In the little southeast Tarrant County town of Dalworthington Gardens, it’s dangerous to take too much for granted. Like whether officials know that a dam is a dam and that allowing gas wells to be drilled atop a dam might be a bad idea. Or whose fault it is that state regulators have discovered the existence of the unpermitted dam and now want expensive alterations to bring it up to required safety standards.
Last year a group of concerned citizens raised questions about how their town’s tiny lake had been reduced nearly to a puddle. They charged that XTO Energy, abetted by city officials, was taking more water out of Pappy Elkins Lake for fracking than allowed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. And they voiced fears about the dangers of gas drilling on the dam and the lack of oversight of the process.
XTO officials said the company hadn’t taken too much water and that they didn’t know the earthen structure they’d drilled through was a dam. That claim might draw skeptical looks, but then city officials say they aren’t sure how the dam got built anyway — just one of several ways in which the town’s records have come up short in the course of the debate.
The controversy over the shrinking lake — city officials said that was due purely to the drought — led TCEQ to discover that XTO’s well pad, from which the company had drilled 10 wells, was indeed sitting on the dam. Furthermore, TCEQ determined, the road XTO had built across the top of the dam had reduced the capacity of its spillway.
It’s a violation of TCEQ rules to modify a dam without state permission. The agency staff wants the city to fix the problems and bring the dam into compliance. An engineering firm hired by the city determined that the road had altered the spillway to the point that it could no longer handle as much water as it’s required to. Now some residents fear that, in a flood, the spillway could pose a threat to more than 200 residents of apartment complexes adjacent to the lake.
The state agency also fined the city more than $3,000 for illegally impounding state water, because the city never obtained a permit for the dam. The agency’s proposed order goes to TCEQ commissioners for approval next month. If they OK it, the city will have 330 days in which to bring the dam up to state standards.
The city-hired engineering firm, Freese and Nichols, estimated that the required improvements could cost Dalworthington Gardens $400,000 to $700,000, a significant amount in a city whose total annual budget is about $5 million.
It’s all the fault of the Pappy Elkins Restoration Group, the citizens who started the controversy, Mayor Michael Tedder said at a council meeting earlier this month. But XTO’s activities have nothing to do with it, Tedder said.
“As far as the damage that’s been done, TCEQ and their enforcement was brought upon us by the citizens’ group,” he said. “The situation we’re in, regardless of whether or not XTO was there, would still be the same. We have a dam that the city would be responsible for. It was never permitted to begin with. We are illegally impounding water, which we did not completely understand.
“Unfortunately the situation has been thrown upon us, and we have to meet those regulations,” he said. “We’re going to do what we can to save the lake or to restructure the lake or dam. We don’t have a solution at this immediate point, but we are working on it.”
City officials did not reply to Fort Worth Weekly’s requests for comment and information.
Suann Guthrie, an XTO spokeswoman, said she couldn’t gather the information requested by the Weekly by press time because of the inclement weather. She did reaffirm the company’s assertion that it did not take more water than the TCEQ permit allowed nor did it withdraw water after its permit expired.
“XTO has responded to the TCEQ with documentation, including a letter from the city of Dalworthington Gardens explaining an error made on their part for incorrectly identifying water pumped into the lake as water diverted from the pond,” she said in an e-mail. “XTO has requested a meeting with TCEQ to discuss its supporting documentation submitted and the alleged violation.”
Pat Noonan, one of the restoration group’s most vocal members, believes that XTO and the engineering company it hired to survey the site knew of the dam’s existence before drilling started and ignored it in order to get the drilling permit and save money.
“XTO and Jacobs Carter Burgess Engineering had to know it was a dam in 2009,” he said. “I think they were just betting no one would ever call the TCEQ.”
At a meeting in January, Nicole Rutigliano, representing Freese and Nichols, told the council that there is no visual evidence of structural damage to the dam. But, she said, “There’s no way to say 100 percent that they have not [caused damage].”
Another restoration group member, Steven Flowers, who is running for city council, is convinced XTO won’t give up the site, now that the wells are producing.
“They’re producing natural gas at near-record rates in a geological hot spot,” he said. “Between XTO and Mayor Tedder, the citizens of DWG are second-class.”
Noonan and other members of the Restoration Group believe XTO should have to pay for dam modifications.
“The lease is very clear about that — XTO was 100 percent responsible for determining the adequacy of the site,” Noonan said. “They were supposed to comply with all state laws.”
He called it “amazing” that officials are blaming his group for the city’s current headaches.
“[Councilman] Guy Snodgrass and Tedder both blamed citizens for the city having to follow state laws now,” he said. “Never mind the fact that you’ve got 200 people living near the dam that you’re responsible for.”
The Southwestern Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recently instituted a 3,000-foot setback for gas wells near its dams. A lengthy study on the effects of gas drilling and extraction near dams is now in the review stage. A Corps spokesperson would not speculate on when it will be released.
Noonan said a TCEQ official told him that the Pappy Elkins dam is the only one in the state with a drill site sitting directly on it.
“They’ve never approved in this state that you can build gas wells on a dam,” he said. “Ours is a high-hazard dam because of the apartment complex behind it [and nearby].” The Corps rates the hazard level of dams based on threats to people and property in the case of a dam failure.
Noonan said a lawyer told him that the city has a strong legal argument for making XTO pay for the work on the dam.
“It’s beyond comprehension, the audacity of XTO to show up in our city, drill 10 wells on a dam knowingly, and betting they wouldn’t get caught,” he said.
Flowers believes that the city has been covering for XTO because Dalworthington Garden’s budget has become dependent on gas royalties.
For the council and mayor to admit they were wrong, he said, they’d have to develop a conscience “toward the environment, the citizens, surrounding property owners, and the children in the Montessori Academy, whose schoolyard is about 210 feet away [from the pad site].”