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Small South Texas town upset about oil and gas waste dump

AUSTIN, Texas — The small South Texas town of Nordheim, population 307, is none too happy about the prospect of oil and gas drilling waste — enough to fill the Empire State Building — getting buried in its backyard.

But the Texas Railroad Commission is likely to approve the controversial South Texas dump Tuesday despite heavy opposition from elected officials who represent the area, echoing issues of local control that played out in the Capitol during the last legislative session. Pyote Reclamation Systems wants to build the facility on a 200-acre tract a quarter of a mile outside Nordheim, on the southeastern fringe of the Eagle Ford fracking patch.

George Wommack, CEO of Petro Waste Environmental, which will operate the facility, has told hearing examiners with the Railroad Commission, which regulates oil and gas drilling, that the proposed site is ideal to meet the waste disposal needs of the industry in DeWitt County.

The nearest comparable waste facility is about 75 miles away.

Even though it is classified as a nonhazardous dump, the project faces considerable opposition: The city of Nordheim, DeWitt County and local school districts have passed resolutions of concern; the county resolution, for instance, called on the Railroad Commission to deny the permit if the health, safety and welfare of schoolchildren and other members of the public couldn’t be guaranteed.

Neighbors have organized, citing worries about groundwater pollution — the community water wells are situated within a mile of the site — property values and road wear from the trucks transporting the waste. They plan to make by bus the two-hour drive to Austin to appear before the commission.

“I don’t have anything against the waste, I just don’t want it so close to my town,” Nordheim Mayor Katherine Payne told the Austin American-Statesman.

State Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, who represents the area and heads the House Environmental Regulation Committee, said the Railroad Commission should defer to people who would be most affected by the operation and deny the application.

Still, Railroad Commission hearing examiners in February recommended the commissioners approve the facility, saying that it meets state requirements and pointing to measures, such as a 4-foot-tall earthen berm, that are meant to keep any flood of waste from flowing to other properties.

The facility “will not cause the pollution of fresh surface and subsurface water,” wrote the examiners. They noted that traffic and roadway safety measures aren’t in the commission’s jurisdiction.

And as for the broader concern of the community that the facility will generally adversely impact their community, the examiners wrote that state rules do “not provide discretion to the Examiners, or require the Examiners to find, that a proposed facility is in the public interest prior to a permit being issued.”

The commissioners — elected officials who receive much of their campaign contributions from the oil and gas industry — have generally shown themselves to be sympathetic to business interests in their decision-making.

In related news, Questions and answers about damaging oilfield wastewater.

Commission Chairman David Porter declined to comment because the application is pending.

Under the proposal, the Nordheim site, which sits by a key road that cuts through the Eagle Ford Shale area, could take as many as 1.4 million cubic yards of waste, which Wommack said will largely be earth and crushed rock pulled out as part of the drilling process.

The new site’s location will mean fewer overall waste runs by trucks in the shale field and will add jobs, he said.

Approval of the Nordheim facility echoes a running dispute during the last legislative session involving oil and gas regulation and local control.

In November, voters of the North Texas city of Denton approved a ban on fracking within their city limits. But state lawmakers essentially overturned the ban, clarifying that oil and gas regulation sits with state authorities.

(This month, a Denton County district judge dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Texas Oil and Gas Association against the city of Denton over the November referendum because it is now moot.)

“This feels like it’s a David and Goliath battle,” said Wil Baumann, who grew up in Nordheim and now lives in Sun City in Williamson County, with the Railroad Commission playing the Goliath role, “but it doesn’t always turn out like it does in the Bible.”

Lyn Janssen, who has lived in Nordheim over half a century and who runs cattle on her property less than 2 miles from the proposed waste site, said she is frustrated at the prospect of the project’s approval.

“It’s human nature to be upset when they threaten your way of life and ability to live where you are,” she said. “Why don’t our elected state officials listen to the people?”

In a twist, the biggest hurdle to the project’s future might not be local opposition but a depression in the market: Oil and gas exploration has slowed as the price of fossil fuels has plunged.

The city, for example, had been getting $5,000 a month in oil and gas royalties, a hefty amount in a town with a single blinking traffic light. But lately the royalties have dropped to $3,000 a month, Payne said.

Wommack, who also has proposals for waste sites in other parts of the state, said his facility is a long-term investment.

“We want to be able to operate this as long as there’s drilling activity,” he said.

Asked whether he has made any agreement with the city or the county to give them a portion of waste proceeds, a typical arrangement in many landfill cases, Wommack said he is open to talks.

According to the Railroad Commission examiners’ report, Wommack requested several changes to the permit to address concerns from residents, including an expansion of groundwater monitoring. And certain kinds of waste will get special treatment to tamp down air pollution.

“We want to be the best possible neighbors,” Wommack said.

Information from: Austin American-Statesman, http://www.statesman.com

This article was written by Asher Price from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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