This story has been updated to correct the name of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group.
City officials could soon increase the distance between most new buildings and old gas wells, following a recommendation from the Planning and Zoning Commission this week.
Commissioners took testimony during an hourlong public hearing Wednesday night before voting 5-1 in favor of a 500-foot distance, which would double the current requirement for a “reverse setback.”
A reverse setback is the distance the city requires between an existing gas well and new homes, schools, churches, parks and other protected uses — places where people gather and public health is at stake.
Only commissioner Brian Beck opposed the recommendation. He wanted to postpone the vote pending additional information, but he had no takers on his motion to do so.
Ed Soph, a longtime Denton resident and co-founder of the Denton Drilling Awareness Group, said he was not comfortable with city officials citing an outdated study as the basis for increasing the reverse setback. He asked the commission to delay its vote and recommendation until they can gather more scientific information about health effects.
A range of health effects have been reported in communities with oil and gas production facilities, including increased rates of asthma and other breathing difficulties, fetal development and other neurological disorders, and increased rates of certain cancers.
“The city did not do its due diligence,” Soph said during the public hearing, adding that some newer studies found health impacts at distances less than 1,000 feet and up to a mile away from production facilities.
His call for a delay was echoed by several other members of Denton DAG, including Jodi Ismert, who said 500 feet was not far.
“If you play golf, it’s a 9-iron,” Ismert said, describing the distance a golf ball can cover with this popular choice of club for short chip shots.
But the call for a delay puzzled commissioners who saw the increased distance as progress, and a delay as leaving the possibility for more new homes and other buildings to be built close to old wells.
Nearly 300 homes in Denton are within 250 feet of a gas well. A staff analysis found another 600 homes currently sit within 500 feet of a gas well.
Kevin Bankhead of Allegiance Hillview said he opposed increasing the setback distance altogether, citing, in part, current homeowners’ stake in the change.
“They have not been noticed,” Bankhead said.
Allegiance Hillview has joined with another major developer with plans to build 15,000 homes and 5,000 apartment units on Denton’s west side — new construction on ranches that have dozens of existing gas wells and miles of high-pressure transmission pipelines.
Commissioner Mat Pruneda laid out the political realities Wednesday night, saying that the change was initiated by the City Council and the distance was a number council members had settled upon.
“It’s taken a long time to get to 500 feet,” he said.
Michael Hennan, who lives near McKenna Park and the gas wells there, heard the concerns city officials have over risking a lawsuit from property owners who would claim that the rule essentially takes their land if they increase the setback beyond 500 feet.
“In my opinion, the ‘taking’ was done by the people who drilled the well,” Hennan said.
Commissioners agreed and recommended to City Council that any change to the reverse setbacks should not put existing homes in a “nonconforming” status or put any extra requirements on a homeowner to rebuild in the event of a disaster. Commissioner Jason Cole told fellow commissioners his home is one of those currently within 250 feet of a well.
The City Council is scheduled to consider the commission’s recommendation during its work session Tuesday.
Within the next few months, the doctor’s office will expand to screens across much of Denton ISD.
Beginning early next year, the district will run a pilot program to bring medical professionals to seven schools remotely via tablets.
Evers Park, Ginnings, Borman, Newton Rayzor and McNair elementary schools, as well as both Bettye Myers and McMath middle schools will participate in the district’s pilot program of School-Based Telehealth.
The pilot is the product of a partnership between Denton ISD and Cook Children’s Healthcare System and Children’s Health. Currently, the program serves more than 10,000 patients spread across upward of 100 schools in 16 school districts, many of which are located in and around the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
After filling out the requisite forms and consulting with parents, school nurses will be able to connect students to healthcare providers through a specialized tablet.
Kathy Malmberg, coordinator of health services for DISD, said that many of those on the other end of the tablet are semi-retired doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners.
Using wireless otoscopes, stethoscopes and other tools synced to the tablet, the pros will be able to diagnose rashes, ear infections, flu symptoms and more.
“We should be able to get a good enough view that a doctor could tell us, primarily, if it needs to be treated, if we need to wait it out, if [the students] can be in school, that sort of thing,” Malmberg said.
Before a student complaining of allergies or an unpleasant rash can bill mom and dad’s insurance, several boxes need to be checked off.
First, parents or guardians need to sign off on a consent form ahead of time. They’ll also be called before a Telehealth appointment is arranged. Nurses can then reach out to the online clinic through Children’s Health to set up an appointment, which is often arranged within an hour but can sometimes be much quicker depending upon the time of day.
For example, it seems the online clinic experiences a surge of requests toward the end of the school day when sick pupils are shepherded to the nurse’s office.
Once that’s arranged, the nurse on-site conducts the examination with the medical professional on the other end. If they want, parents can call and listen to the exam via speakerphone or attend in-person. Depending on the diagnosis, the student might be prescribed medication, which can be picked up from their pharmacy of choice.
A summary of each exam is sent to the child’s regular doctor, and follow-up visits will be through that person.
McKenzie Heard, a nurse at Newton Rayzor, said the maximum cost for the session will be only $50, and it’s billable to some insurance plans and Medicaid. The district has been working with a local non-profit in hopes of securing funds for families unable to foot the bill in the event their child would need the service.
Heard was a major influence in securing the partnership, something she’s been pushing for over the past few years.
Nurses from the seven schools will begin training on the new system shortly after campuses open back up next semester. The pilot program will officially roll out shortly after that.
Beyond simple convenience for working parents, district officials hope the program will provide more accessible healthcare for students, thus getting them back to class sooner.
Cecilia Holt is head principal at Newton Rayzor, one of the seven pilot programs. She said the decision to participate was simple: It would meet the needs of the children.
“Sometimes our kids will go home sick and stay there and not go to the doctor,” Holt said. “So this way, at least they’ll get treated, they’ll reduce the time they’re at home ... and then they’ll be back at school learning,” Holt said.
Pending an assessment of the pilot program, Heard, Malmberg and Holt expect an expansion to the rest of the district over the next several semesters.
Georgianne Burlage, 64, was born a decade after World War II, and, like many in her generation whose fathers served in the war, she had grown up listening to stories that her father would share. Burlage, a retired Denton ISD teacher, said her father was always grateful that he survived, but that he was often reserved.
“He’d always say, ‘I’m not a hero. ... I served my country,” Burlage said. “They needed me.”
Her father, George Burlage, who enlisted in the Marine Corps as a military police officer in 1939, wasn’t the type of person to boast about his service or what he experienced, Georgianne said. After he retired from the military, neither would her father put back on the uniform he had worn for two decades.
An avid writer in his life and career, George went on to serve as a combat correspondent after WWII, where he wrote for Leatherneck, a Marine Corps magazine, during the Korean War. When he retired, George, a native of Visalia, California, moved to Denton, where he studied journalism at North Texas State College, and worked as the regional editor of the Denton Record-Chronicle from 1960 to 1963.
Georgianne, a journalism and history teacher of nearly four decades between Corpus Christi and Denton, said she considers herself fortunate that her father was a journalist. George, who spent a total of 40 months as a prisoner of war, had written about life, she said, and the experiences he had leading up to his liberation in 1945.
While her father may have never fully recovered from the brutalities of war, his writings served as a form of therapy for those difficult times, which were often hard for him to talk about, Georgianne said.
“My experiences were hard to discuss and even harder to explain,” George said in his writings. “I had witnessed torture, execution, and brutality and watched my friends die one by one. … This was difficult for people to understand.”
Described as unassuming, George had kept his military medals and telegrams from his service hidden inside an old shoe box and a Kroger plastic shopping bag. But when she discovered the remnants of her father’s past, Georgianne says he didn’t seem to care whether or even how his mementos were stored.
“That’s just the way he was,” Georgianne said.
However, a few years before her father died at the age of 90 in 2008, Georgianne said she was able to organize his medals into a shadow box for keepsake and preservation.
As of Sept. 30, about 389,292 out of the 16 million veterans who survived World War II are still alive today, according to U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Ndidi Mojay. The department anticipates that the last surviving veterans of the war will continue to dwindle over the next two decades until about mid-2040.
In 2017, when Georgianne retired from 28 years of teaching in Denton schools, she opted to use a portion of her stipend to pursue a better understanding about her father’s life and service in WWII. She traveled to the Philippines with Valor Tours, a historical military tour operator, on a trip designed for those who served in the war and their descendants.
“I got to go to the 75th anniversary of the fall of the Philippines,” Georgianne said. “We were recognized as descendants and were having a big ceremony when the Filipino president [Rodrigo Duterte] showed up.”
The biggest takeaway from her trip, Georgianne said, was being able to visit where her father served, and where he and other service members were taken after their capture in the Battle of Corregidor in 1942.
An estimated 11,000 American and Filipino service members were captured by the Japanese army after the fall of Corregidor in early May 1942. Upward of 4,000 of those service members, including George, were marched through the streets of Manila to prison camps, Georgianne said.
Georgianne said her father, who was attached to the 4th Marine Regiment, was taken to Bilibid Prison. Of the 1,487 regiment members who were captured on Corregidor, an estimated 32% died in captivity, according to the U.S. National Park Service.
In his writings, George said it was “disturbing” to witness the American flag being lowered by the Japanese army. Despite the nightmare that ensued, he remained steadfast in his view that the U.S. military would “eventually succeed.”
“The loss of freedom was abrupt,” George wrote. “I decided quickly that although my body had been captured, my mind was still free. No one could capture my mind.”
Ronald Marcello, a WWII and POW historian and the former director of the Oral History Program at the University of North Texas, said the experience of prisoners of war, like George, was based on survival. Surviving an enemy prison camp depended on two factors, he said — the will to live, and pure luck.
“First of all, you have to obey Japanese rules,” Marcello said. “They’ve got the guns, they make the rules and they don’t care whether you live or die because you disgraced yourself by surrendering.”
George acknowledged in his writings that while he survived what “most did not,” his survival was never guaranteed.
“No blueprints or rules existed for survival,” he wrote. “There was no roadmap to get you from sunrise to sunset. What you did today to survive could get you killed tomorrow.”
Although Bilibid Prison is still in operation as a penitentiary, Georgianne was able to visit other memorial sites at the ruins of Corregidor, Bataan and Subic Bay. Many prisoners were transported aboard the Japanese “hell ships” from Subic Bay, Georgianne said, but her father was transferred between labor camps from a port in Manila.
The prisoner transport ships were not identified by the Japanese military as having Allied POWs onboard, Marcello said. For those aboard the rusty hell ships, there was the lurking danger of being torpedoed by an American submarine, Marcello said.
“Any Japanese merchant ship was considered fair game by 1944,” Marcello said. “A lot of those ships went down, taking the prisoners with them.”
More than 21,000 Allied POWs were killed or injured aboard the hell ships because they were fired on by U.S. submarines and bombardiers, according to the American Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor.
George, who endured routine bombing and torpedo attacks during transit, spent 38 days beneath the ship’s deck, Georgianne said, where more than 1,000 prisoners sat back-to-back in near to complete darkness. When the Americans were flying back to recapture the Philippines, her father was held in one of 38 hell ships bound for Japan when the convoy was attacked by unsuspecting Allies.
The convoy sustained significant damages and was forced to temporarily dock to let prisoners recoup their strength and to avoid further attacks by Allied forces. Georgianne said that when the hell ship finally docked in Taiwan, her father was weak as he struggled to stand, let alone walk.
Before the ships departed for Japan, she said, the port was bombed by the Allies.
“It was just one thing after another that happened to them,” Georgianne said.
After the port was bombed, George was transported to Moji, Japan, and then to the Hosokura Mine in the northern mountains of Japan.
The lead and zinc mine, part of the Sendai No. 3 labor camp, was owned and operated during the war by the Mitsubishi Mining Co., now known as the Mitsubishi Materials Corp. About 281 Allied POWs were held prisoner at the labor camp at the time of their liberation, according to the Sendai No. 3-B liberation roster.
In September, Georgianne traveled to Japan as part of the U.S.-Japan POW Friendship Program, which was extended to POWs descendants in recent years, she said, as the population of veterans decreases. The program, now in its ninth year, aims to promote friendship and reconciliation between the two countries.
Georgianne says the tour, led by officials from Mitsubishi, included visiting the memorial plaque that was erected in honor of POWs like her father. But there was an even rarer moment of reconciliation before the tour began.
“When the [Mitsubishi officials] met us, they bowed and said, ‘Ms. Burlage, we regret the treatment of your father,’” Georgianne said.
The most meaningful part of the trip, she said, was being presented with her father’s POW record by officials from the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, when she initially arrived in Tokyo. She nearly began to cry as she clutched the document.
“It just showed me what really happened,” Georgianne said. “He was captured and there was a record of him … and there it was.”
Marcello said it is uncommon to find WWII-era documents, like George’s POW record, in a well-preserved state almost eight decades later. In his career, Marcello said he hasn’t seen “anything like” what Georgianne was presented with, except for one thing that came to mind.
“I know that in a lot of camps that prisoners were allowed to send home a postcard saying, ‘I am well, I am being treated fairly, I am eating,’” he said. “It was almost like a multiple-choice postcard, and if he didn’t say the right things it didn’t get sent home.”
Georgianne said her father was able to send home four dictated postcards with simple messages: “My health is good, trust all is well. Keep your chin up, and I will try to do the same.”
Her father’s first form of authentic communication arrived via Western Union in the weeks shortly after his liberation on Sept. 2, 1945.
“Safe, well and happy,” Georgianne said as she read her father’s telegram. “Coming home as soon as possible.”
After two years of travel, and a lifetime’s worth of stories, Georgianne, sitting inside her home office, pages through a packed binder of preserved memories and documents that detail her father’s life. Tucked inside the nearly overstuffed, 18-chapter binder are more than 200 pages of photographs and written and typed chronicles that share the firsthand accounts of her father’s story and Georgianne’s journey.
Throughout her life, Georgianne said she would return home from work or school to find her father sitting at the kitchen table, typing away the stories that are now preserved. He would always get a thought, and then he would jot down two, maybe three paragraphs onto his old Royal manual typewriter.
After her father died, Georgianne said she discovered a storage box that was filled with his writings. But other writings were elsewhere — such as a list of “survival tips for surviving enemy prisons,” written on the back of an envelope that was found by happenstance inside a book about Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
“Food survival — don’t eat unwashed fruit; Incident — be smarter than the guards,” Georgianne said as she read aloud her father’s advice and examples. “Desperation — self-inflicted injuries — broke 14 arms — got caught when I broke a left-handed man’s right arm.”
George, who went on to to earn a master’s degree in public affairs from what is now the University of North Texas, never left an undetermined effort, Georgianne said. While her father returned from the war malnourished, weighing only 100 pounds, Georgianne said he valued the beauty of freedom, which became an expectation for their family to live by.
“He expected that from me and from my daughters … that you are given these gifts,” she said. “He was very much that way.”
Despite the brutality her father experienced, the loss of opportunity and his friends who died along the way, Georgianne says her father refused to allow himself to become consumed with anger. It was the advice he shared when she was going through her divorce, Georgianne said, and how he would speak to her students as a guest speaker at Ryan High School.
“He would say, ‘That was 40 months of my life. … I’m 87 years old now,’” she recalled. “‘It wasn’t a good 40 months, but you put it behind you and you go on … because if you don’t that means they’ve won.’”
She intends to submit the compiled manuscript of her father’s life and military service for consideration to a publisher once it’s complete, she said. She says her only hope is that she can do her father’s story justice.
“If he could read it, I just hope that he would say, ‘Georgianne, that’s a good job. You did really well with that,’” she said. “But, it’s a feeling of pride in what my dad did, too.”