'That just ain’t right'
In September, about 30 Nordheim residents made the 230-mile round-trip drive to a state hearing in Austin to oppose the Pyote facility near the school. Although the final permit hasn’t been issued, Pyote has already bulldozed the land, put up a fence and built a power station.
The hearing lasted two and a half days, with lawyers and expert witnesses speaking for both sides. Pyote’s attorney, John Soule, used the federal hazardous waste exemption as a drumbeat in his opening remarks, saying five times in the first two minutes of his presentation that the material going into the pits wouldn’t be hazardous.
“The waste that will be received is ... exempt oil and gas waste — by definition nonhazardous,” he told the commission hearing officers a minute into his presentation. Twenty seconds later, he made the same point: “In other words, again, only nonhazardous oil and gas waste subject to the commission’s jurisdiction would be received and disposed of at this facility.”
In the audience was 70-year-old Paul Baumann, who was born in Nordheim and graduated from Nordheim School. Baumann has never been much of an activist. But a few months ago, he grabbed an armful of protest signs emblazoned with a skull and crossbones and the words “Don’t Dump On Nordheim” and posted them on fences and gates near the Pyote site.
“They want to poison our water and air with all this hazardous stuff they’re bringing in,” Baumann said. “That just ain’t right.”
Also in the audience was state Rep. Geanie W. Morrison, a Republican who has represented Nordheim in the House since 1999 and last year received an 87 percent approval rating from the Texas Association of Business.
“I fully recognize there is a need for the facilities that we are talking about at this hearing” Morrison told the crowd. “I am not naïve that we always be confronted with the ‘Not in my backyard” position. But this is truly in the backyard of the entire city of Nordheim.
“It might make business sense. But I have yet to see that it makes logical sense for this community.”
Murky emissions data stirs worry
Because Texas, like most states, doesn’t require commercial facilities to monitor and collect data about their waste emissions, it’s impossible to know whether chemicals are drifting into the air at levels high enough to affect public health.
Oil and gas waste includes volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene and xylene. Depending on the concentration and length of exposure, these chemicals can cause a range of ailments, from minor headaches to neurological damage and cancer. But there has been little or no research on how years of exposure to low doses of these chemicals might affect the general public, including children, the sick and the elderly.
There’s also little information about what happens when people are exposed to many chemicals at once, said Stuart Batterman, a professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan's School of Public Health. While the concentration of each chemical may meet current health guidelines, he said, “there might be an issue [when] taking the sum as a whole.”
A few small studies involving untreated drilling wastewater — the part of the waste stream that is usually found at drilling sites and has the highest concentration of chemicals — have produced data and anecdotal evidence that emissions can reach dangerously high levels.
In 2011, Gabrielle Petron, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist working at the University of Colorado, was trying to determine whether emissions from two well sites in northeastern Utah were causing a rise in winter ozone, a major respiratory irritant. During the course of the work, Petron and her team of researchers discovered “out of this world” levels of benzene and toluene coming from small ponds of untreated wastewater near the well sites. At one point, the vapors were so thick that Petron felt nauseous and moved her team out of the area.
“You had to go upwind of the ponds,” she said. “You could not stand to be in the downwind emission stream.”
The lack of health data, plus the EPA’s decision to classify oil and gas production waste as non-hazardous, makes it almost impossible for residents to use air emissions as grounds to object to oil and gas waste operations.
In Texas, a bifurcated regulatory system adds to the confusion.
Construction permits for commercial waste facilities are issued by the state’s Railroad Commission, the primary regulator for the oil and gas industry. The agency considers the projects’ effects on water, but not on air quality. That responsibility rests with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.
The TCEQ allows some facilities to self-audit air quality under a special category of rules called “permits by rule,” which means the agency might not even know the facilities exist.
Other facilities have somewhat stricter air permits, which require them to register with the TCEQ. The permits limit annual emissions. But because they don’t require the companies to regularly monitor their emissions or report them to the TCEQ, it’s impossible to verify that the limits are being met.
For residents, determining what kind of permit a particular facility has is almost impossible, because the agency has a backlog of air permit applications and paperwork. Of the state’s 67 largest commercial surface waste facilities, only 10 are listed on the TCEQ’s website as having permits. Of those, four have or have applied for the stricter permits. The other six have permits by rule.
TCEQ spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said the agency’s focus is on dust and nuisance odors.
“In most cases the liquids have very small concentrations of volatiles or sulfur, thus evaporative emissions are very insignificant but in no case may they cause a nuisance,” Morrow said in an email exchange with InsideClimate News.
Morrow said waste pit operators also must comply with the Texas Administrative Code, which prohibits anything that could “adversely affect human health or welfare.”
The TCEQ measures general air quality “rather than pollutants from specific sources,” Morrow said. To do that, she said the agency oversees “one of the most extensive air toxics monitoring networks in the country.” In 2013, she said it loaded data from more than 200 monitoring sites statewide into the TCEQ database.
But an 18-month investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News revealed that the agency’s program is severely limited in some oil and gas production areas. For example, the Center and InsideClimate News reported in February that the TCEQ had only five permanent air monitors in the heavily drilled Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, an area roughly twice the size of Massachusetts. The agency recently announced it will add another monitor in the area.
Because waste facilities fall under the jurisdiction of two Texas regulatory agencies, people are often confused about where to turn for help.
About 50 miles southwest of Houston, officials at the Rice Consolidated Independent School District, which serves more than 1,100 students on six campuses, want to know more about emissions from a commercial oil and gas waste facility that sits within a couple miles of two schools.
But Michelle Morris, the district’s lawyer, said a TCEQ official claimed the agency has no jurisdiction over the emissions, and the Railroad Commission said the same thing. The district has contacted the EPA but hasn’t gotten a response.
“I’m sure there is an agency responsible for monitoring the air,” Morris said, “but we can’t figure out what that agency is.”
Ilan Levin, associate director of the Environmental Integrity Project’s chapter in Austin, thinks the state’s regulatory process is intentionally ambiguous and confusing.
“All of the rules are vague enough that it allows the industry to game the system,” Levin said. “They can interpret the rules for their benefit.”
Former EPA Regional Administrator Al Armendariz, who resigned in 2012 amid criticism of his hardline stand against lax oil and gas rules in Texas, said the TCEQ’s permitting system shows that “in their mind they have already made a determination that such facilities will not have a human health impact.”
Armendariz now leads the Beyond Coal campaign for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club.