Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

Texas County Tries to Stop Illegal Dumping of Oil Waste

Courtesy Ector County Environmental Enforcement

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.

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.

Courtesy Ector County Commissioner's Court

Susan Redford is the Ector County Judge

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.”

Courtesy Ector County Environmental Enforcement

Officials link illegally dumped drilling mud and wastewater to traffic accidents

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.


  • Bhoanus

    Citizens aren’t allowed to break the law and have active law enforcement enforcing the law. But corporations are allowed to get away with crimes against the environment and humanity but are sent warnings to comply? I guess corporations are only people when it comes to campaign contributions.

    • kinglyam

      I’m not a fan of corporate America by any stretch, but in fairness it’s not really the O&G majors that are doing this. It’s the wildcatters and maverick “companies” which consist of Bubba Joe and his 30-year-old tanker truck. The majors tend to have extensive auditing programs that check these waste haulers before they are hired, because they know if their waste ends up where it doesn’t belong, they’re going to eventually get sued.

      • Bhoanus

        Though the oil and gas companies are not directly to blame, they are the ones hiring them. There should be some responsibility of the company to choose contractors who do uphold some standard of operation.

      • Wes_Scott

        I want some of whatever YOU are smoking!

  • http://www.facebook.com/caleb.l.eaton Caleb Eaton

    Kudos to the folks in Ector County. I’ve lived in the Permian Basin my entire life and it breaks my heart how folks break the law and sully our natural resources to save a buck or just out of ignorant laziness. The oil & gas industry does a lot for our area and is one of the few growing industries in our nation right now, but that doesn’t give operators the right to destroy the land. Hopefully the Railroad Commission will step up with the Ector County folks to be sure that a few bad apples don’t spoil everything for the industry or our environment.

    • Wes_Scott

      Good luck waiting for the Railroad Commission of Texas to come to YOUR defense. RCT is too busy defending the Oil and Gas Industry and far too unconcerned about environmental damage, harm to citizens or violations of laws. It is comprised of people from the O&G industry, and it turns a blind eye and deaf ear to violations by people in the industry.

      The sooner average citizens awaken to the fact that RCT serves the industry it is designed to regulate the sooner we can start getting something done about it. Neither our governor, attorney general or RCT is ever going to stand up for YOUR health and safety, property rights or a clean environment because they are all funded by the O&G industry for every political campaign they run, and they canot win without O&G money.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=606561978 Linda Forward

    It’s important for citizens to file official reports when they notice spills or people in the act of illegal dumping or violating regulations. If we don’t speak up, this will continue to happen. The violators have gotten away with this too long. Ector County’s environmental enforcement officer is doing a good job.

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