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Proposals to Prevent Another Fertilizer Explosion Immediately Meet Resistance

A vehicle is seen near the remains of a fertilizer plant burning after the explosion.

Photo by REUTERS /MIKE STONE /LANDOV

A vehicle is seen near the remains of a fertilizer plant burning after the explosion.

The explosion at a fertilizer plant in the small town of West, Texas last year took much more than fifteen lives. At least 262 people were injured; twenty percent of those were brain injuries. Homes and schools were destroyed. But judging from the response of some state lawmakers charged with stopping it from happening again, preventable disasters like the one in West are just something Texans are going to have to live with from time to time.

There’s been no new regulations for fertilizer plants since the disaster until this month, but there’s been a consensus for some time about how to prevent another tragedy like the one in West: require fertilizer plants to store ammonium nitrate in non-combustible facilities or to use sprinklers; conduct inspections of facilities; and train first responders so they know how to deal with fires that may break out at sites with ammonium nitrate.

draft bill to do just that was introduced Tuesday by state Rep. Joe Pickett (D-El Paso), chair of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee. But Republicans on his committee like Rep. Dan Flynn (R-Van) made clear at a hearing yesterday that they’re likely going to fight new regulations proposed to prevent another West. Flynn said new rules could put “Mom and Pop” fertilizer companies out of business, and he worries that any new rules for volunteer fire departments could strain budgets.

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If You Work for Texas’ Oil and Gas Regulator, You’re Not Allowed to Comment for This Story

Barry Smitherman is the chair of the Railroad Commission of Texas

Photo courtesy of Railroad Commission of Texas

Barry Smitherman is the chair of the Railroad Commission of Texas

Sometimes old news is anything but. That seemed to be the case this week when the Associated Press reported that the Railroad Commission, the oil and gas regulator in Texas, had banned interviews with the media. “Texas’ oil and gas regulatory agency has instituted a blanket policy barring staff members from doing media interviews, raising questions about transparency as the state grapples with the intricacies of one of the largest energy booms in decades,” the story said.

The policy isn’t new. It was approved by the three commissioners who head the agency in August 2012 (not a year later, as the AP reported), and it was discussed in two open meetings. It hasn’t been modified since. It’s not even an “unusual” policy for Texas, as it was closely modeled after a rule in effect at the state Attorney General’s office. All the Railroad Commissioners did was change the names.

“This is already policy,” then-commissioner Buddy Garcia said during the first meeting discussing the idea in July 2012. The commission was trying to put in “layman’s terms” how staff should handle media requests, Garcia said.

The media policy, which you can read in full below, says that with the exception of the commissioners and their staff, everyone else that works at the agency must go through the Railroad Commission’s Media Affairs Director or the Executive Director. The AP says this week that Milton Rister, who has been Executive Director since October 2012 (after the policy was passed), has not approved any interviews with Railroad Commission staff. Ramona Nye, a spokesperson for the commission, confirms that no interviews with staff have been approved.

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Regulators Close Case on Flaming Texas Water, Researcher Says Not So Fast

The growing presence of methane in the water wells of a suburban Dallas community cannot be linked to nearby drilling activity even though methane levels have risen in several wells in the area since drilling began, according to a report released by the state’s oil and gas regulator. But other scientists who study the issue are not so sure there is no link to drilling.

The report released last week by the Railroad Commission of Texas says it found no evidence that elevated levels of methane in the water or the Parker county housing development ‘Silverado on the Brazos’ is caused by gas drilling operations. The report also says further investigation into a potential link ”is not planned at this time.”

“I was surprised that the commission isn’t planning to do some more testing,” Rob Jackson, professor of Earth Sciences at Stanford University who is also studying the issue, says. ”Their own data found that five of eight water wells had increasing methane concentration through time. That alone seems like enough reason to follow up.”

Jackson is planning to publish his own findings on the region’s water. Another study by former EPA scientist Geoffrey Thyne indicates the methane is linked to drilling, though Range Resources, the drilling company that owns nearby drilling wells has dismissed the scientists findings, and says the methane is naturally occurring.

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There’s Been Hundreds of Small Quakes in North Texas Since December

From the SMU progress report: "Preliminary earthquakes locations near  Reno-Azle using the current seismic  network. Events are scaled by magnitude  and color coded by time of event. Two Salt  Water Disposal Wells (SWD wells) that  occur within a few kms of the earthquake  sequence are shown."

SMU

From the SMU progress report: “Preliminary earthquakes locations near Reno-Azle using the current seismic network. Events are scaled by magnitude and color coded by time of event. Two Salt Water Disposal Wells (SWD wells) that occur within a few kms of the earthquake sequence are shown.”

North Texas is no longer a place you can expect to live earthquake-free. That’s the big takeaway from a progress report out this week from Southern Methodist University on their study of tremors around the towns of Reno and Azle that began last fall.

“This sequence, with the first felt event [earthquake] occurring in November 2013, follows several other earthquakes sequences of earthquakes occurring in Tarrant and Johnson Counties since 2008,” the report says. A team of scientists from SMU, with help from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), installed monitors to better measure the quakes in region.

While the larger quakes have stopped, with the most recent occurring in late January, smaller earthquakes continue, the report says. There’s been hundreds of them large enough to be recorded by multiple monitoring stations since December, with “thousands of very small events during periods of swarm activity.”

And the scientists aren’t sure when they’re going to happen. “Swarms of 100s of events can occur in a day, but weeks with few to no earthquakes have also occurred,” the report says. Continue Reading

More Drought, Heat and Water Wars: What Climate Change Already Means for Texas

A tree trunk is exposed where water used to be in Bridgeport Lake, which is over thirty feet (9 meters) below normal levels, in Bridgeport, Texas, USA, 04 September 2013.

EPA/LARRY W. SMITH /LANDOV

A tree trunk is exposed where water used to be in Bridgeport Lake, which was over thirty feet (9 meters) below normal levels, in Bridgeport, Texas, in September 2013.

A new federal report out today from offers a stark warning about our changing climate. As carbon dioxide reaches levels never before seen during human history, we’re already feeling the effects of climate change, and it’s likely to get worse.

The National Climate Assessment is the product of hundreds of experts and scientists, organized by the U.S. Global Change Research Program. They claim it’s “the most comprehensive, authoritative, transparent scientific report on U.S. climate change impacts ever generated.”

The report focuses on current and future climate change impacts to the U.S. For Texas and the Great Plains region, climate change caused by carbon emissions will exacerbate the issues the region has long faced: droughts, heat waves, storms and flooding. Agriculture will suffer, water wars will increase, and it’s going to get even hotter.

Climate scientists liken the impacts of climate change on weather to steroids: take a place like Texas already known for extreme weather, and then imagine if it started juicing. Our region is already known for ”floods, droughts, severe storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and winter storms,” the report says. It’s a dry region that needs more water than nature provides. “These variable conditions in the Great Plains already stress communities and cause billions of dollars in damage; climate change will add to both stress and costs,” the report says.  Continue Reading

How Budget Cuts and Oil Spills Threaten ‘World’s Most Endangered Sea Turtle’

A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle on laying its eggs on Texas Gulf Coast.

Courtesy of the National Park Service.

A Kemp's Ridley sea turtle laying its eggs on the Texas Gulf Coast.

Around this time every year, female Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles arrive like clockwork on Matagorda Island, on the Texas Gulf Coast.

“During the day they’ll craw up, usually closer to the dunes, and they’ll dig out an area and they’ll lay a nest of several eggs,” says Jeremy Edwardson, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. ”Then they move back out to the water’s edge.”

The Island is a wildlife refuge maintained by the service.  Edwardson says it’s usually kept free of all human activity.

But not this year, because of an ongoing cleanup by state and federal agencies in the wake of a barge accident in the Port of Houston that spilled more than 150,000 gallons of oil. Officials are worried cleanup efforts could hurt the turtles and other wildlife. But the alternative – just leaving the oil on the beach – is not really an option.

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Texas Governor Wants to Make the State a Home for High-Level Radioactive Waste

Cooling towers of a nuclear power plant in Grohnde, Germany. An interim charge for the Texas legislature could change the United States' management of nuclear waste.

Frank Map DPA/Landov

Cooling towers of a nuclear power plant in Grohnde, Germany. Texas Governor Rick Perry says he wants the state to come up with a solution for disposing of or storing spent nuclear fuel.

The storage and disposal of high-level radioactive waste is a tricky process, both from a safety and political point of view. As a result, that waste is now piling up around the country with nowhere to go. And Texas Governor Rick Perry is wondering if perhaps the Lone Star State could give it a home.

In a letter to the leaders of the state Senate and House, which you can read below, Perry says that Texas has “no choice but to begin looking for a safe and secure solution for HLW [high-level radioactive waste] in Texas.” Perry attached a 49-page report he commissioned from a state environmental agency that says that a facility for waste in Texas is “not only feasible but could be highly successful.”

The letter, first reported by Asher Price in the Austin American-Statesman today, lays out what have become familiar arguments from those hoping to make Texas a home for the nation’s unwanted isotopes: the federal government isn’t following through on its promise to take care of it, states paid the feds to fulfill that promise and got cheated, and Texas can do it safely (and, it would follow, profitably).  Continue Reading

Texas Considers “Tax” on Coastal Restoration Projects

Texas leases submerged coastal land for oil & gas wells and also wildlife projects

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Texas leases submerged coastal land for oil & gas wells and also wildlife projects

As Texas decides how it will spend millions of dollars from a multi-state agreement with BP following the Deepwater Horizon spill, the Texas General Land Office (GLO) is proposing a fee on projects that restore damaged coastal areas.

Some of the non-profit environmental and wildlife groups involved in the projects are not happy.

Nine groups including Ducks Unlimited, the Galveston Bay Foundation, and the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter met last week with GLO staff members. The groups had expressed their opposition in a letter sent this past December to Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson.

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After Latest Texas Earthquake Swarm, State Lawmakers Vow to Investigate

Azle Mayor Alan Brunrett has been disappointed by the Railroad Commissions refusal to provide answers or acknowledge that disposal wells have caused earthquakes elsewhere.

Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett has been disappointed by the Railroad Commission's refusal to provide answers or acknowledge that disposal wells have caused earthquakes elsewhere.

After dozens of quakes have rattled a small community outside of Fort Worth over the last few months, the Texas Legislature is creating a committee to look into the issue and allegations that the quakes are linked to oil and gas drilling activity.

State Representative Jim Keffer, R-Eastland, chairman of the House Energy Resources Committee, announced today the creation of a ‘Subcommittee on Seismic Activity.’ The subcommittee will be chaired by state Rep. Myra Crownover, R-Denton, and also include Representatives Phil King (R-Weatherford ), Terry Canales (D-Edinburg), and Chris Paddie (R-Marshall).

Rep. Crownover tells StateImpact Texas the subcommittee will meet this year, likely more than once, before the full legislature convenes next year. “Texans deserve answers,” Crownover says, “We are going to be very, very careful to make sure that we follow the science and ask all the questions we need to ask. I think people have questions and no one has the answer.”

The link between manmade quakes and disposal wells in Texas and other parts of the county is well established, with several peer-reviewed studies showing that waste water from oil and gas drilling injected underground for disposal can cause faults to slip. That was the culprit behind other swarms of quakes nearby in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, as well as other manmade quakes in Oklahoma, Arkansas and Ohio.

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North Texas Earthquake Swarm More Centralized Than Previously Thought


View Earthquakes Near Azle, Texas in a larger map
Map created by Andrew Weber for KUT News and StateImpact Texas. Orange circles represent earthquakes, wavy blue lines represent active wastewater disposal wells.

Another minor earthquake shook the North Texas community of Azle on Monday. It’s one of dozens to hit the region over the last few months that have residents on edge and complaining of property damage.

Many see a link between the quakes and increased oil and gas activity. But challenges confront scientists researching the quakes for the U.S. Geological Survey and Southern Methodist University. For one, they’ve needed to more accurately pinpoint the epicenters of the Azle quakes.

“The closest seismograph station used by the National Earthquake Information Center to locate the Azle earthquakes is over 60 miles to the south, the next closest is 125 miles to the West,” USGS Seismologist Williams Ellsworth explained in a letter to Azle Mayor Alan Brundrett in a December letter obtained by StateImpact Texas (embedded below).

In that same letter, Ellsworth explains how he has produced a more accurate map of the quakes, one that shows them clustered in a more concentrated location than previously thought.

“To date, it looks like the earthquakes are all in one very localized zone,” Ellsworth confirmed to StateImpact Texas over the phone.

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