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Tiny Nordheim Sues State Over Drilling Waste Dump

A tiny South Texas town is continuing its fight against an oil and gas waste site half its size, even after regulators gave its developer the go-ahead. Residents of Nordheim, population 316, are suing the Texas Railroad Commission.

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.

A tiny South Texas town is continuing to fight plans for an oil and gas waste site half its size, even after state regulators gave developers the go-ahead to build it. 

A citizen's group in Nordheim — population 316 at last count — is suing the Texas Railroad Commission, challenging the petroleum regulator’s decision to permit a facility that would store waste including drill cuttings, oil-based muds, fracking sand and other toxic oilfield leftovers.

Filed late last month in Travis County district court, the lawsuit argues that the commission's three members erred in May when they unanimously approved the development by San Antonio-based Pyote Reclamation Systems. 

It’s the DeWitt County community’s last-ditch effort to thwart the site, prolonging one of the first organized protests against industry activity in South Texas’ Eagle Ford Shale. Residents say the project threatens their way of life.

“I’m hoping it’ll stop it,” said Paul Baumann, a retiree of the DuPont chemical company who owns ranch land bordering the waste site. “I was happy to see we had another option. I think the railroad commission was wrong.”

Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the commission, said she could not comment on pending litigation but that “it is important to know that protection of public safety and natural resources is our highest priority.”   

Nordheim’s yearslong protest has gained attention in state energy circles, if only because of residents’ persistence. 

It has also highlighted gaps in bureaucracy that prevented the commission, charged only with 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.

The waste 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.

Pyote says thick clay lies beneath the land, providing an extra layer of protection for the groundwater, and it calls the spot in question, which nudges Nordheim’s border, ideal for waste disposal.

But folks in Nordheim don't want it. Over the past two years, more than 200 people — including local state lawmakers and DeWitt County Judge Daryl Fowler — have asked regulators to reject the permit.

Several times over the saga, dozens of residents — often wearing matching t-shirts — drove two hours north to Austin to voice their opposition before the commission. At one meeting, that included most of the Nordheim High Pirates senior class.

When the commissioners finally granted approval, Commissioner Ryan Sitton said he did not like the site, what with its proximity to residents. But he had no other choice but to approve it, he said, 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.

George Wommack, Pyote's CEO, said that the facility, slated for construction in mid-2017, will be safe.

“We have taken great lengths to ensure our company has designed a facility that exceeds all of the regulatory requirements, and the Railroad Commission has ruled that we have done so,” he said Tuesday. “We’re very confident that the district court will uphold that ruling.”

The 16-page lawsuit alleges that the commission erred in several ways when granting the permit — including by allowing Pyote to revise its application multiple times over the permitting process.

Allowing too many supplements violates agency rules, the lawsuit alleges.

Jim Bradbury, an environmental lawyer who has been involved in cases concerning other solid waste facilities, said Pyote’s “fairly extraordinary set of amendments and supplements” suggested that its application was “a pretty big mess.”

Still, the lawsuit would be hard to win, he said. “They have a slim chance of getting something based on procedural irregularities, but this is an administrative appeal of an agency decision, which carries with it a very powerful standard of deference to the agency."

Baumann said he was optimistic that the judge would side with his community, though he admitted he's not schooled in the case's finer legal points.

“It’s just something to see how our legal system works,” he said.

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