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Saturday, October 22, 2016

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.

  • turtlewoman1039

    Continuing good news for drought stricken, ‘no regulation’ TX…

  • Peter Brown

    Please remember that fracking has now created its own mini business boom in cleanup technology. Big oil needs to be served, even if it kills us.

  • RobertCHastings

    This story highlights an important, ongoing interest in illegal dumping that occurs all around our country. Recently, in Charlotte, NC, a surveillance camera picked up an unmarked tanker dumping BPA into a sewer. Subsequently, at least two other incidents were noted in Charlotte. This is a product known to cause cancer and whose use was discontinued years ago. That it is being dumped now highlights a serious flaw in the regulation of the chemical industry – that many harmful products are STILL being produced (and dumped) without either regard for the consequences to the environment OR to those who may be exposed to such toxic substances. The big issue with nuclear energy is the disposal of the depleted uranium, which can only be stored in, hopefully, a totally safe manner. Fracking, per se, MAY be safe, and is, perhaps, the ONLY way to recover the desired product. However, if it is unsafe, why is the chemical industry (and the oil industry) not doing all they possibly can to make it safe, such as divulging what chemicals are used. Haz-Mat teams, charged with the safe abatement of chemical spills, cannot perform their jobs if they have no idea what products they are dealing with. Individuals exposed to these toxic substances have no hope of receiving adequate and appropriate treatment if those charged with helping them have no idea what they are dealing with. My point should be apparent.

  • stcroixcarp

    Although it may mean shipping the gunk all the way to Kansas, there is room for it on the Koch brothers front lawns. Or maybe it could be served in martini glasses at an ALEC retreat for state legislators.

  • herchato

    Hey, come on it’s only a little dirty water, God is not going to let anything happen to Texas.

  • howa4x

    In NJ Tankers to park over manholes in cites and discharge chemicals. If there was ever a case made for why we need to move to sustainable energy this is it. Why do we need energy with such a huge environmental cost? Nuclear was the same thing, how do we get rid of the waste? NC already showed us the problem with coal waste. This is the republican plan for population control. Just poison everyone!!