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.”
Jim Wells County, population 41,000, sits on the edge of the Eagle Ford Shale, an oil and gas-rich swath of South Texas nearly twice the size of Massachusetts. When the boom began in 2010, more than 100 trucks a day rumbled though the county, hauling waste to the region’s few commercial waste dumps.
Traffic has fallen off this year, because commercial waste pits have been built in other counties. But Zertuche has still hauled nearly a dozen offenders into court this year for transporting waste without a permit, illegal disposing of oil and gas waste on a roadway and using unmarked trucks to carry the waste. Drivers face fines of $1,000 and 10 days in jail for each violation. Most decide it’s simpler to pay the fine than challenge the deputy in court.
Zertuche thinks the problems Jim Wells County faced in the early days of the oil boom will soon spread to the 26 counties in the Eagle Ford. The number of wells there could quadruple from about 8,000 today to 32,000 by 2018, according to a study commissioned by the state. Meanwhile, the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas waste, is evaluating applications for new disposal facilities. Some of the proposed pits could cover 200 acres, the equivalent of about 150 football fields.
Many of the spills Zertuche sees are the result of carelessness—a leaky valve or an overloaded truck. But he thinks some waste is spilled on purpose, to avoid the time it takes to make a legal dump or the cost of depositing it in a landfill.
At 70, Zertuche is a robust guy whose ring of white hair contrasts with the deep brown of his weathered face. When he was hired as the environmental crimes officer in 2006, his primary job was identifying and citing people who dumped household trash on back roads. Then he started noticing a lot of black, oily dirt and fluid. It smelled awful and made the roads slippery and hazardous.
For help, he turned to the Railroad Commission.
But Zertuche said the agency didn’t show much interest in the reports he sent, complete with pictures and samples of the waste. The agency took months or even years to finish even its own investigations—and then it rarely did more than issue a letter of reprimand.
Railroad Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said there may have been a miscommunication between the agency and Zertuche.
“If any law enforcement officer reports an environmental incident that is within the Railroad Commission’s jurisdiction, we will cooperate and assist them with their investigation and attempt to get our own independent evidence to initiate an Administrative Law enforcement case through the Railroad Commission,” Nye said.
Zertuche next reached out to John Ockels, director of the Texas Illegal Dumping Resource Center.
“What we do is instruct [cities and towns] that there are criminal laws on the books that give authority to local agencies,” Ockels said.
Ockles pointed Zertuche to the Texas Water Code, which became Zertuche’s mantra. The deputy began crisscrossing the county in his extra-large patrol truck, sometimes driving 2,000 miles a month. Gradually, word got around that he was cracking down. Some of the drivers he stopped told him they’d been warned to be careful in Jim Wells County.
Eco Mud office manager Cathy Battice was among those who noticed a difference.
“The drivers would come into the office before they dumped, and all of their paperwork would be in perfect order,” she said. “I’m sure they knew they better have everything right, in case they got stopped.”
Like most people in this part of Texas, where the highest point is just 400 feet above sea level and the land is flat as flat can be, Zertuche never strayed far. He was born in Benavides in neighboring Duvall County and after a stint in the Army took a job in the oil fields. He went into law enforcement in the late 1970s, starting as a cop in Alice. These days he doesn’t let even the smallest things slide. When a car passed his truck recently, he noticed a boy in the passenger seat hustling to put on his seat belt. Zertuche pointed and wagged his finger.
Zertuche doesn’t understand why every county in Texas isn’t using the Water Code to police the drilling waste.
In March, after a drilling waste spill closed two roads in Karnes County, Zertuche called the Karnes County Sheriff’s Office and offered to explain how the Water Code could be used to keep such an accident from happening again. But he said nobody took him up on the offer.
Karnes County Sheriff Dwayne Villanueva told InsideClimate News that the Railroad Commission and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality told him not to act until they finished investigating the March spill.
Zertuche makes it his job to know what’s going on in Jim Wells County. So when he heard that a new 100-acre commercial disposal facility was being planned for Orange Grove, he casually mentioned it to Cora Chisholm, who operates an organic farm less than a mile from the site.
Soon Chisholm was organizing neighbors and townsfolk to fight the pit, whose application is still pending because of their efforts.
“I got my hair up,” she said. “Please. Just because we live way out here we’re not stupid…They are going to make a ton of money and screw up our air. It’s immoral.”
At the Eco Mud facility last month, the truck driver Zertuche had been watching though the binoculars washed his truck twice and painstakingly put a plastic liner in the bed.
“He knows we’re here,” Zertuche said. “I don’t know how long it would have taken him if we weren’t here, but he is taking his time.”
Finally the truck lumbered out of the gate and onto the public road. The driver didn’t get much more than a quarter mile before Zertuche was on his tail with flashing red and blue lights, asking to see his papers and checking his trailer for leaks.
On this occasion, everything was in order.
“This is how you like to see it,” Zertuche said as he watched the truck pull away. “That’s why you have to be out there looking after things yourself.”