On Tuesday morning, roughly 10 percent of Nordheim residents (population 316 at last count) once again pulled on their yellow “Concerned About Pollution” T-shirts, drove two hours north to Austin and told Texas regulators that they did not want to live next to an oil and gas waste site roughly half their town’s size.
Many in the rural DeWitt County community had done some version of this exercise several times over the past two or three years. They say their way of life would be threatened by a proposed 143-acre facility that would be used to store waste including drill cuttings, oil-based muds, fracking sand and other toxic oilfield leftovers.
Most of the residents figured they’d return home officially defeated. They were correct.
The Texas Railroad Commission on Tuesday voted 3-0 to allow San Antonio-based Pyote Reclamation Systems to build the facility, effectively ending one of the first organized protests against industry activity in South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale.
“That’s what you call a little town getting shit on,” 80-year-old Kermit Koehler, who lives a few miles outside of Nordheim, said minutes after the vote.
In the end, the case highlighted gaps in bureaucracy that prevented the commission, charged with only evaluating groundwater effects, from taking into account residents’ other quality-of-life concerns. Those include the site’s possible foul smell, new trucks expected to rumble down already cracked local roads and the facility’s proximity to a school.
“I’ll be candid — I don’t like the site,” said Commissioner Ryan Sitton, who met with Nordheim residents last fall in an unpublicized visit. He was the lone commissioner to weigh in at Tuesday's open meeting.
He added, however, that he had no other choice because experts at the agency determined that safeguards at the facility would properly protect groundwater in the area and because they could not evaluate other concerns.
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. Once the facility is up and running, however, it could be subject to air nuisance laws.
No state or local agency has authority to address the land use and traffic concerns. The facility would border Nordheim but not sit within city limits.
Shortly before approving the permit, Sitton issued an unusual warning: “Because they’ve chosen to build this site so closely to residents, the margin of error is exceptionally small,” he told an attorney for the waste company. “Don’t screw this up.”
CEO George Wommack told The Texas Tribune that his company’s facility is “best in class” and “the most highly engineered” such landfill that the commission has ever permitted.
“We care very much about these people,” he said.
The commission ultimately required Pyote to beef up groundwater safeguards so that the waste won't flow out of retention ponds on site during worst-case flooding scenarios. Grant Chambless, who manages the agency’s environmental permits and support staff, said he "was very confident that the risks have been addressed."
Wommack said Pyote would iron out the additional quality-of-life concerns with local residents. “Now is the time that we can get some stuff figured out.”
Drilling and fracking a well leaves operators liable for vast amounts of liquid waste. They typically get rid of that waste by sending it 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. That’s the type of waste Pyote’s facility would handle.
The facility 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 company says thick clay lies beneath the land, providing an extra layer of protection for the groundwater underneath. Wommack said the spot in question is ideal for waste disposal. It sits in prime Eagle Ford drilling acreage, not far from the highway. And plenty of nearby drillers still need a spot to unload their waste — even amid the industry’s epic slowdown over the past two years.
But Nordheim doesn’t want it. Over the past two years, more than 200 people — including local state lawmakers and DeWitt County Judge Daryl Fowler — urged the commission to reject the permit.
State Rep. Geanie Morrison, R-Victoria, stood with her constituents throughout the long-winding protest. The waste site would “cause this community great problems,” she told the commissioners. Still, she recognized the agency’s narrow jurisdiction and vowed to work during the 2017 legislative session on plugging such regulatory gaps.
The Railroad Commission is already set to undergo particular scrutiny next year, as lawmakers consider recommendations from the state Sunset Advisory Commission.
“I want to offer to work with you during the sunset process,” she said to the commission. “Help me make this a better process.”
The acknowledgements and promises did not make Nordheim residents feel any better.
“My roadrunners are going to be gone, my jackrabbits are going to be gone, and my brother and nephew [who live next to the site] are going to be gone,” Paul Baumann, a retiree of the DuPont chemical company who owns ranchland bordering the site, told the commissioners.
After the vote, he told the Texas Tribune that he was “really disappointed.”
“Disgusted” is the word that Lynn Janssen kept using. Her ranch house sits just down a dirt road from the soon-to-be waste site.
“What recourse do people have? This is it,” she said. “To think that they can permit something that they don’t like, there’s something wrong with that.”
Will Nordheim, with its aging population, survive the new development?
“No,” Janssen said. “People won’t send their kids to school there. They’ll go somewhere else.”