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How ‘Landfarms’ For Disposing Drilling Waste Are Causing Problems In Texas

Landfarms are privately-owned but state-regulated fields where “low toxicity waste” is thinly spread then tilled into the soil. The tainted waste is supposed to degrade naturally.

Wildlife officer Jim Yetter led a criminal investigation of a site in Jefferson County

Dave Fehling/StateImpact

In Texas, landfarms are used to dispose of the drilling fluid used to reduce friction as the drill chews through thousands of feet of rock and sand.

But a criminal case involving the operation of a landfarm near Beaumont raises questions about how the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) is enforcing the state’s pollution laws.

A Criminal Case

The Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force, run out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office but with statewide jurisdiction, recently won a criminal conviction and a $1.35 million fine against the company that had operated the landfarm, Pemco Services, Inc.

“For over a decade the company was out of compliance with their permit and there was little done to regulate them,” said Patricia Robertson, the task force’s environmental crimes prosecutor.

Robertson credits the efforts of a couple officers from Texas Parks and Wildlife for investigating the site and then alerting her office.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact

A culvert pipe where investigators took samples of stormwater runoff from the site

“I don’t know why (the Railroad Commission) allowed them to operate for that many years,” said Jim Yetter, a game warden with the department’s Environmental Crimes Unit who became the lead investigator on the case.

Back in 2005 another game warden had checked the site and found what later was determined to be “the pumping of unauthorized stormwater from the landfarm into nearby Peveto Bayou” according to a court document. Tipped by that game warden, the Railroad Commission sent a letter to the site operators telling them to stop the discharge.

A few years later, Yetter decided to check the site himself to see if the discharges had, in fact, ceased.

“So in 2009 I came back to follow up and we were suspicious things had not been corrected,” Yetter told StateImpact.

The discharge was still flowing and things were far from corrected, according to prosecutor Roberterson.

Ignoring the Railroad Commission

“The company pretty much ignored the Railroad Commission,” she said.

The task force would later allege that from 2002 to 2009, a total of nearly 57 million gallons of drilling fluids were deposited on the landfarm in violation of the permit issued by the Railroad Commission. Yet the Commission, which has the power to take “enforcement action,” never did.

In 2010, the Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force got search warrants to go on the site and take water samples. Prosecutors said lab tests confirmed the site was causing water pollution. They headed to court and eventually got a conviction and then earlier this month, a judge in Travis County imposed the big fine on Pemco Services, Inc.

The Commission Tells a Different Story

StateImpact Texas asked to interview officials of the Railroad Commission. No interview was granted but Commission spokesperson Ramona Nye emailed a response.

Nye said the Railroad Commission tries to get voluntary compliance to correct violations “before enforcement action is sought.” In the case of the Pemco site, Nye said the RRC staff fully supported the efforts of the task force and while the RRC had reserved the right to pursue enforcement on its own, Nye said the the Commission’s staff chose not to “as long as Pemco complied with Commission directives to stop accepting waste at the facility and to take actions necessary to close this site.”

Nye said that’s exactly what happened. She said RRC inspectors visited the site this past October and verified that the landfarm had been closed and cleaned up (prosecutors say the company spent $1.1 million on remediation and that despite the water pollution violations, there were no reported kills of animals or plants).

The Arkansas Experience

In 2009, problems with landfarms in Arkansas prompted an investigation there by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ).

The ADEQ looked at 11 landfarms and found that at all 11, drilling fluids had been “improperly applied” and were endangering the environment by causing runoff to the state’s waterways.

The ADEQ said it took enforcement action against all the sites, including revoking some sites’ permits to operate. What’s more, Arkansas toughened its regulations, adding requirements for periodic water and soil testing to be done “in the presence of an ADEQ inspector.”

What Texas Requires

In Texas, no permit is required as long as drilling fluids are disposed on the same site as the drill site. But in the case of commercial landfarms that accept waste from multiple sites, the Texas Railroad Commission says it has rules to ensure that runoff doesn’t threaten waterways.

These include testing the fluids as they arrive at the site to be sure they conform to state rules and then reporting the results quarterly to the RRC. The site is supposed to have monitoring wells to detect any migration of pollution. Well tests are the responsibility of the private operator who is expected to report results to the RRC, according to an explanation provided to StateImpact Texas.

Only when the site is closed do stricter rules kick in. The RRC says these include soil tests that must be conducted by “an independent, third party laboratory” to verify that the site can “support the future growth of vegetation.”

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