$3 Million Awarded to North Texas Family in Fracking Lawsuit

A worker hooks up pipe during drilling in the Barnett Shale near Fort Worth, Texas in 2012.

Ron Jenkins/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT

A worker hooks up pipe during drilling in the Barnett Shale near Fort Worth, Texas in 2012.

A Texas family sued a drilling company was awarded close to three million dollars this week by a Dallas County jury. The decision is being called a landmark one by people opposed to hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” and touted as a first by the plaintiffs’ legal team.

“The fracking industry has really just taken off in the last three or four years. So really this is a new problem to the extent that we’re seeing cases now that are getting a verdict,” David Mathews, a lawyer representing the Parr family, tells StateImpact Texas.

Fracking is the drilling technique that pumps water and chemicals into the ground to release oil and gas. In this case the Parrs argued that fracking near their North Texas ranch by Aruba Petroleum hurt their health, reduced their property value, and even forced them to flee their property.

The Parrs had initially filed suit against other companies as well, but those were either dismissed or settled out of court. Companies and plaintiffs often settle, another reason why jury awards are rare.

Mathews is calling the decision “a bit of a wake-up call to industry.”

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Investigation: Disaster at West Fertilizer Plant Was ‘Preventable’

A chemical trailer sits among the remains of the burning fertilizer plant in April 2013.

Photo by REUTERS /MIKE STONE /LANDOV

A chemical trailer sits among the remains of the burning fertilizer plant in April 2013.

Federal Agency Says ‘It Should Never Have Occurred’  

A year after a deadly explosion at a fertilizer plant in Texas, a federal agency is releasing a report saying the disaster was preventable.

The Chemical Safety Board, which investigates chemical accidents and issues recommendations to ensure public safety, is presenting its preliminary findings tonight in the town of West, Texas, where the fire and subsequent explosion last year took 15 lives, injured hundreds, and destroyed homes and schools.

“It should never have occurred,” Dr. Rafael Moure-Eraso, the head of the agency, says in a statement. “It resulted from the failure of a company to take the necessary steps to avert a preventable fire and explosion and from the inability of federal, state and local regulatory agencies to identify a serious hazard and correct it.” Continue Reading

Traffic Fatalities Still on the Rise in West Texas as Drilling Surges

Heavier truck traffic in the booming Permian Basin has authorities looking for solutions to keep the roads safe

(TxDOT)

Heavier truck traffic in the booming Permian Basin has authorities looking for solutions to keep the roads safe

From KXWT West Texas Public Radio: 

If you follow local headlines in Midland-Odessa, it seems like there’s a fatal car crash every couple of days.

According to the Texas Department of Transportation, the oil-booming Permian Basin saw a 13 percent increase in roadside deaths from 2012-2013. Last week, a victims’ rights coalition in Midland held a panel discussion on how to deal with the region’s increasingly dangerous roads.

Organizers of the event say most of those wrecks stem from the “3 D’s” – drugs, drinking and distracted driving. But the oil and gas boom in the Basin is compounding those dangers: simply put, there’s just more traffic and bigger trucks on the road than before.

TxDOT’s been trying to tackle the problem with radio and TV ads like this one, but education only goes so far. Continue Reading

Texas Pollution Worsens as Budget Shrinks for Regulators

State regulators blame big spikes in emissions to "upsets" at a few facilities

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

State regulators blame big spikes in emissions to "upsets" at a few facilities like this one in Houston in 2012

With budgets already reduced and with more cuts on the way, federal environmental regulators are expected to be doing fewer inspections of industries that pollute. And if state environmental regulators were expected to take up the slack, many of them — including those in Texas —- are dealing with budget cuts of their own.

“There have been just dramatically fewer [EPA] inspections,” said Bernadette Rappold, a lawyer who spent years working in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s enforcement division. She’s now with the McGuireWoods law firm in Washington.

In the next few years, Rappold said even fewer inspections and enforcement actions are expected if the EPA’s budget-slashing five year plan is adopted.

“It’s not the case that it’s simply the federal EPA that’s been cut and the states can pick up the slack. The states are, in many instances, hurting too.”

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How Budget Cuts and Oil Spills Threaten ‘World’s Most Endangered Sea Turtle’

A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle on laying its eggs on Texas Gulf Coast.

Courtesy of the National Park Service.

A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle laying its eggs on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Around this time every year, female Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles arrive like clockwork on Matagorda Island, on the Texas Gulf Coast.

“During the day they’ll craw up, usually closer to the dunes, and they’ll dig out an area and they’ll lay a nest of several eggs,” says Jeremy Edwardson, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. ”Then they move back out to the water’s edge.”

The Island is a wildlife refuge maintained by the service.  Edwardson says it’s usually kept free of all human activity.

But not this year, because of an ongoing cleanup by state and federal agencies in the wake of a barge accident in the Port of Houston that spilled more than 150,000 gallons of oil. Officials are worried cleanup efforts could hurt the turtles and other wildlife. But the alternative – just leaving the oil on the beach – is not really an option.

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What’s Been Done to Prevent Another West?

Memorials near the site of the explosion in the town of West, Texas.

Terrence Henry/StateImpact Texas

Memorials near the site of the explosion in the town of West, Texas.

State Lawmaker Leading Review Says Nothing’s Changed

WEST, TX – Trucks and bulldozers are still working here, the site of an explosion a year ago today. A deadly blast tore through this small community, killing fifteen and injuring hundreds. Homes and schools were destroyed, with the damage estimated to be over a hundred million dollars. There’s a lone charred tree that still stands at the location of the blast, but other than that, the site is mostly empty. Crosses and memorials that read “West Strong” and “West is the Best” line the road.

The explosion at the West fertilizer plant was one of the worst industrial disasters in Texas history. So what’s Texas doing to prevent it from happening again?

“Well, technically, nothing has been done,” says state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. Pickett says since West happened near the end of the legislative session, he didn’t want to rush in any “knee-jerk” rules or regulations.

The state is making an effort to get more timely and accurate information from fertilizer facilities in Texas about how much ammonium nitrate they have. That chemical was the culprit in the blast (investigators are still trying to determine what caused the small fire that ignited the ammonium nitrate). Ammonium nitrate was also behind the Texas City disaster of 1947 that killed hundreds, and the Oklahoma City bombing of 1995 that killed 168.

“We’re slow learners, I guess,” says Tommy Muska, mayor of West. “History shows us ammonium nitrate is a dangerous product.”  Continue Reading

One Bin to Rule Them All: Houston Moves Toward All-in-One Garbage and Recycling

grview-31371-1From Houston Public Media: 

The City of Houston is moving forward with a plan to allow residents to throw all trash and recycling materials into one bin. The garbage and recyclables would later be sorted at a processing plant. The One Bin for All program is intended to reduce the amount of waste going into landfills.

The city issued a request for proposals from six companies interested in operating the program.

Laura Spanjian is the City of Houston’s Sustainability Director. She says right now the city diverts about 19 percent of total waste from landfills.

“So with this new concept and this new facility, we’re going to be able to divert 55 to 60 percent of recycled material and food waste in our first year and we hope to get up to 75 percent diversion in our second year,” Spanjian says.  Continue Reading

Court Thwarts Sierra Club’s Radioactive Waste Challenge

John Ward, operations project task manager at Waste Control Specialists' facility near Andrews, Texas, walks over to inspect concrete canisters that will house drums of nuclear waste.

John Ward, operations project task manager at Waste Control Specialists' facility near Andrews, Texas, walks over to inspect concrete canisters that will house drums of nuclear waste.

From the Texas Tribune:

A state appeals court has thwarted a challenge to a low-level radioactive waste disposal site in West Texas – a ruling that signals growing difficulties for those trying to scrutinize the decisions of Texas environmental regulators.

Depending on whom you ask, such a trend would either rightly save companies time and money or unjustly bar citizens from fully sharing their environmental concerns.

The site, a 36-acre facility in Andrews County operated by Waste Control Specialists — a company formerly owned by the late Dallas billionaire Harold Simmons — is the final resting place for hazardous waste and slightly radioactive items from shuttered nuclear reactors and hospitals, among other places.

Both the company and state regulators have repeatedly called the site safe. But environmental groups have closely scrutinized the site as it has expanded the scale of waste it accepts, raising concerns about the effects on groundwater and other resources. Continue Reading

As Oil Glut Moves, Debate Ignites Over Exporting U.S. Crude

A crude oil storage tank in Cushing, Oklahoma. For years there was a glut of crude there.

A crude oil storage tank in Cushing, Oklahoma. For years there was a glut of crude there.

The United States has never exported much crude oil. We use so much of the stuff that we’ve always needed to import it from other countries. But even if we wanted to ship it away, there are laws that ban most all overseas crude exports. Now, as domestic drilling continues to surge, some are calling for the repeal of those laws.

To understand why, it helps to remember the ‘Cushing Glut.’

If you pay attention to the oil business, you might remember the glut. It’s a bottleneck of crude oil – much of it unleashed through fracking in North Dakota’s Bakken Shale — shipped to Cushing, Oklahoma in pipelines, then trapped there.

Hannah Breul is an industry economist with the U.S. Energy Information Administration who studied that bottleneck. She says the mechanics of the glut are about as simple as household plumbing.

“If you think about it as a bathtub, you have water coming in from the faucet, but then also coming out of the drain. The relative level of those flows will impact what the overall inventory is at any one time,” says Breul.

For the last few years, the drain in Cushing was too small for the stuff pouring in. So the bathtub filled to the brim.

Then, this year, the pipeline company TransCanada opened up the southern leg of its Keystone XL pipeline. That, and the reversal of an existing pipeline known as the Seaway, made the drain bigger. The glut moved south.

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Texas Still Considering Solutions to Prevent Another West

Crews are still working to clear the site of the explosion in West, Texas.

Terrence Henry/StateImpact Texas

Crews are still working to clear the site of the explosion in West, Texas.

This week marks a year since a fertilizer plant exploded in the small Texas town of West, killing fifteen, injuring over a hundred, and destroying homes and local schools. Today, a meeting at the state legislature made it clear that lawmakers aren’t in any hurry to use regulation to guard against something like West from happening again.

The House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee met for the first time since August to look into the industrial disaster. The State Fire Marshal told the committee that his office is still not sure what sparked the fire. It could have been electrical, or a malfunctioning golf cart battery, or it could have been started on purpose. But without question, the cause of the destructive blast was ammonium nitrate. The fertilizer had been legally stored in a wooden building with no sprinkler system.

What new rules and regulations should be considered to prevent another West? Two clear solutions emerged at the hearing: stricter standards for storing ammonium nitrate, and more training and coordination for local officials and first responders.

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