Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Burying Toxic Water: Texas Community Keeps on Plugging To Halt It

In a large, two story home in a wooded subdivision near where for years the Texas oil industry has drilled for black gold, three women have gathered around the kitchen table.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Karen Darcy (left) and Rebecca Kaiser

“No one could believe what was happening,” said Rebecca Kaiser, whose two young children played upstairs.

She’s talking about a day some ten months earlier when she and carloads of her fellow Montgomery County residents angrily left a meeting of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ).

“It’ll be horrible,”  Hoagland said of the project, which will inject toxic waste into old oil wells near her town of Conroe. She fears it’ll not only threaten the purity of the well water she drinks but fill the road out in front of her house with tanker trucks bringing the waste in from petrochemical plants outside Houston.

“Benzene, anti-freeze, caustic acid,” said Karen Darcy, another Montgomery County resident at the kitchen table, reciting a list of what might be in the waste water.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

Shirley Hoagland in her backyard

But Darcy was quick to point out she’s not against the oil industry.

“I worked for Shell for 34 years,” she said.

The three women are at the center of what you often find in environmental battles fought across Texas: the interests of the industries that so dominate the state’s economy colliding with the interests of communities whose tax bases and residents more often than not have some reliance on the oil and gas industry.

Dave Fehling/StateImpact Texas

TexCom Gulf Disposal injection well site near Conroe, Texas

The conflict has faced J.D. Clark, the 26-year old mayor of the tiny north Texas town of Chico. It was there in 2005 that saltwater and other tainted waste water from oil drilling was injected in one well but bubbled up in others, raising concerns it would threaten the town’s drinking water.

“The oil and gas industry is important, but I’m not sure what’s more important than water,” said Clark.

Injection wells come in many classifications depending on what it is they’re injecting. And that in turn determines what agency regulates them. In the Chico case, the injection well handled waste water from oil and gas drilling, so it was regulated by the Texas Railroad Commission.. There are thousands of these “Class II” injection wells across the state.

The type of well in question in Conroe is a far rarer variety called a “Class I” injection well and is reglulated by the TCEQ. There are but 108 of of these wells in Texas, which has a fifth of all such wells nationwide. Texas leads the nation in the number of wells for commercial wastes like the one in Conroe (Florida has more total injection wells but many are used for municipal waste), according to an inventory by the Ground Water Protection Council.


Class I injection wells

Class I injection wells have failed and contaminated drinking water in the past, according to a national study by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In Texas, the TCEQ said that in only one case did such an injection well contaminate ground water. But it happened, the TCEQ said, decades ago when an “unauthorized” injection contaminated drinking water before the adoption of standards in 1981.

In a 2001 report, the EPA said there had been six cases of drinking water contamination nationwide and that the failed wells were mostly older ones. Newer design requirements, the EPA said, would likely have prevented the failures. The report concluded that failures were “rare”.

The issue in Conroe became more complicated when a company called Denbury Resources announced plans to inject carbon dioxide gas into the ground in the area of the injection well. The CO2 is to increase pressure in rock formations to force out crude oil that was left after conventional wells were shutdown years ago. But the CO2 might increase the risk of also pushing up the injected toxic waste water. So the Texas Railroad Commission — which regulates oil well operations — issued a recommendation that in essence said that the TexCom injection well was a bad idea.

Yet, back in January, at the hearing before the TCEQ, chairman Bryan Shaw, an air pollution researcher with Texas A&M, said it was not the commission’s responsibility to base its decision on what may or may not happen with the proposed CO2 project in the future. He and another member then voted to approve TexCom’s permit for the Class I injection well.

TexCom wouldn’t comment to StateImpact Texas but a lawyer for the company, John Riley, told the commission at the hearing that toxic waste water, injected thousands of feet below drinking water aquifers,  would not migrate into the old wells and threaten the groundwater above: “TexCom has met its burden of showing there is not a pathway for the transmission through those artificial penetrations.”

Rebecca Kaiser began to wonder if there was more behind the TCEQ’s decision than what the residents saw at the hearing. She began researching campaign finance records.

“Now, it’s not against the law to contribute,” said Kaiser. But she says she was bothered by what she found, as the Austin-American Statesman also recently reported: financial backers of a company connected to TexCom were also big contributors to Governor Rick Perry. And Perry appoints the commissioners on the TCEQ.

“All you have to do is look at the campaign contributions and you can see that there is a pattern,” said Kaiser of how the state’s oil interests and politicians are connected.

But did that have anything to do with how the TCEQ granted permission to TexCom?

“TCEQ Commissioners make all decisions based solely on the law and science,” said the agency’s spokesperson Terry Clawson in an email to StateImpact Texas.

This latest environmental battle is hardly over. The governments of Montgomery County and the city of Conroe have now filed suit against the TCEQ to overturn the decision.

[2001 US EPA report on Class I injection wells nationwide]


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