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Drilling Waste Plan Roils South Texas Town

Nordheim, population 307, is the site of one of the first organized protests in the heart of the Eagle Ford. Many of its residents are fighting to keep out a massive disposal facility for oil and gas waste — a sight that could become more common as energy producers search for places to dispose of their leftovers.

Paul Baumann's property, owned by his family for generations, is directly next to a proposed drilling waste dump in the small town of Nordheim. He, along with other concerned citizens, are protesting the dump as they fear it will pollute and ruin their way of life.

NORDHEIM — Paul Baumann proudly listed his hometown’s features as he drove his Ford truck down its empty Main Street: “One grocery store, two bars, one cafe, one beauty salon and one shooting club.” He pointed to the local school that houses students from kindergarten through 12th grade — which recently underwent a major remodel thanks to a $3 million bond vote.

But Baumann’s tone turned somber when he addressed what he and his neighbors are fighting to keep out: a 143-acre oil and gas waste plant that developers hope to build just outside of this town of about 300.

“This is going to affect the whole area with the smell,” said Baumann, who retired from the DuPont chemical company and owns ranchland. The proposed facility would border Baumann’s hayfield and a rental property.

“After they put in the pits, I won’t be able to rent it out,” he added.

The proposed site — about half the size of Nordheim — would accept truckloads of solid waste from the surrounding Eagle Ford Shale and hold millions of gallons of toxic sludge from drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

Pyote Reclamation Systems of San Antonio, the site’s developer, insists its facility would be safe. But those assurances have failed to quell one of the first organized protests in the heart of South Texas’ drilling country — a sight that could become more common as energy producers search for places to dispose of their leftovers.

Signs with messages like “Don’t dump on Nordheim” have cropped up along the highway and country roads between here and Yorktown, about 10 miles away. And more than 200 people — including two state lawmakers and the county judge — have sent letters to the Railroad Commission of Texas asking the oil and gas regulator to deny Pyote permits to build and operate the facility. They have shared fears that pollutants would leach into groundwater, that winds would carry volatile compounds outside of the site and that heavy truck traffic would tear up roads.

Despite this noise, these opponents are the underdogs. The Railroad Commission’s engineers have expressed support for Pyote’s application. And because the agency’s jurisdiction is mostly limited to groundwater impacts, it cannot factor in concerns about traffic, air pollution or quality of life.

“There’s no concept of land use planning, if you will, for those types of facilities,” said Jim Bradbury, an environmental lawyer who has been involved in cases concerning other solid waste facilities. Bradbury said that while these types of facilities were necessary for shale development, there was no forum for locals to say that “they shouldn’t be right here.”

Not everyone in the area is opposed to the waste facility. Pete Dlugosch, a Yorktown businessman who owns the land Pyote is considering, has pushed back against the protests.

In March, he sent letters to local residents assuring them that the facility would be “state of the art” and “comply with the strict environmental standards established by regulatory authorities.” Calls to Dlugosch’s listed number were not answered.

Drilling and fracking a well leaves operators liable for vast amounts of waste. They typically get rid of liquid waste by sending it away to be injected into disposal wells deep underground. But operators must send solid waste such as drill cuttings, oil-based muds, fracking sand and other toxic substances to above-ground sites.

Pyote’s facility would handle that type of waste. The site would include a mix of lined disposal pits and land treatment cells where more benign waste would be scattered and allowed to mix with soil.

The Railroad Commission has permitted 20 such facilities statewide, most of which are in South Texas, and it is considering permits for two dozen others.

About 30 Nordheim residents — a 10th of the town’s residents — attended a three-day hearing last month in Austin to contest Pyote’s permits. 

The hearing resembled a trial in which companies and their critics presented evidence and testimony in front of an administrative law judge, who later issues a nonbinding decision that might sway regulators’ opinions.

In the Pyote case, the judge’s decision is likely months away — and the Railroad Commission will make its decision after that.

“We moved here to live and to be old,” Barbara Fulbright, who lives less than two miles from the proposed site, said at the hearing. “My 150 acres will be worthless. No one wants to live on a road with oil and gas waste.”

John Soule, a lawyer for the waste company, assured those at the hearing that “Pyote is certainly not going to be doing anything on the cheap,” and that “they want to be good neighbors.”

“Like every one of you, they have the right to use their property in any manner that is legal,” he said.

The company says the Nordheim site is ideal for waste disposal. It sits not far from the highway and is surrounded by drillers needing to unload waste. Pyote says its tests show that a 25-foot-thick layer of clay lies beneath the land, providing an extra layer of protection for the groundwater underneath.

Supporters of the site emphasize that it would only house materials classified as “nonhazardous” by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, though that does not necessarily mean they are safe for humans to breathe. In 1988, the agency exempted oil and gas wastes from its list of hazardous materials, though previous studies showed that some emit high levels of toxic compounds such as benzene.

Meanwhile, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s air regulator, has limited jurisdiction over such facilities, and only those with certain types of equipment require air permits to operate.

Andrea Morrow, an agency spokeswoman, said Pyote had not contacted the agency, so it did not have details on the proposal. But the facility could be subject to air nuisance laws once it is up and running, she said.

Though many people following the fight expect the Railroad Commission to grant Pyote permission to open the facility, approval has not come easy. In June 2013, the commission denied Pyote’s initial application. Its letter to the company said the plant “may cause or allow pollution to surface or subsurface waters,” and identified 38 areas of concern, including those related to the strength of the site’s proposed waste pit liners, its proximity to water wells and its ability to capture runoff after rains.

After Pyote responded to those points and made changes to its application, the commission’s staff recommended the permit.

Sitting in the living room of her ranch house just down a dirt road from the proposed waste site, Lynn Janssen said such a decision would only complicate life for her fellow ranchers.

“It’s a struggle because you gamble against the weather,” she said. “You’d like to be able to say, ‘Please, not this.’”

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