Citing Dam Safety Risk, Army Corps to Approach Grand Prairie Tuesday

Army Corps of Engineers has expanded oil, gas "exclusion zone" near Joe Pool Lake dam

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will make its case to Grand Prairie city council members Tuesday afternoon that oil and gas drillers need to be moved farther away from the Joe Pool Lake dam for safety reasons.

The Corps, which maintains Joe Pool Lake and 23 other lakes and reservoirs in the Fort Worth District, released a report last week indicating its expansion of the exclusion zone around the dam from 3,000 to 4,000 feet.

The Corps released a statement accompanying the report.

USACE has concluded the 3,000-foot exclusion zone at Joe Pool Dam does not sufficiently meet our minimal tolerable risk guidelines and therefore, poses a risk to the dam, the lake, and the public. As a result of this finding, USACE has adopted a 4,000-foot exclusion zone at Joe Pool Dam. Within that zone no drilling will be allowed, regardless of depth. USACE is also working to protect the project from the effects of induced seismicity by limiting injection wells within five miles of Joe Pool Dam.

The study was the result of a process that began in late 2010 when a group of concerned citizens, the Westchester-Grand Prairie Community Alliance, wrote a letter to alert the Corps that Chesapeake Energy had begun gas exploration drilling at a site approximately 850 feet from the Joe Pool Lake Dam.

In a 2011 response to the neighborhood group, the USACE indicated it was unaware that drilling was proposed “in such close proximity to our project.” In a separate 2011 letter, this one to the City of Grand Prairie Deputy City Manager, the Corps noted its concern with the possible implication of drilling near the Joe Pool dam.

“Our engineers believe that drilling and fracturing activities at Chesapeake Energy’s Corn Valley drill site may increase the risk to the project, and possibly contribute to a catastrophic dam failure,” wrote Col. Richard Muraski, Jr. “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.”

In that same 2011 letter, the Corps requested the City of Grand Prairie to impose a moratorium on any drilling or hydrofracturing activities within 3,000 feet of Joe Pool Dam.

In its subsequent report, the Corps indicated that the “3,000 feet exclusion zone seems reasonable,” but still recommended extending the buffer by 1,000 feet.

“"I'm surprised they extended it beyond the 3,000,” said Susan Read, a member of the citizens group that pushed the Corps to do the study. “We just wanted them to enforce, maybe, what they had in place already."

Read told NBCDFW she and other members of her group are happy with the release of the study, something they feared would not be made public.

“’We believed the study might never be released since it would likely criticize the industry’s practices in Texas,” Read noted.

In addition, Read said the study was concluded in 2013, prior to significant earthquake activity in North Texas, particularly in the area surrounding the former Texas Stadium site along the Irving/Dallas line.

“We wonder if the larger Exclusion Zone might have been extended further if the study had taken the earthquake activity since 2013 into account,” Read said.

A spokesperson for the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the oil and gas industry in the state, indicated that the agency has not yet had any direct contact with the Army Corps of Engineers about its report.

“The Railroad Commission's highest priority is protection of public safety and our natural resources,” wrote Ramona Nye in a statement to NBCDFW. “The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) has not contacted the Commission regarding its recent study of safety issues related to Joe Pool Dam. Railroad Commission staff are currently reaching out to USACE to discuss the findings of the study and determine what, if any further action might be warranted.”

A seismologist for the Railroad Commission has expressed skepticism on the connection between earthquakes and the natural gas industry.

To that point, an industry insider familiar with the USACE study said Monday that the Corps is being inconsistent in its findings and its actions.

“It’s bizarre that the Army Corps decided to expand its buffer while citing its new study, considering the study itself recommended the buffer that’s currently in place,” said Steve Everley, a Senior Advisor with Energy in Depth, an advocacy group started by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.

“The Corps’ study indicates that fracking has not contaminated groundwater, that any risk of seismicity is exceedingly low, and the existing buffer is not only adequate, but actually what the experts recommend,” Everley said. “It’s really unclear why the Corps chose to reject all of these findings, especially since they were part of a study for which the Corps itself had asked.”

On Tuesday, representatives from the USACE will present the agency’s findings to members of Grand Prairie city council.

Council members are not expected to take any action at this point.

“USACE welcomes environmentally sound oil and gas exploration and other mineral extraction activities; but we must always ensure that those activities pose no threat to our critical facilities and life safety,” said Col. Calvin C. Hudson II, commander, Fort Worth District.

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