LAREDO, Texas—Burch Muldrow was absolutely fed up with Lewis Petroleum.
The oil company was bulldozing dirt over a pit full of black, oily sludge on the ranch where he worked as caretaker.
Recalling a dramatic incident that happened two years ago, Muldrow said recently that he couldn't just stand by and watch. So he grabbed an empty one-gallon plastic milk jug from the bed of his pickup.
He cut off the top and scooped up some of the waste, muck he described as having the consistency of thick cake batter and smelling like diesel fuel.
Muldrow simply wanted to get the stuff tested to find out exactly what was being buried—and what harm it might cause. His impulsive action in 2012 thrust him into a larger wave of national opposition to oil-and-gas development that continues to gain momentum today.
The property, a mesquite-and-cactus-covered stretch of a 2,000-acre ranch 40 miles north of Laredo, had been leased for oil-and-gas development. But in Muldraw's view, the company didn't have carte blanche to leave the land in ruin.
Lewis officials were telling him to mind his own business. Burying waste was the way they always did things, a practice they told Muldrow was acceptable by state environmental regulators. (Phone calls from InsideClimate News to the company seeking comment were not returned.)
"The superintendent told me: 'I don't see what the big deal is. We backfill like this all of the time.' Those were the words out of his mouth," said Muldrow, whose white cowboy hat shows just the slightest reddish gray tinge from the constant swirl of dust.
The Eyes of Texas and the Ayes of Texas
The Texas government was less concerned than the ranch caretaker. An investigation by the Railroad Commission of Texas, the regulatory agency responsible for monitoring oil-and-gas operations, concluded "no violations were noted."
Muldrow had the sample tested by the San Antonio Testing Laboratory. The analysis revealed benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene—all chemicals commonly found in the waste generated by oil-and-gas drilling.
The danger of these chemicals, which are known to cause cancer, induce respiratory illness and affect the central nervous system, was part of the focus of an 18-month investigation by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity published earlier this year. The project found that Texas's environmental regulators know almost nothing about the extent of the pollution in the Eagle Ford, one of the largest oil boom regions in the United States.
Although the test showed the amounts of chemicals were within state safety standards, Muldrow still questioned their long-term danger.
"This stuff is poison," he said. "So it seems to me that there isn't any amount that's good."
Ultimately the oil company dug up the waste and hauled it to a commercial disposal site about 40 miles away. But Muldrow remains convinced that happened only because he made a fuss after catching the company trying to cover the pit.
A Gathering Voice of Outrage
Muldrow and his scoop of sludge don't stand alone in his defiance of the Goliath oil-and-gas industry.
A gathering voice of outrage now echoes from a tiny courthouse in Karnes County, Texas to the wind-blown high desert of Nevada; and from the council chambers in Boulder, Colo., to the halls of Congress in Washington, D.C.
Across the country, from California to Ohio, people have gone to the ballot box to protect the air they breathe and the water they drink by enacting bans on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. They have gone to court to fight for their right to clean air and water.
They rent vans to haul people to meetings of government regulators to protest oil- and-gas development that intrudes on their lives. They become reluctant activists who say they've been pushed too far.
"The public is becoming more educated on the issue," said Congressman Matt Cartwright, a Pennsylvania Democrat who has opened an investigation into the way states regulate the disposal of toxic waste generated by fracking.
"People are realizing that oil-and-gas operations are being conducted with little oversight and their health and our environment are at stake and that they need to stand up and have their voices heard," Cartwright wrote in an email interview.
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, involves injecting water, chemicals and sand down a well to crack open bedrock and extract fossil fuels.
Opponents are concerned about air, water, waste, noise and light pollution, and they argue that regulations are too weak.
A New Sophistication in the Public Pushback
Hundreds of cities, towns and counties in 25 states have passed measures regulating or banning fracking, according to data collected by Food & Water Watch, a watchdog organization based in Washington, D.C.
New York authorities announced a statewide fracking ban earlier this month, saying the controversial process could contaminate the state's air and water and pose public-health risks.
Tish O'Dell, an Ohio organizer with the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund who has fought a grassroots battle against fracking, said the more widespread fracking becomes, the more people see it as a threat.
"It's true, people are saying not in my backyard," O'Dell said. "But they are becoming more sophisticated in their understanding of the risks, from their personal health to the larger impact on climate change."
Texans Lisa and Bob Parr are among those who stood up to the industry. The couple, a substitute teacher and cabinet maker who simply wanted to live a quiet life on their 40-acre ranch with their daughter, found themselves nearly alone facing a billion-dollar industry.
"There comes a time, no matter the odds, where you just have to say 'that's enough,'" Lisa Parr said.
Earlier this year, the Parrs were awarded nearly $3 million in damages against an oil-and-gas developer they contended failed to prevent toxic emissions that left them with nosebleeds and unexplained welts, among other maladies that made their lives miserable. The victory is being recognized as one of the first multi-million dollar awards ever against oil-and-gas developers over toxic emissions.
Although they may lose the case on appeal in a state dedicated to supporting the industry, Parr said a message has nevertheless been delivered loud and clear.
"We were one small voice but what we had to say [to the industry] is that you can't ignore the consequences to people's lives for what you are doing," she said.
Parr said she hopes that their successful fight will embolden others to stand up to the industry.
'They Had to Stand Up'
For the three Karnes County, Texas families represented by attorney Tomas Ramirez, the decision to fight represents desperation as much as conviction.
"These people had no choice," Ramirez said. "Their lives were so impacted they could no longer live that way so they had to stand up."
And it's been a fight. He has suspended action on two of his cases pending the appeal of a judge's ruling that dismissed the first case he filed; the judge said there's not enough evidence to show the industry was responsible for the ailments the families claim were brought on by emissions.
But the families are resolved to pursue the fight.
Ramirez, a one-time oil field engineer for Mobil, said it would be a bonus if his fight and his clients' plight echoes beyond the prairie of South Texas.
"There is no doubt these issues need broad debate," he said.
Yet it's easy to think that the voices of his clients will be drowned out by the industry's drumbeat of oil independence and economic prosperity, he said.
"But if scientists hear of what's happening to people; if decision-makers pay a little more attention then maybe that's the spark that's needed to start an intelligent debate," he said.
Ramirez said he isn't sure his clients' stories of blinding headaches, horrible rashes and persistent breathing difficulties from the foul air will be enough to ignite that debate.
"It should ... it should," he said. "We'll just have to wait to see how this all plays out."
From Shakeout to Safety
Beyond the south Texas prairie courthouse where Ramirez's case was argued, a national stage is being set in Washington, D.C.
Bills are pending to reclassify oilfield waste as hazardous and to ban fracking on federally owned public land—a longshot in the face of a Republican takeover of Congress in January.
"I believe it is important for people to know that there are members of Congress that are championing this issue and bringing national attention to the issue," said Cartwright, the Pennsylvania congressman.
He said he is seeing support ever so slowly building for his proposed legislation to close loopholes in federal regulations that allow waste generated during oil-and-gas drilling to be classified as non-hazardous.
When the legislation was introduced in 2013, there were 43 co-sponsors. That number has since grown to 70—all Democrats—with Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson becoming the most recent member of Congress to endorse the legislation, in August.
Cartwright also has launched an investigation into the way states dispose of the often toxic waste generated during the fracking of oil and gas.
And earlier this month, Wisconsin Democratic Rep. Mark Pocan, who recently won re-election to a second term, introduced a bill to ban fracking for oil and gas on federally owned public lands.
"As we learn more about fracking's impact on the environment and people living near fracking wells, one thing is clear, the process can be harmful and the effects are not fully understood," Pocan said in a prepared statement.
Industry attorney William Anaya isn't surprised that oil-and-gas producers are facing increasing calls for stricter regulation, legal challenges and unrest from communities where recent technological advances have led to a boom in hydraulic fracturing.
"This is a new process and with any new process comes a shakeout period where people have to be shown that the process is safe," he said.
"I don't think oil and gas is being picked on. With any new technology comes the responsibility of proving that it is reliable and poses little risk to the public."
Anaya says the technology used to frack wells is safe. But, he said, the industry has done a poor job of making its case to lawmakers and the public.
"There's sometimes a siege mentality that has to be overcome," he said. "The industry needs to step up its public relations to show the new process is safe."
He said he would expect to see much less worry and protest over time because fracking will become an accepted and trusted way to recover oil and gas.
"There are always things that need to be worked out in any new process," he said. "That's true with this technology where some practices and procedures need some refinement."
Once that happens the uproar will quiet, Anaya said.
Rep. Tim Kleinschmidt, a Republican in the Texas legislature, said he believes the public pushback is coming from a vocal minority. But he is not disdainful of those people.
"I appreciate their efforts to raise the issues that need to be addressed," he said. "If you don't have the vocal minority, sometimes those matters that need to be addressed won't be looked at and studied."
The increased public scrutiny has prompted the industry to begin paying more attention to the huge amount of water needed for fracking and to reduce the emissions and the waste of gas associated with flaring, a process where natural gas that cannot be used is burned off.
"That's not only going to foster a better public perception for the industry but it is a statement that the industry is sensitive to the public's concerns," Kleinschmidt said.
A Revolution That Races Past the Regulators
Joe Dancy, an adjunct professor of energy and environmental law at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas, said the uprising could be attributable to people frustrated with regulators either too slow to enact rules or too protective of the industry.
"If people don't think the agencies that are supposed to be protecting them are doing the job, they take it upon themselves," he said.
However, Dancy defends regulators; he says they are trying to do a good job. It's just that fracking technology is developing so quickly and the practice is growing so fast that the science and studies that regulators need to develop new guidelines haven't caught up with the boom.
"This revolution has happened so fast the regulators are on a treadmill that's going faster than they can keep up with," he said.
The industry is working within existing regulations that maybe outmoded when it comes to fracking, he said.
"So because people are anxious for regulations to catch up with technology, they take it upon themselves to act," Dancy added.
In November, eight towns and counties across the country took their health and environmental concerns about fracking to the ballot boxes in Ohio, California and Texas. Some won. Some lost.
That the initiatives made it to a vote highlights a growing backlash against the industry. Cities in New York, Ohio and California, including Beverly Hills, have already banned fracking.
"I think what you're seeing in these local movements is the beginning of a broader movement against fracking," said Eric Smith, a political science professor at UC Santa Barbara.
He said the surge in opposition can be traced to a recent wave of studies addressing the safety of fracking and the surge in media attention highlighting the issues associated with the process.
More than a half dozen studies published in the last two years have raised questions about fracking's connection to birth defects, cancer, lung disease, water and air contamination, and other health issues.
"People are becoming more educated; more aware of the risks associated with fracking," he said. "With knowledge, people are empowered."
And the issues are distinct, Smith said. People understand cancer and lung disease.
"These are exactly the kinds of problems people respond to," Smith said. "These are problems that can affect their lives and their families."
Although the fracking ban Smith followed in his hometown failed, he said the success of similar measures will inspire others to seek safeguards though the ballot box.
"I think you could see a cascading effect where the successes will stimulate the anti-fracking movement to become more aggressive," Smith said.