Texas Officials Have Photos of Flood-Related Oil Spills, but No Record of Any Response

Massive oil spills during Texas' flooding in 2015 were captured by aerial photographs, but were not recorded, or treated, as spills by the state.

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Apparent oil spill during flooding photographed by Texas Civil Air Patrol
One of the apparent oil spils that occurred during flooding in 2015 photographed by Texas Civil Air Patrol. Credit: Mid-American Geospatial Center, University of Texas at Austin

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AUSTIN — At the direction of state emergency managers, the Texas Civil Air Patrol took scores of photos of massive spills from oil wells and fracking sites during last year’s flooding of the Lower Trinity River. Yet the state agency in charge of responding appears to have no record of them in its spill database.

The deficiency raises questions about whether state officials have any knowledge of the quantities and types of toxic substances that have flowed in recent years into the Trinity, as well as the Pecos, Red, Sabine and Colorado rivers, where energy-production sites have sprouted rapidly.

To scientists and environmentalists, the apparent lack of record keeping is unacceptable.

“If you’re making money off of a natural resource that I technically own part of, I want to know what you’re doing,” said Meredith Miller, senior program coordinator at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment at Texas State University in San Marcos.

Massive Spills

Earlier this month, the El Paso Times published a story about the many photos taken of flood-related spills from oil wells and fracking sites since 2014 and the apparently ineffectual response by the agency responsible for mitigating them — the Texas Railroad Commission.

Photos taken almost exactly a year ago by the Civil Air Patrol along the Lower Trinity River are particularly harrowing.

Photos taken during flights on June 2, 2015, show plumes stretching for miles from production sites along the river and huge black pools around inundated tank batteries and wastewater ponds at fracking sites. Photos from the day before show what appears to be oil already fingering out from the shores of Lake Livingston, downstream from the production sites and adjacent to the Sam Houston National Forest.

By June 19, 2015, after floodwaters receded, photos show black puddles and large splotches of darkened earth around production sites.

Whether deposited in stream beds or washed down to the Gulf of Mexico, oil and fracking fluid endanger all the plants and animals they meet along the way, Miller said.

“It’s also a huge human health concern,” she said.

The harm to wildlife from marine oil spills is well known. And fracking fluid has been known to cause severe illness in people who suffered even secondary exposure.

No Records

And yet, despite having access to scores of photos of oil spilling into the Lower Trinity last year, the Railroad Commission’s oil-spill database appears to not have a single report from that area of a flood-related spill.

The commission’s loss database assigns causes to spills, including “Act of God,” which “includes but is not limited to floods, lightning strikes, tornadoes or any other natural event,” commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said in an email earlier this month. “Operators are required by law to maintain well control at all times, regardless of weather conditions.”

However, the database lists only four spills in 2015 for any of the 10 counties the Lower Trinity River runs through before it gets to Lake Livingston. All appear to be relatively minor and all occurred before floodwaters rose into tank batteries and wastewater ponds, causing the massive spills pictured in the state-generated photos.

All were in Freestone County and the most recent was on May 18, 2015. The database said 13 gallons were spilled and all were recovered. Also, the river didn’t reach moderate flood stage in Dallas until six days later, on May 24.

When natural disasters such as floods occur, the Texas Department of Public Safety activates the State Operations Center to coordinate the response. In floods, the Civil Air Patrol flies sorties, taking photos to help determine where floodwaters are headed and to get a handle on the damage being done.

Nye, the Railroad Commission spokeswoman, was asked why no Lower Trinity spills appear on the agency database despite the scores of photos indicating them.

She also was asked why there was no entry in the database for a spill depicted in a photo that the Times provided to the commission in April. The commission had a short cleanup report from the spill, so it knew it had taken place.

In her response, Nye only addressed that incident.

“The Commission did not receive an H-8 spill report from Energy & Exploration Partner Operating (the company that owns the production site in the photo), and our Houston District office is asking the operator to file an H-8 spill report for this incident,” Nye said.

Lack of Response

Miller, of the Meadows Center at Texas State University, said the Railroad Commission long has been slow to respond to reported spills. She coordinates the Texas Stream Team, a network of hundreds of volunteers who monitor Texas waterways and collect data.

Because they’re dangerous, floods pose a problem for the team.

“They’re citizen scientists,” Miller said. “We stop monitoring if it’s not safe.”

When the team reports spills under other circumstances, the response from state agencies varies, Miller said. Texas Parks and Wildlife is “amazingly fast to respond,” she said.

On the other hand, the team gave up calling on the Railroad Commission a few years ago, Miller said.

“We’ve never had an instance where they came out that I know of,” she said.

Going Dark

The public used to be able to view the Civil Air Patrol photos on a University of Texas at Austin website during floods. That was until the Times reported on them.

The Department of Public Safety removed the photos from public view earlier this month, citing privacy concerns.

Critics asked what those concerns could be, given that highly defined satellite imagery is widely available.

Asked about the matter, department spokesman Tom Vinger said in an email, “For example, there could be pictures of deceased individuals prior to family members being appropriately notified first. The public and media may still request access to the photos through the Public Information Act.”

Among more than 1,000 photos reviewed by the Times were many depicting apparent spills, while none seemed to depict dead bodies.

A Times editorial this week noted that quick access to the photos could prove especially useful to people living in the vicinity of floods — and possible spills.

But Vinger said that except for government agencies and some others, everyone else will have to make requests through the Public Information Act to obtain them.

“Emergency officials and key government stakeholders will continue to have access to the photos for disaster-related purposes, as well as those entities that have a demonstrated life safety need to view the photos,” he said.

New Normal?

Climate change might be playing a role in the severe floods that have plagued Texas in recent years.

But Miller said development — including a massive expansion of energy-production sites near rivers — definitely is. With more hard surfaces such as rooftops and pavement, there’s less soil for water to soak into, so it runs off and adds to flooding.

“We’re changing the nature of what happens to rainfall,” Miller said. “We’re drastically changing it around energy-collection sites.”

Texas state Rep. Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, said that it is important that production sites built close to Texas waterways are safe — especially in the face of historic flooding.

“The Railroad Commission is there to make sure the oil and gas industry does protect the environment and the safety of our citizens,” said Keffer, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee.

But he disputed assertions that members of the commission, who receive most of their campaign funds from the industry they regulate, are uninterested in making sure energy companies don’t pollute.

“To say the Railroad Commission doesn’t have credibility is unfair,” Keffer said. “I think you have to look at their whole history. They’ve done a good job under the circumstances.”

This story was originally published by the El Paso Times and is republished with permission.

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