Virginia Palacios wants to empower the people of south Texas. She and her organization, the Austin office of the Environmental Defense Fund, want them to know they can make a difference in the face of the oil and gas boom that’s sweeping the Eagle Ford region.
In partnership with the Rio Grande International Study Center, Palacios has helped develop a series of workshops in five heavily impacted counties in the Eagle Ford, a 400-mile-long swath of oil and gas development that reaches from northeast Texas to the U.S.-Mexico border. The goal is to let residents know what resources are available if they believe they are being sickened by toxic emissions, or their water is becoming tainted or their wells are being drained.
People accustomed to a quiet rural lifestyle have found themselves in the middle of a bewildering hubbub of 18-wheel oil trucks, heavy equipment, day and night drilling, smoky flares and leaking emissions. Since 2008, more than 7,000 wells have been sunk and another 5,500 have been approved, making the Eagle Ford one of America’s most active drilling areas.
A Texas waste hauling company that is already facing civil charges for a March accident that spread toxic drilling waste along a rural road could also be facing criminal charges.
Karnes County Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva said he will ask county prosecutors to file a criminal complaint against On Point Services LLC after the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the Texas Railroad Commission close their civil cases against the company.
"We are prepared to ask the district attorney's office to review the case for action," Villanueva said. "There are two different levels of enforcement here: the civil by the state and the criminal by the county."
ALICE, Texas—Deputy Sheriff Hector Zertuche parked his pickup across the road from a gas and oil waste dump and watched through binoculars as a container truck unloaded a mountain of black sludge.
Zertuche, the environmental crimes officer for Jim Wells County, is the law here when it comes to oil and gas waste. The job has fallen to him, he said, because the state's environmental agencies don't effectively police the disposal of the industry's waste. It typically contains benzene and other chemicals found in hydraulic fracturing, along with heavy metals and other contaminants from deep within the earth.
Zertuche draws his authority from the Texas Oil and Gas Waste Haulers Act, which is part of the state Water Code and is rooted in laws enacted almost a century ago during an earlier oil boom. It allows him to issue citations for everything from spilling waste along highways to not having the proper disposal permits.
"I want to make a difference for the people who live here," Zertuche said recently, as he waited outside the 80-acre Eco Mud Disposal facility. "If I can make this a better place for people to live, then I have done my job."
The wild grass is only now beginning to hide the scar left by the giant ditch digger that gouged a trench though Ron Kardos' Oceola Township, Mich. pasture last year for an oil pipeline—but already Kardos is preparing for another onslaught of construction.
Earlier this week Kardos got a letter from Energy Transfer Partners, a Houston, Texas-based company, saying a subsidiary—ET Rover Pipeline Company LLC—intends to build an interstate pipeline to move natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale gas formations in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio to a terminal in Ontario, Canada.
The 365-mile Rover Pipeline will cross Ohio and Michigan and ultimately carry 3.25 billion cubic feet per day if plans are approved. Much of the line would follow the route of the oil pipeline that Alberta, Canada-based Enbridge, Inc. built on Kardos' property and that of other central Michigan residents. It replaced Enbridge's aging Line 6b, which ruptured in 2010 and spilled more than a million gallons of heavy crude oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo River.
6/20/2014: This post has been updated to include a statement from Aruba.
The judge presiding over a pivotal case involving toxic emissions from gas and oil drilling has accepted a jury verdict that awarded $2.9 million to a family who said the emissions have made them sick.
Judge Mark Greenberg issued a one page ruling late Thursday denying a motion by Aruba Petroleum to reject the jury’s verdict. Among Aruba’s arguments rejected by Greenberg were that Bob and Lisa Parr did not prove the emissions that made them sick came from Aruba wells.
The Parrs filed their lawsuit in March 2011, claiming they were "under constant, perpetual, and inescapable assault of Defendants’ releases, spills, emissions, and discharges of hazardous gases, chemicals, and industrial/hazardous wastes."
Following a two-week trial in April, a Dallas County jury found that Aruba "intentionally created a private nuisance" that affected the family's health and awarded the Parrs damages. The case is one of the first successful U.S. lawsuits alleging that toxic air emissions from oil and gas production have sickened people living nearby.
Lisa Parr said Greenberg's ruling further validates the family’s claim of being made sick by emissions generated by Aruba.
A Texas judge will soon decide whether to accept a jury's $2.9 million award to a Wise County family who claims to have been sickened by emissions from the gas and oil wells surrounding their home.
In April, a Dallas County jury found that Aruba Petroleum, a Plano, Texas company, "intentionally created a private nuisance" that affected the health of Jim and Lisa Parr and their daughter. It appears to be the first successful U.S. lawsuit alleging that toxic air emissions from oil and gas production sickened people living nearby.
More than 100 wells have been drilled within two miles of the Parrs' Decatur, Texas ranch, 60 miles northwest of Dallas. One of Aruba's arguments is that it owns only 22 of those wells, so the emissions could have come from one of its competitors' wells.
If County Judge Mark Greenberg decides in the Parrs' favor, legal experts say the case could establish new legal standards that would benefit people who are fighting the industry. But another Texas case, decided nearly two decades ago, is cause for caution.
Between February 2010 and July 2011, Lisa and Bob Parr filed 13 complaints about air pollution from gas and oil operations near their ranch in Wise County, Texas. Sometimes they had trouble breathing, they told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). They also experienced nausea, nosebleeds, ringing ears and rashes.
Other families were also alarmed. Between 2008 and 2011, the TCEQ received 77 complaints from Wise County, in the Barnett Shale drilling area in North Texas. One said the odor was so powerful that the complainant "couldn't go outside," according to the TCEQ report.
Frustrated and angry, the Parrs decided to sue. Their attorney warned them that lawsuits against the oil and gas industry rarely, if ever, succeed. But the Parrs persisted and last month won what appears to be the first successful U.S. lawsuit alleging that toxic air emissions from oil and gas production sickened people living nearby. A Dallas County jury found that Aruba Petroleum, a privately owned company based in Plano, Texas, "intentionally created a private nuisance" that affected the family's health and awarded the Parrs almost $3 million in damages.
"When you don't have a strong regulatory system, a system to prevent what happened to this family, the only place left to turn for help is the courts," said Robert Percival, director of the University of Maryland's Environmental Law Program.
Under the cover of early-morning darkness in South Texas last March, a tanker truck ferrying fluids from an oil and gas drilling site rumbled down a country road spewing its toxic load all over the place.
The concoction of drilling fluid, which typically includes undisclosed and dangerous chemicals, oil, metals shavings and naturally occurring radioactive materials, coated eight miles of roadway, according to a Karnes County Sheriff's Department report obtained by InsideClimate News.
The spill has prompted an investigation by the sheriff's department, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the state Railroad Commission.
If not for surveillance video given to the sheriff's department, the trucker responsible for the dumping may have disappeared into the night. But the video caught the distinctive flash from the reflective stripes on the tanker. It was the telltale clue detectives needed.
There will be a lot on the line in a few weeks when Enbridge Inc. hits the start button on its new 6B oil pipeline across southern Michigan.
The company is banking on the line to more than double the amount of oil it pumps from Griffith, Ind., to Sarnia, Ontario, Canada.
Residents along the pipeline's 285-mile path also have a stake in the project. They're counting on it to be safer than the old 6B that it replaces—the one that spilled more than a million gallons of oil from Canada's tar sands region into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010.
"We have to live with the pipeline and all of the what-ifs," said David Gallagher, who lives in the town of Ceresco. "We hope everything is going to be everything they say it will be, but we just don't know."
The new line runs just 14 feet from Gallagher's house, so close that Enbridge had to take special precautions to make sure his foundation wasn't damaged during construction. Gallagher captured dramatic video of huge pieces of equipment rumbling by his living room windows.
Little evidence remains of the chaotic scramble to stop the massive oil spill that fouled Michigan's Kalamazoo River in the summer of 2010, yet the full effects of the calamitous accident will likely remain unknown for years.
State environmental officials says it could be 2018 before they are ready to issue a final verdict on the damage done to the Kalamazoo after more than a million gallons of heavy crude oil poured into the river from a pipeline owned by Enbridge Inc.
At the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is showing increasing irritation with Enbridge over its delay in meeting deadlines in the ongoing cleanup.
Federal officials want Enbridge to finish a massive dredging project and institute safeguards to prevent any oil remaining on the river bottom from washing downstream during spring flooding.