Denton’s leaders are debating whether to increase the setback distance between wells and protected uses (homes, schools, etc.) from 1,000 feet to 1,500 feet. Some are asking: What is gained from the additional 500 feet in terms of protection?
We could look for studies on impacts to health and property values in an attempt to answer this question. But I question the question itself. We don’t know what is gained from the extra 500 feet, but we also don't know what is lost by not having the extra 500 feet. The question puts the burden of proof on those who are advocating for 1,500 feet. But arguably the burden should be on those who support 1,000 feet. After all, this number was arrived at through political compromise and policy diffusion. It is not like we have proof that 1,000 feet is sufficient. Both numbers are arbitrary. So why are we asking proof of the efficacy of 1,500 feet that we are not asking of 1,000 feet? It can only be because it is politically expedient, that is, we feel comfortably safe from lawsuits.
For Council, it is a question of how to act under uncertainty. I think they ought to buy more assurance for our top priority of public health…at least until we have a better understanding of how setbacks correlate to public health.
Setbacks establish the ceiling. There is a variance procedure by which those living nearest to a proposed well site can voluntarily opt for shorter setback distances. This is a way to respect citizens' informed consent. If those most vulnerable to this industrial activity want to knowingly bear greater risks for potentially greater rewards, then they should have that right. (Of course identifying who should count as ‘the most vulnerable’ is the sticking point.)
But there is no procedure for surrounding residents to INCREASE the setback distance. This asymmetry needs to be made visible. The setback in the ordinance establishes the maximum distance allowed. Those who would like to voluntarily opt for larger setbacks will not have that option, whereas those who want shorter setbacks do.
Arguably, the City should establish a one mile setback and allow its residents the power to negotiate with one another and with operators for distances less than that. Maybe that is not feasible, but it is more just than what we currently have where the City sets the bar and allows citizens to lower it but not raise it. This is why 1,500 feet is hardly radical. It is only a minor move in the right direction.