-foot thing is very, very, very relevant for levees and dams and there's a very good reason for that. We would not have considered something that would run up against that policy," Hunter said.

An Army Corps of Engineers spokesman said the agency must grant permits for uses of land that may affect "waters of the United States," which includes the Trinity River, though not necessarily every inch of the surrounding floodplain.

The corps clarified things in an email.

In this situation Trinity East did submit information for three drill sites, two of which were in the Trinity River floodplain. But, neither of those two were in "waters of the United States", [Note: In common terms, this basically means any waterway that anyone would care about. See the definition here.] and therefore the corps did not have any authority to approve or disapprove the drill sites. The corps reviewed Trinity East's information and determined that the pipelines connecting the three drill sites did cross "waters of the united states", and thus we verified, based on the information provided, the installation of the pipelines may qualify for a Nationwide 12 Permit for Utility Line Activities.

With that, it's clear that if the city wants rules that protect the integrity of levees, dams and waterways, the Corps of Engineers is a good crutch on which to rest. If the city wants uniform guidelines for drilling in a floodplain, they're not going to get that by dumping the issue into the corps' lap. It's yet another murky regulation overlap issue, one of about a thousand city council must consider.

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Leslie Minora