Shelton said eight miles of county road was found with a stream of leaked waste that looked like burned motor oil in McMullen County. When the leaking truck was located, the hauler was found stuffing a T-shirt into the leak, he said. The case is still pending in court, but had the company not been caught the cleanup cost would have been left to the state at a price of $1,500 per hour.
Spills often require a Geiger counter due to the radioactive nature of the fluid, said Jim Wells County Sheriff’s Department’s Deputy Hector Zertuche.
Environmental impacts aren’t the only risk associated with improperly transporting or dumping waste.
“Depending on the amount, it is very slick,” Zertuche said. “We’ve seen cars come to an intersection and apply the brakes and skid right through the intersection. There is no traction.”
Nasty black substance
Prior to additional dumping sites opening in 2011, Zertuche, an environmental abatement officer, said they were finding spills along Highway 281 and Highway 44 on a frequent basis.
“We were finding them in town at some intersections but at the time we didn’t know what was going on,” Zertuche said. “It was just a nasty black mud looking substance that smelled horrible. You didn’t want it on your clothes or shoes, you can’t get the smell off.”
Zertuche recalled an incident where a trailer hatch was open and 85 percent of its contents spilled onto a county road.
Zertuche said some of the haulers were getting into the business of hauling waste without knowing all of the requirements. He said some haulers were getting hired without the companies checking to see if they were certified to carry the waste.
“There are a lot of companies that do it legally, but we are after the fly-by-night bunch that get out of town,” Shelton said.
Not transported safely
Drilling waste contains concentrations of naturally occurring radioactive material, called NORM, from surrounding soils and rocks, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Once exposed or concentrated by human activity, the naturally occurring material becomes Technologically-Enhanced NORM, or TENORM.
But, exposure can happen when it’s not transported safely.
“The disposal guys have a Geiger counter, and when I park on the road you see the guy come in with the Geiger counter and I’m hoping they do that when I’m not there too,” Zertuche said.
He said he asked the Railroad Commission what kind of fines could be cited for leaking the fluid, but initially didn’t get an answer. He said he used to work in the oil industry and when he described what was happening they pointed him to Chapter 29 of the state Water Code which lists provisions for spills, haulers and permits.
Zertuche said getting waste to the proper disposal facilities requires clearly marking the trailer on both sides and rear, having a permit to haul the waste, and transporting it to the proper disposal facility.
Penalties for not complying to hauling requirements range from $100-1,000 or up to 10 days in jail.
“The Railroad Commission said they could be cited for up to $1,000 per day for each violation, but they don’t ever do it,” Zertuche said.
Slurry of toxic soup
According to Shelton, the state is often left with a mess to clean up when companies use improper techniques for disposing of the fluids and get caught because the companies will declare bankruptcy instead of cleaning it up themselves.
But, transporting the waste is only one phase of the disposal process. The waste has to be safely contained at disposal sites called land farms.
“It becomes a slurry of toxic soup,” Shelton said. “So far we have been lucky here. They have not allowed a land farm in McMullen County. Everybody still thinks enough of their land that they don’t want to do it.”
Starting a land farm isn’t as simple as just digging a pit and burying the chemicals. The residents of that area have to sign off on the plan to start one, according to Shelton.
Zertuche said anything that goes into the ground and comes back out is considered oil field waste and has to be taken to a disposal site. But, some of these disposal sites are aging and leaking with random items used to plug the leaking holes.
Violate RRC permits
If the waste runoff from land farms flows off permitted areas, it’s a violation of various RRC-issued permits, according to Dr. John Ockels, director of the Texas Illegal Dumping Resource Center.
“Drilling mud and cuttings could run off locations where it has been ‘land farmed’ or seep down into a shallow aquifer,” Ockels said. “Neither of these are permitted by the RRC; either would also constitute felony or misdemeanor water pollution, to be enforced by local government.”
If water pollution results, local governments may impose the criminal law of Texas Water Code sections 7.145 or 7.147 for the resulting felony or misdemeanor violations.
The waste sites contain things such as frac sands and oil-based mud that have to be treated because they contain chemicals such as various bariums and sulfides, according to Zertuche. He said the possibility for radioactivity is why it’s so important to get the waste to disposal facilities.
When the waste arrives at the land farms such as WFI Waste Facilities Inc. in Premont, it is loaded into a storage cell where the diesel and liquid components evaporate out and the remaining dirt is turned over until it’s dry. Then it’s sent to a lab for testing, and if deemed clear of contaminants they are then dumped into a pit and buried in clean soil, according to Zertuche.
He also said another way of disposing of the waste is to mix it with ash and dirt and then spread it onto a hillside.
“They just put it on the ground and it just stays there forever, I guess,” Zertuche said.
Hauled across counties
Some of the nearby disposal sites are located in Fowlerton, Premont, Palito Blanco and Gonzales and can only be opened with a permit from the Texas Railroad Commission. This means waste from Live Oak and McMullen counties must be hauled across the counties and through Three Rivers, George West and Tilden before reaching their dump sites.
The waste doesn’t just leak from the bottoms of haulers, but from the tops as well when haulers move waste in trailers not designed for it. This causes waste to come up off the back while in transit and splatter vehicles and the road, or slosh to the side when making a turn.
“We had several drivers call in and say they were following a guy who was spilling. We’ve been able to get some that way but people don’t generally call it in,” Zertuche said. “People just drive over it and on it. I don’t know if they are just unaware or don’t want to get involved but somebody has got to see it; it’s daylight and they are driving everywhere.”
Watch out, Tilden
Zertuche said spills and leaks are becoming less common in Jim Wells County as oil companies, haulers and law enforcement become familiar with the laws. But, he also said issues are starting to surface in areas where they were less common such as Tilden.
“They said you could go to town at the Valero station (in Tilden) writing people up,” Zertuche said.
Incidents of leaking or spilled waste have decreased in Jim Wells County because other sites have opened in the north end of the Eagle Ford Shale, according to Zertuche.
“We were having 24-hour trucks coming here,” Zertuche said. “We could find 30 in the site itself and seven or eight waiting to go in. Now we see one or two because they don’t have to travel down to us.”
Live Oak County Sheriff Larry Busby said there haven’t been any recent reports of improper waste disposal or leaking in Live Oak County.
“I’m sure it’s happened some,” Busby said. “It’s a bit easier (to catch) in McMullen because they don’t have as many roads.”
The EPA says radioactive material isn’t necessarily present at every drilling site, but in areas such as the Midwest or Gulf Coast states, the soil is more likely to contain radioactive material.
The waste contains radium-226, radium-228, and radon gas. On-site workers are most likely to be exposed to the alpha and gamma radiation released during the decay process through inhalation, raising the risk of lung or skin cancer, the EPA said. But, radium can leak into groundwater as well.
The EPA says the general public could be exposed to TENORM from oil and gas drilling when sites that were active prior to the mid-1970s, when regulations went into effect, are released for public use. The public could also be exposed when contaminated equipment is reused.
When smaller quantities are found on the road they are covered in sand and scraped to the side of the road, Zertuche said.