About Air and Water

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Drilling, water quality debated in Pantego

By ROBERT CADWALLADER - Special to the Star-Telegram - April 11, 2009
PANTEGO — Like many of this town’s 2,700 residents, Harriet Irby finds the city’s high- sodium water nasty to drink and harmful to spray on some grasses and plants.

Irby, an environment and animal-care advocate, is running for the Pantego Town Council and trying to spark community debate over the city’s first gas well, expected to be drilled in the next couple of months.

She is worried about potential leaks that could contaminate the city water supply and many private irrigation wells.

Arlington, Fort Worth and other cities in the area rely primarily on surface water.

But concerns about gas drilling’s impact on water quality have already been raised in other areas, particularly in rural areas west of Fort Worth that rely on groundwater.

"There’s all sorts of ways water supply can be impacted," said Irby, who is running for Place 4 in the May 9 election. "The people need more information."

Many others rebuff those concerns, citing the exploration industry’s safety record and confidence that the town can all but eliminate risks through diligent water testing.

And the gas-production revenues from Carrizo Oil and Gas could help ease the pain of slowing sales tax revenues.

"Over the last year, this council created the first-ever gas drilling ordinance for Pantego, and we put everything into our ordinance that we could to protect our water supply," said Councilman Jason Williams, Irby’s election opponent.
"We’ll have to watch during the drilling and fracing and throughout the production of gas to make sure our water is protected."

The council appointed an ad hoc committee of 17 residents last summer to address the water’s taste and how to ensure its safety during gas drilling and production.

The group is set to present its recommendations at the April 27 council meeting.

Irby challenges some of the committee’s testing to get base-line readings on sodium content.

She hired a different laboratory that determined that the salt level at her own tap was about one-fifth the level that the committee’s lab found at the closest municipal well to Irby’s house.

"I question the integrity of the data this committee is using to make decisions about our entire municipal water supply," Irby said.

Don Surratt, a committee member who is challenging Place 5 Councilman Calvin Kost, said he’s confident in the committee’s work.

He is invested in the outcome: His irrigation well is within 500 feet of the gas drill site.

"I do have a concern, but the town is going to test my well water before and after drilling," he said. "If Carrizo does everything that’s required when they drill their well, there should be minimal chance that anything would be polluted as far as the aquifer is concerned."

Carrizo officials did not return multiple phone calls seeking comment.

Despite the industry’s safety record with the thousands of wells drilled in the Barnett Shale, problems do occur.

In November, a Parker County family sued an energy company and its pipe layer, alleging that a saltwater spill from a steel pipe connecting gas wells to saltwater injection wells killed hundreds of trees and other vegetation and contaminated soil and a stock tank.

A 2007 report by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said that while water quality in the Trinity River Aquifer is acceptable for most municipal and industrial uses, there were 12 cases of oil-field-related pollution in Cooke, Montague, Parker and Wise counties in a previous groundwater contamination report.

For flavor — and some say health, for those on sodium-restricted diets — many Pantego residents drink bottled water.

Many also have individual irrigation wells to avoid potential harm to plants.

Those wells are much shallower than their municipal counterparts, which tap into the more reliable but saltier deep end of the water table.

The water committee has studied options, including the long-considered and expensive idea of tying into Arlington’s water system.

Irby and others say that would markedly raise water rates and further burden the town’s large population of senior citizens.

Kost said that he wants to hear what the committee has to say but that he has no complaints about the water.

"I like it — I drink it straight," Kost said. "And it’s better than Arlington’s water by 100 percent."

Staff writer Mike Lee contributed to this report

Read more in the Fort Worth Star Telegram

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