By David Hasemyer, InsideClimate News
Under the cover of early-morning darkness in South Texas last March, a tanker truck ferrying fluids from an oil and gas drilling site rumbled down a country road spewing its toxic load all over the place.
The concoction of drilling fluid, which typically includes undisclosed and dangerous chemicals, oil, metals shavings and naturally occurring radioactive materials, coated eight miles of roadway, according to a Karnes County Sheriff’s Department report obtained by InsideClimate News.
The spill has prompted an investigation by the sheriff’s department, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) and the state Railroad Commission.
If not for surveillance video given to the sheriff’s department, the trucker responsible for the dumping may have disappeared into the night. But the video caught the distinctive flash from the reflective stripes on the tanker. It was the telltale clue detectives needed.
Although sheriff’s investigators couldn’t determine whether the illegal dumping was intentional, it highlights the growing problem of how to dispose of billions of gallons of contaminated fluids left over from both the drilling and production phases of oil and gas development using hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Karnes County is at the epicenter of a drilling boom in the 26-county Eagle Ford Shale region of South Texas. It’s one of the most active drilling areas in the country, where nearly 9,000 wells have been sunk and another 5,500 approved since 2008. Drilling and fracking a single well in the Eagle Ford can take 4.9 million gallons of water, according to a report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
All of that contaminated liquid waste has to be disposed of in some way. Among the approved disposal methods in Texas are injecting the unwanted fluid into deep underground wells, recycling, pumping it into huge open pits to evaporate or spraying it on top of sprawling waste fields. The pits and waste fields are being cited as a major source of noxious fumes and harmful airborne chemicals.
States are solely responsible for regulating the disposal of the toxic drilling waste, in part because of exemptions from federal environmental laws, and the rules vary widely across the country. Texas laws remain comparatively lax.
The waste fluid is disposed of wherever it is convenient and out of sight, said Sharon Wilson, an organizer with the Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project in Texas.
“There is so much of this that they don’t know what to do with it,” she said. “So it’s not surprising that there are cases where it’s just dumped anywhere.”
The “anywhere” that sparked the investigation in Karnes County was along Farm-to-Market Road 81, a rural, two-lane stretch of blacktop just west of Hobson. A driver reported the mess after the side of his pickup became smeared with an oily substance; a landowner later provided the critical video to law enforcement.
Texas Department of Transportation officials closed the road so it could be cleaned up by a hazardous-waste disposal company, according to the sheriff’s department report. Karnes City firefighters worried there may be flammable substances and potentially deadly hydrogen sulfide in the mix.
Sheriff’s investigators soon narrowed the possible offenders to two trucking companies that had been hauling fluid from three oil and gas wells being drilled by Marathon Oil Corp, one of the largest Eagle Ford development companies with 211,000 acres under its control.