Dave Fehling is the Houston-based broadcast reporter for StateImpact. Before joining StateImpact Texas, Dave reported and anchored at KHOU-TV in Houston. He also worked as a staff correspondent for CBS News from 1994-1998. He now lectures on journalism at the University of Houston.
Plants handling dangerous chemicals work with communities through Local Emergency Planning Committees
The fertilizer explosion last month that killed 14 people — mostly firefighters — in the town of West is an example of the danger of using or storing large quantities of chemicals close to communities.
In Denver City, a town of 4,500 south of Lubbock, Jack Watkins is now retired. But in 1975, he was working in the oil and gas drilling industry. He was also a volunteer firefighter.
Just before dawn on a Sunday morning in February that year, the fire department was called out to investigate reports of a gas cloud just outside town. What they found left Watkins with memories still vivid to this day. Continue Reading →
Tanker trucks arrive at the disposal well that was site of a 2012 explosion. It's approved to inject 30,000 barrels of wastewater a day.
Some people who live in Pearsall, the South Texas town where country star George Strait grew up, said they learned they had a disposal well nearby when they heard a big boom.
“Then I saw the billows of smoke coming out,” said Henry Martinez, Pearsall’s police chief.
He’s talking about the afternoon in January 2012 when investigators say a welder’s spark ignited oil vapors at a disposal site on the edge of town.Three workers were hurt and OSHA later cited the operator for alleged violations and proposed a $46,200 penalty.
Texas likes to be “business friendly” and as the state legislature considers bills to limit environmental regulation to keep it that way, some economists warn of the longer term consequences.
Dave Fehling / StateImpact Texas
Cattle ranch borders petrochemical plant in Calhoun County
“It’s not as simple as saying yeah, it’s a negative for everybody and everybody is going to move out of the state if we have more stringent regulation,” said Daniel Millimet, an environmental economist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.
The idea that too much regulation can scare off business has been a main thrust of some of the state’s environmental regulators like David Porter, one of the three elected leaders of the Texas Railroad Commission. Speaking last October at oil and gas drillers conference in San Antonio, Porter contended that should Texas succumb to the stricter pollution regulation of the federal government, disaster would follow for the state’s booming drilling industry.
Signs warn that fish may be contaminated at Superfund site along San Jacinto River
Some county governments have found that when it comes to suing corporations over polluted property, hiring a private law firm on a contingency fee basis is the way to go.
But against the backdrop of a multi-billion dollar dioxin case in Harris County, there’s an effort to outlaw those arrangements in pollution lawsuits. The House Committee on Environmental Regulation has scheduled a hearing today on a bill that would ban counties from using private firms, HB 3119. (UPDATE: On April 16, the committee delayed consideration of the bill by “leaving it pending”)
The bill has the support of the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute that compiled a report on what it calls the “dubious practice of employing private lawyers on a contingency basis.”
Pool of of oily wastewater officials say is from illegal dumping in Ector County
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. Continue Reading →
The Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force affidavit for a warrant to search the Houston office of the Railroad Commission in 2010
As the legislature considers making changes to the Railroad Commission of Texas in the future, a search warrant is now shedding light on how the Railroad Commission interacted with criminal investigators in the past.
An affidavit for the warrant, obtained by StateImpact, shows that during a 2010 investigation of a state-regulated site used for disposing drilling fluids, the Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force said it wanted to seize documents it said were being withheld; withheld not by the company that ran the disposal site, but by the Railroad Commission that was supposed to be regulating it.
Students from small towns in Texas are filling up community college classes that have titles like “Drilling” and “Well Completions.”
Dave Fehling / StateImpact
At Coastal Bend College, oil & gas instructor Roy Coley with students Kollin Harless and Nicole Burks
At Coastal Bend College in Beeville in the heart of the Eagle Ford Shale, just 46 students enrolled for petroleum training courses in 2008. Last year, there were 1,086. Many of the students are lured by promises of salaries that used to be found mostly in bigger cities.
“There’s so many more opportunities for jobs now in all these little small towns around here,” said Kollin Harless who’s from Three Rivers, population 1,834. He’s studying “mud engineering” to learn how to ensure that drilling fluid—or mud as it’s called—is properly formulated and injected at a drilling site. He expects an annual starting salary in the neighborhood of $60,000.
Ron Curry at a Superfund site with Harris County officials
Ron Curry is the EPA’s new administrator for Region 6, overseeing enforcement of federal pollution laws in New Mexico (where he once headed that state’s environment department), Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana, and in Texas.
Texas, where the state has gone to court to stop the EPA from enforcing pollution laws. Texas is also where the previous EPA regional administrator, Al Armendariz, had a rocky relationship with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Armendariz left last year to join the Sierra Club after a firestorm erupted when he was heard on a video using the word “crucify” as he explained how tough his staff could be on the worst polluters.
One of the most vocal of the bunch, Harold Doiron, was taunted at a debate held at the National Press Club in Washington DC this past January.
“Do you believe in global warming? Do you believe there’s global warming,” asked moderator Blanquita Cullum. This came after other panelists assured the audience that virtually all peer-reviewed scientific studies support that humans cause climate change and that to argue otherwise “is like debating whether cigarettes cause cancer.” Continue Reading →
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