In the booming Permian Basin of West Texas, Ector County is one of the leaders in oil production. But some of the crude is ending up on roads and highways, as haulers of drilling wastewater break the law to increase profits by dumping the slimy mixture from tanker trucks, sometimes as the trucks are moving.
In response, the county is developing ways to catch and prosecute the polluters.
“What we were seeing was a huge increase in illegal dumping,” said Susan Redford, the Ector County Judge in Odessa.
“A lot of companies that were drilling and providing related services were looking for quick, cheap and easy ways to dispose of the fluids they were generating,” Redford told StateImpact Texas.
Under Texas law, wastewater from drilling operations is supposed to be taken to a state-permitted disposal site. But those sites charge hundreds of dollars in fees per load and can be many miles from a drilling location. Whereas dumping the drilling waste on or along a road is fast and cheap. Unless you’re caught.
Two years ago, Ector County used some start-up funding from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality to hire a full-time environmental enforcement officer and to pay a couple of sheriff’s deputies to work part-time.
Fines Pay for Prosecution of Polluters
“At first it was difficult, because the grant money by no means paid for the entire program,” said Redford. But now, she says, the county has collected $120,000 in criminal fines and civil penalties so far this fiscal year, meaning those collections should eventually cover the $140,000 the county has budgeted for environmental enforcement.
The county has also hired an attorney, Daniel Ray, to file civil actions against offenders but ironically, Ray says he can file only against polluters who were dumping waste not exclusively from oil and gas drilling.
“The cases that it’s clear this material is directly from a drilling site we generally don’t file, because there is a jurisdictional problem with that. The Railroad Commission has the exclusive jurisdiction to file those sorts of cases,” said Ray.
State’s Role in Regulating Haulers
The Railroad Commission of Texas generally takes enforcement action in only a small percentage of violations that its inspectors uncover in the oilfields. Last year, the Railroad Commission took enforcement action against eight haulers, charging that they violated disposal regulations aimed at preventing pollution according to records provided to StateImpact Texas.
The illegal dumping of oil and gas waste was the subject of a commission “official notice” back in March 2010. However, that notice seemed to downplay any intentional dumping. It was titled “Duty to Use Appropriate Vehicles and to Operate and Maintain Such Vehicles to Prevent the Escape of Oil and Gas Waste.”
What Ector County’s environmental enforcers are finding is far more blatant. Officer Ted Yelley said some haulers even have remotely-controlled spigots on their tankers.
“They’ll crack open the air valves … and start leaking out onto the roadway when no one’s looking so they can get rid of their load. And then when someone comes up close [behind them in another vehicle], they’ll shut it off and keep on moving,” said Yelley.
Yelley said illegal dumping has left miles of roadways coated with a slippery, slimy mixture that in some cases has caused traffic accidents, though none has resulted in serious injuries, he said.
Trucking Association Supports ‘Hammering’ Bad Guys
The surge in oil drilling has created a big demand for tanker trucks in the oil patch. John Esparza, president of the Texas Motor Transportation Association, grew up in West Texas and said illegal dumping has always been a problem. But now he says it has only gotten worse with so much more waste being generated with so much more drilling activity.
“You hammer the guys doing [the dumping]. This is about penalizing those who break the law,” Esparza told StateImpact Texas. He said if Ector County’s efforts start taking drivers off the road and make tanker trucks harder to find, drilling operators will feel the pinch and be more diligent in making sure the haulers they use are reputable.
Haulers are supposed to have a permit from the Railroad Commission and it’s the “generator’s responsibility” to check for it according to state regulations. But Ector County officials say many of the illegal dumpers they catch don’t have the permits. Those officials are scheduled to meet today with staff members from the Railroad Commission and the Texas Attorney General’s office to discuss which of the agencies should take the lead on some of the pollution cases Ector County is investigating.