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.
The EPA's ECHO website uses data from state pollution regulators to compare compliance and enforcement
Compared to other states, Texas has a consistently higher percentage of major industrial plants with “high priority violations” of air pollution laws. Yet, compared to other states, Texas does far fewer comprehensive inspections of polluting facilities.
Not surprisingly, Texas, with a history of fighting the EPA at every turn, says the website has “tremendous potential” for being misleading, deceiving, and inaccurate.
The site is called ECHO for Enforcement and Compliance History Online. The EPA launched it in 2002. The goal was to give the public access to data on how state and federal regulators were enforcing pollution laws. The site not only allows access to detailed compliance reports for specific facilities, it also allows a comparison of enforcement action by state.
New EPA regulations would place new restrictions on coal-burning power plants, a major source in Texas for greenhouse gases
When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week on a lawsuit over how much latitude the federal government has to regulate facilities that emit greenhouse gases, victory was claimed both by environmentalists who want more regulation and by Texas state officials who wants less.
Texas and 16 other states brought the action.
The Texas Attorney General’s office proclaimed after the ruling that the Supreme Court had “overturn(ed) EPA’s Illegal greenhouse gas permitting scheme.” The Court had “delivered a stern rebuke to the President” said Greg Abbott, the Texas attorney general and candidate for governor.
Clean air advocates wondered what Abbott was thinking.
“Oh my gosh, when you lose one suit after another you’re desperate to claim a victory anywhere, and I guess that’s what Attorney General Abbott did,” said James Marston, Vice President for U.S. Climate and Energy at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Exhibit from lawsuit: worker's time sheet showing 90 hours in eight consecutive days
In states with the most oil and gas drilling, including Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota, the U.S. Department of Labor has won back pay for over 4,000 energy industry workers in just the past year.
It totaled $6.7 million dollars, accounting for a third of all such settlements by all types of industries nationwide.
“We were hearing that workers were being misclassified as independent contractors, that they were being paid straight-time for their hours over 40 in a workweek. And we were hearing this consistently throughout the Southwest Region,” said Cynthia Watson, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Regional Administrator in Dallas.
“In Texas, I don’t think there’s anybody else doing quite what we’re doing,” says research scientist Kevin Schug.
Dave Fehling / StateImpact
Becky Burke's home in Denton County has a water well in her side yard and a gas well in the front yard
What Schug is doing can be found in a two big kitchen refrigerators in a lab on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington. The fridges are crammed with hundreds of plastic bottles containing samples from private water wells located mostly in North Texas, but some of them in West Texas, too.
The project hopes to determine if drilling for oil and gas and burying chemical waste generated by the work is contaminating groundwater. The project is not sponsored by Texas environmental regulators nor the oil and gas industry but rather by UT Arlington. UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology is also involved.
Big freighters and small barges in the Houston Ship Channel near the site of the collision
U. S. Coast guard investigators are reviewing testimony they heard during a four-day hearing held last week in Galveston. They’re trying to learn what might have prevented the collision of a freighter with a barge carrying fuel oil in March. Some of what they heard points a finger right back at the Coast Guard.
Along Galveston Bay, the big collision is still fresh in the minds of people who have a front row seat to the very busy Houston Ship Channel. John McMichael is a retired Navy submarine officer who manages Seawolf park on Pelican Island.
“They knew they were there. They were on the radar. It’s hard to fathom that it would have happened in today’s world,” McMichael told StateImpact Texas.
Oil field workers wear these safety alert devices that detect hydrogen sulfide gas
Hydrogen sulfide — a gas that smells like rotten eggs — can be insidious in its lethality. Its odor will be unmistakeable to its victim. But the gas can quickly numb the sense of smell, leading to the belief that the threat has passed. Unconsciousness and death can follow.
“Unfortunately, if you come in contact with hydrogen sulfide there are not a lot of second chances,” said Sheldon McKee, director of business development at AMGAS, a Canadian company that makes equipment to remove hydrogen sulfide in the oilfields, where it can be a deadly risk for workers.
AMGAS opened an office last year in San Antonio to serve what the company sees as a growing need. Drilling for oil has surged just south of San Antonio in a swath of rural counties that comprise the Eagle Ford Shale. It’s an area known for what’s called “sour gas:” natural gas and crude oil with high amounts of hydrogen sulfide. Sour gas can also be found in parts of West Texas and in East Texas.
With oil and gas drilling booming, so are the number of wells used for wastewater, growing by about a thousand a year since 2009. There are now over 35,000 disposal and injection wells in Texas according to the Railroad Commission.
The wells are used to get rid of the millions of gallons of chemically-tainted wastewater and produced water from oil & gas drilling. The waste is pumped deep underground, far below the aquifers holding water used by cities and ranches.
Mottled ducks in pond at Brazoria National WIldlife Refuge in Brazoria County
It can be tough being a duck these days in Texas. Next door in Louisiana, they’ve got cable TV’s big reality hit, Duck Dynasty. But in Texas, there’s less a dynasty and more of a dilemma, at least for one breed called the Mottled Duck.
“If you look at the composite of things they all suggest that in Texas, mottled ducks are declining,” said Bart Ballard. “Louisiana seems to be stable.”
Ballard is a scientist at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M-Kingsville. He said estimating duck populations can be tricky. But according to a 2009 report for the U.S. Geological Survey, an analysis off data from 2005-2009 suggested “a rapidly declining mottled duck population” in Texas.
Traffic accidents have surged along with drilling in Texas counties.
In what were some of the poorer counties in Texas, a surge in oil & gas drilling has set local economies on fire. But at the same time, officials have made dire pleas for help, saying the drilling boom is destroying roads and leading to deadly crashes.
The Associated Press found that while traffic deaths are down statewide in Texas, they’re up 18 percent in counties with lots of drilling.
“Unfortunately, one of the biggest growing pains and consequences of all this activity has been the increased number of fatalities that have taken place in these areas. We need to work on these roads, make them wider, make them safer,” said State Sen. Carlos Uresti (D-San Antonio), who represents some of the most oil-rich counties.
Jackie Young at San Jacinto River Superfund site tells why local lawsuits are important in our Radio Story
After being the target of intense lobbying that drew criticism in last year’s Texas legislature, lawmakers will again hear why big business wants restrictions on local governments that go after polluters in court. The House Judiciary Committee will take up the issue at a hearing May 16th.
Bills to curtail pollution lawsuits by local governments died in the last legislative session.
“I wasn’t surprised to see it still out there. There’s an effort to limit cities and actually it’s been going on for several years now,” said Bennett Sandlin, Executive Director of the Texas Municipal League.