by Marc W. McCord
While many other concerns about hydraulic fracturing (frac'ing) and its attendant problems have dominated discussions an issue that has been largely overlooked is that of dam integrity for drilling operations near dams and spillways on reservoirs and lakes. Of particular concern is the threat to human life and property in the path of a flood caused by a catastrophic dam or spillway failure that results in a powerful surge of water that destroys everything in its path. Though little discussed, the threats are well known to the US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE), Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and many local, state and federal governmental agencies involved in approving and regulating mineral exploration and extraction in the United States.
On September 10, 2010, I first contacted Terry Schmidt of the USACE Fort Worth Regional Office about freshwater springs that may feed Joe Pool Reservoir, which sits in far southwestern Dallas, far southeastern Tarrant and far northwestern Ellis Counties in North Central Texas. During our conversation I asked Mr. Schmidt about the USACE position on frac'ing near the dam at Joe Pool Reservoir. Mr. Schmidt told me that USACE was very concerned about activities on the surface that might negatively impact dam integrity, but that they had not really given too much thought about the potential for problems caused deep beneath the earth's surface. It turns out that is not actually the case, though it is possible (but not probable) that Mr. Schmidt was not aware of what had already been deliberated, codified and discussed about this issue within BLM and USACE.
In May, 1996, the US Department of the Interior, through its BLM subdivision, released the Texas Resource Management Plan (TRMP) which stipulates federal regulations related to activities allowed or prohibited on federal land near dams, spillways and embankments to protect the structural integrity of its water impoundment projects, particularly those related to hydroelectric generation or drinking water reservoirs. TRMP defines a "No Surface Occupancy / No Drilling" (NSO/ND) zone as being within "3,000 horizontal feet of prime facilities critical to the operation of a project." It then defines such facilities as "the dam, spillway, outlet structure, levees and related structures."
Was oil and gas exploration and production considered as a potential threat to dam and spillway integrity? If not, then it should have been because in December, 1963, the Baldwin Hills Dam failed in the Baldwin Hills suburb of Los Angeles, California killing 5 people and destroying 65 homes as well as damaging many other homes and other structures, cars and other property in a structural failure that was most probably directly related to oil production nearby and the subsurface pressures it caused which resulted in ground subsidance that cracked the dam and led to its failure and the subsequent flood.
To put the human and property threat from a dam failure at Joe Pool Reservoir into perspective, the Baldwin Hills Reservoir was a 19 acre impoundment that released 292 million gallons of water. Joe Pool Reservoir is a 7,740 acre impounddment that contains (at conservation level) more than 57.643 billion gallons of water. Joe Pool is more than 407 times larger in area and contains nearly 200 times as much water as Baldwin Hills Reservoir held at the time of its failure (it no longer exists.) And, since the run-out area from Joe Pool Reservoir is the floodplain of Mountain Creek and Walnut Creek down to Mountain Creek Lake and then on down to the West Fork of the Trinity River before joining the Elm Fork to form the main stem of the Trinity River in West Dallas, a catastrophic failure at Joe Pool would result in major flooding in southwest Dallas, Grand Prairie, eastern Irving, west Oak Cliff and then through downtown Dallas from which the river would flood Cadillac Heights and parts of central and eastern Oak Cliff and then suburbs south of Dallas.
No flood in the recorded history of Dallas has ever created the amount of floodwaters that would result from a failure of the dam at Joe Pool Reservoir. But, is this scenario likely to occur? Who knows? There are numerous gas wells operating around Joe Pool, and the Chesapeake Corn Valley A1H well just 850 feet below the spillway is the closest one. Chesapeake intends to frac at least five more wells on that site. Each fracture further weakens the structural integrity of the underlying shale layer that forms part of the foundation upon which the dam sits. Logic and the laws of physics tell us that 57.643 billion gallons of water at about 8.3 pounds per gallon exerts an enormous downward force on the subsurface strata below the lake. Factor in the pressure by pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the shale layer adjacent to the dam at up to 16,000 psi and an additional force is at work further weakening the foundation upon which the dam sits creating a more likely potential for dam failure.
The Baldwin Hills Dam failed in broad daylight with engineers on site watching and trying to stop the failure before it happened. But, what would happen if the Joe Pool Dam suddenly, and without notice, failed in the middle of the night when people were home asleep in bed in houses immediately below the dam? It is a reasonable assumption that hundreds, possibly thousands, would be killed and their homes would be destroyed, most without flood insurance leaving the survivors homeless and without most of their possessions.
We know that USACE met with the Cities of Grand Prairie and Dallas to request a cessation to drilling near the Joe Pool Dam. Grand Prairie agreed to stop issuing drilling permits. Dallas officials will not even acknowledge that meeting with USACE officials, and Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for information about who met with USACE officials and what was discussed have been denied. In fact, the City of Dallas appealed the request to Greg Abbott, Texas Attorney General, who determined that the city could not withhold such information from citizens, so the City of Dallas filed a lawsuit against the State of Texas and the Texas Attorney General seeking to overturn his ruling and continue withholding information that should be publicly available. You can read about the FOIA matter on the Dallas Area Residents for Resposible Drilling blogsite.
Following my initial discussion with Terry Schmidt, I had subsequent conversations with USACE staffers Bobby Faucett, Tom Johnson, Dave Madden, Skipper Scott, Wayne Lea, Anita Branch, Robert Hooper, Jennifer Walker and LTC Tim McAlister (Deputy Commander, USACE Fort Worth Region.) Attempts to talk with Col. Richard J. Muraski, USACE Fort Worth Region Commander, were unsuccessful - he never returned phone calls or responded to numerous e-mail inquiries. Each contact I had with USACE personnel stated that they were unaware of concerns about drilling near the dam, but they would look into it and then get back with me. None ever followed up with a call or e-mail, and no additional information was forthcoming. But, I later learned from a Dallas Morning News article written by staff writer Randy Loftis that USACE was working to develop a nationwide strategy for dealing with oil and gas exploration and production near their dams and spillways so that USACE would have a uniform response to future activities where their infrastructure may be imperiled by drilling activities.
Mr. Schmidt did tell me that the same concerns would apply to Benbrook Lake in Fort Worth and at other lakes and reservoirs where drilling was being done near their dams and spillways. The fact remains that these issues were specifically addressed at least 14 years prior to my initial inquiry, and yet USACE maintained that they had not even considered the possibility that frac'ing near or under their lakes and dams could result in a catastrophic failure that killed people and destroyed property. And, the USACE should have been aware of the Baldwin Hills Dam failure in late 1963, as well as its connection to mineral extraction near the dam. It is the job of the USACE to understand the engineering ramifications of their projects - they are, after all, engineers! And, their first duty is to protect the lives and safety of citizens through implementation of best practices to minimize risk factors and insure safe operations at their projects, according to what LTC Tim McAlister told me in a telephone conversation in late 2010.
One cannot help but wonder whose purpose USACE is serving when it fails to respond, in a timely manner, to legitimate requests for information from concerned citizens who have a right to know what is being discussed and who among our elected officials and their staff are having discussions pertaining to public health and safety. It begs the question, what are they hiding from the general public, and why?
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