Deputy Sheriff Hector Zertuche is the law when it comes to the illegal dumping of drilling waste in Jim Wells County, Texas. Until last year, he commonly saw 100 trucks or more a day hauling oil and gas waste into his county. Sometimes the black sludge ended up on roadways or in fields—either by accident or intentionally.

To combat the illegal dumping Zertuche, the environmental crimes officer for Jim Wells County, has taken it upon himself to cite law-breakers. "I want to make a difference for the people who live here," Zertuche said.

Image: Zertuche sometimes drives 2,000 miles a month in his extra-large pickup truck. Credit: David Hasemyer, InsideClimate News

Jim Wells County, population 41,000, sits just outside the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, site of one of the nation's biggest oil booms. The number of wells in the Eagle Ford's 26 counties could quadruple from about 8,000 today to 32,000 by 2018, according to a study commissioned by the state.

With all that drilling comes mountains of waste that typically contains benzene and other chemicals found in hydraulic fracturing, along with heavy metals and other contaminants from deep underground.

Image: A truck drips with oil waste in Jim Wells County. The driver was cited for use of an unmarked vehicle and of disposing of oil and gas waste on a roadway. Credit: Hector Zertuche

Zertuche first started noticing a lot of black, oily dirt and fluid in 2010. It smelled awful and made the roads slippery and hazardous. He initially turned to the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas waste, but grew frustrated with the agency's drawn-out investigations, which could take months or even years.

So Zertuche took matters into his own hands.

Image: Zertuche watches a driver dump waste at the Eco Mud Disposal facility. Credit: David Hasemyer/InsideClimate News

Using a section of the state's Water Code called the Texas Oil and Gas Haulers Act, Zertuche issues citations to oil and gas truckers for everything from spilling waste (as shown here) to not having proper disposal permits. Drivers face fines of $1,000 and 10 days in jail for each violation. Most decide it's easier to pay the fine rather than challenge the deputy.

Image: Oil waste is found illegally dumped 20 yards from the Nueces River in Jim Wells County. Credit: Hector Zertuche

According to Zertuche, most spills result from carelessness—either a leaky valve or an overloaded truck. However, he suspects some spills are deliberate, because haulers want to save the time and money it costs to deposit waste in a landfill.

Image: Residual waste illegally caked on the rear of a waste truck. Credit: Hector Zertuche

Zertuche, 70, has become widely known in Jim Wells County. Some drivers tell him they've been warned to be careful when they enter his jurisdiction.

Despite his success, law enforcement officers in the nearby Eagle Ford counties have been slow to follow Zertuche's lead.

Image: Zertuche stops a waste transport vehicle to make sure its permit papers are in order. Credit: David Hasemyer, InsideClimate News

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