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Practice lays waste to land

Profile image for By Spike Johnson / For the Denton Record-Chronicle and Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer
By Spike Johnson / For the Denton Record-Chronicle and Peggy Heinkel-Wolfe / Staff Writer

It's 3 a.m.

Dick Ross lies awake in bed as 18-wheelers crawl past his house. Their headlights stream through his window. They are waiting to dump drilling waste on a corn farm 50 feet from his front door. The concoction is a mystery to him, except that when it blows through the air, it strips the paint off his house.

For two years, he has fought the Texas Railroad Commission over permit violations involving the dumpsite, submitting photos of trucks dumping waste at all hours of the night and letters demanding that his neighbor's dumpsite be tested for contamination, as required by law. His campaign to shut down the dumpsite triggered threats of litigation from the waste haulers and a giant pile of e-mail correspondence from commission staff, attorneys and scientists assuring him that the dumpsite doesn't pose any health risks. ALSO ONLINE

  Map of known locations

  XTO permits

  Other Hill County permits

  Industry survey of waste management

  Texas Railroad Commission guidelines for waste management


With 14,000 gas wells and a maze of pipelines and production equipment, the country's need for a cleaner fuel conflicts with the fast-growing cities and suburbs in 23 North Texas counties above the Barnett Shale.

• SUNDAY: In the small town of Dish, the proliferation of gas industry equipment is creating an atmosphere of concern.

•  Atmosphere of concern

•  Industry fueling region's transformation

•  Dawn Cobb: Citizens of the Shale

• MONDAY: Flower Mound, recognized for its "SmartGrowth" planning, now grapples with the changes of a budding gas industry.

•  Defending the Mound

• TUESDAY: Water, a precious resource in a high-growth state, could be under threat by a process known as hydraulic fracturing that is used to extract gas from deep underground.

•  Just below the surface

• WEDNESDAY: As other states question hydraulic fracturing, Texas continues the practice amid claims the state is ill-equipped to monitor it closely. Also: A look at cement's role in gas drilling.

•  Hard work ahead

•  Cement plays vital role in drilling

• TODAY: Six million people live above some 27 trillion cubic feet of gas in the Barnett Shale, now at the center of attention among policy-makers looking to balance the industry and North Texas lifestyles. Also: A look at a practice known as "landfarming."

•  Striking the balance

•  Attack was 'pure chaos'

Today, sitting on the wooden porch of his rural Hillsboro home in Hill County, Ross, 64, contemplates his plans for a peaceful pursuit: raising South African Boer goats on his small 10-acre farm.

"My advice to anyone dealing with the gas industry: Sell your whole place, get the hell out," Ross says. "They cheat you out of your money, wreck your view and destroy your property value."

Yet, even as he contemplates retirement, the former educational supplies salesman is continuing his fight against the Railroad Commission's permitting process by providing guidance to others who are protesting dumpsites in their own communities.

Ross and other farmers find it hard to reconcile Texans' storied love of the land with the growing practice of spreading tons of drilling mud and other toxic waste across it, a process euphemistically called "landfarming."

As the state's permits for natural gas drilling in the Barnett Shale region soar, more and more parcels of the Texas prairie are being turned into dumping grounds for disposing of the industry's waste - increasing the thousands of approved "landfarms" already in existence.

About 1.2 barrels of solid waste are created with each foot drilled, according to the American Petroleum Institute. Simply to reach the approximate 8,000-foot depth of a Barnett Shale gas well, drilling creates more than 9,600 barrels, or 403,200 gallons, of solid waste. That does not take into account any horizontal drilling performed after reaching that depth. For the 14,000 Barnett Shale wells drilled so far, the waste would cover the entire city of Fort Worth in more than an inch of drill cuttings, slurry, heavy metals and other toxic compounds.

The Environmental Protection Agency is set to study much of the lifecycle of hydraulic fracturing - the controversial process of pressure-pumping chemical-laden water to release the gas - including the final disposition of millions of barrels of wastewater that flows back with the gas.

But far less attention has been paid to the tons of drilling mud and other solids being spread across the land.

Some landowners open their gates and bank accounts to the industry's need to dump the waste, oblivious to environmental risks. While official eyes are averted, permits to dump are stretched beyond their limits. And as neighbors eye each other with increasing distrust, millions of gallons of toxic waste are spread on the land, sometimes overflowing into waterways, sometimes becoming airborne and blowing across the prairie.

The 986 square miles of Hill County has around 35,000 residents. Much of the land is owned by ranchers and farmers.

"These people believe what they're told - that this waste is safe," Ross says. "Now their crops won't grow."

The landfarm near Ross' home was properly permitted within the regulations current at that time, according to Railroad Commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye. After Ross complained to the commission, an inspector tested the landfarm for NORM, naturally occurring radioactive material often present in drilling waste, and found readings "within background levels for NORM" in the soil, Nye wrote in an e-mail.

The Railroad Commission has jurisdiction as long as the soil is on the ground. Once dried and airborne, that's a different matter.

The agency doesn't have jurisdiction over air quality - that belongs to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

This land is perched above the Barnett Shale, a 350 million-year-old rock formation beneath much of North Texas. The U.S. Geological Survey has estimated the Barnett Shale contains about 30 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves. Currently the largest natural gas play in the world, industry officials say, the Barnett Shale is a source of significant corporate profit and the country's natural gas transformation.

In 2008, Ross noticed changes in his view after XTO Energy Inc. secured permits to dump the equivalent of 35 Olympic-sized swimming pools of drilling waste on the Kimbrell family farmland opposite his front door.

Lines of trucks would form through the night to dump their loads, which were later found to be outside of permit regulations. Ross made open records requests of the Railroad Commission and found that the daily toxicity tests for the waste, required by state rules, were never carried out or enforced. Ross began to worry for the health of his animals as a white dust from the landfarm opposite settled on their grass and feed. He worried about a decline in his property value, too.

"I could feel the air sting my skin and make my eyes burn," Ross says.

His complaints sparked threats of legal action. The landowner and family living on the farm next door even followed him when he went to town, Ross says. Trucks would sound their horns and spin their wheels as they passed his house.

Meanwhile, permit applications for the site came into the Railroad Commission and were approved by e-mail the next day, without a site inspection or toxicity tests. Nothing in the process allows for public notice, for either comment or protest, on the dumping.

Minor permits, such as a one-time, off-site dumping of water-based drilling fluid, are good for only 60 days, Nye wrote.

"Landfarming is a method of treatment and disposal of low toxicity wastes in which the wastes are spread upon, and sometimes mixed into soils," Nye wrote.

Searching for help, Ross approached the Environmental Protection Agency regional office in Dallas and TCEQ. They told him they couldn't help; they had no jurisdiction. When Ross complained to the Railroad Commission, he says he felt they didn't care what he had to say about the matter. He says he couldn't find an attorney to take his case.

As the line of dump trucks grew, Ross became determined and decided to take action alone. By putting enough pressure on state officials, he hoped to force the closure of the disposal site.

"If I didn't stick up for myself, no one was going to," Ross says.

He sits in worn armchair in his front room, wearing carpet slippers. His black Labrador sits at his feet as he gazes out of his window. His house wall and the narrow asphalt road are all that separate him from the 111-acre dump next door. He has no choice, he says, but to watch the quagmire of brown earth and toxic waste being smeared around the landscape by rusty bulldozers.

Shale gas production requires massive resources - huge swaths of land, giant drilling rigs, countless trucks and many man-hours. Each well is drilled using thousands of barrels of drilling mud and fluids, then "fracked" by pumping between 1 million and 7 million gallons of chemical-laden water to crack the rock and release the gas.

For North Texas, drilling horizontally under residential areas and the new fracking technique means that once unobtainable gas is now up for grabs. About 14,000 wells have been drilled in the 23 counties of the Barnett Shale; another 3,300 have been permitted, including new permits to drill in Hamilton County.

To deal with the solid waste, the Texas Railroad Commission administers three types of permits for landfarms. A minor permit goes to operations of lowest impact. The minor permit allows a single operator to spread waste from one drilling site on a small area of land, usually about 3 acres. A centralized landfarm, a much larger area of land, allows an operator to spread waste for a number of its drill sites. Both minor dumps and centralized landfarms are typically issued permits that last for two years. A commercial landfarm can accept waste from multiple operators and many drill sites.

Minor permits require a soil test between 30 and 90 days after landfarming, "which limits the amount of waste spread, and include pH and metal limitations that should protect agricultural safety," says Travis Baer, an engineering specialist with the Railroad Commission.

Soil toxicity testing at the landfarm is trusted to the operator because waste disposed under minor permits is considered not necessarily toxic.

As a result, the Railroad Commission doesn't pursue operators if soil tests are late, or nonexistent.

Information on minor permits obtained through an open records request shows three regional offices taking widely different approaches in tracking minor permits in their jurisdiction. Not all of them tracked the number of acres affected, or the precise location. Records of soil tests showed up on only a handful of the thousands of permits being tracked.

The Abilene office tracks minor permits for the western counties of the Barnett Shale, with about 188,020 barrels of waste on the books for 2009, 216,110 barrels of waste in 2010, and 5,860 barrels so far in 2011. The Wichita Falls office tracks the northern counties, with about 755,300 barrels of waste on the books for the same time period. The Kilgore office tracked exponentially more waste being dumped by minor permit in the southern counties, about 5 million barrels in all, with more than 4.6 million of those barrels being dumped in Tarrant and Johnson counties.

Centralized and commercial landfarm permits are different because they involve large volumes of waste and pose a greater potential for pollution, according to Railroad Commission officials.

Ross estimates from the permit limits that more than 2 million gallons of drilling mud were dumped on the landfarm next door.

Drilling fluids contain long lists of hazardous chemicals and heavy metals. XTO's own literature lists arsenic, lead, mercury and barium as possible ingredients. Some chemicals are powerful carcinogens or possibly harmful to the brain and nervous system. Others could interfere with the development of unborn children.

David Sterling, a professor of environmental health at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, voiced concerns about the possibility of benzene and formaldehyde being dumped on farms, along with "certain amounts of radioactivity increase because fracking fluid would have been amongst heavy rock," he said. "Depending on [the] chemicals [present], there are different potentials for health impacts."

Bought by ExxonMobil in a $41 million, all-stock deal last year, XTO applied to the Railroad Commission for a minor permit to landfarm on 111 acres opposite Ross in 2008.

On the application, company officials indicated that there were no waterways or homes in the area, that adjacent landowners would be notified and that the operation would accept only the company's own waste.

The company applied to spread 32,400 cubic yards of drilling cuttings - any mud and rock displaced from the drill hole - and 120,000 barrels of waste per year across the site. The operation would raise the ground less than half an inch, according to the application.

The Denton Record-Chronicle attempted to interview XTO officials about the permits. In response, company spokesman Jeffrey W. Neu sent a written statement saying they followed state rules in obtaining the permits from the Railroad Commission.

"We have a proud history of safe operations and are committed to working with residents to address any concerns they have," Neu wrote. "Our own experience and compliance with municipal, state and federal regulations demonstrate that our operations can be conducted safely and in an environmentally responsible manner."

In order to allow landfarming on such a large site, Ross learned that state officials apparently agreed to issue 36 separate, 3-acre permits for "cells." Each minor permit was issued for two months at a time, then renewed, until the landfarm reached its capacity or the time limit was reached.

Yet, the Railroad Commission can produce records for only 16 of the 36 cells.

From 2008 to 2010, as the waste was plowed into the ground next door, Ross watched white dust billow into the air. He worried for the health of his goats and his horses as a fine powder settled over his house and land, but information he needed to assess that risk was nowhere to be found.

"I have not been able to find one soil test for the last five years for any of the landfarms in Texas," Ross says.

He began to spend less time with his animals. He spent four hours a day at his desk writing e-mails and making phone calls, protesting the dumpsite. As he invested more time in his cause, he found that the slew of complex processes and loopholes required research.

He learned that minor permits would only allow Justin-based Chaney Trucking to dump waste. Yet, over the life of the landfarm, Ross photographed many other truck companies dumping in the early morning hours.

"You don't drive 200 miles at night to dump unless something's wrong," he says.

He learned that to protest a minor permit application before it is issued, the case must be evaluated in the Railroad Commission's main office in Austin.

Yet, when he tried to appeal XTO's landfarm, he found that Railroad Commission employee Carl Gardner, who retiredin August 2010, was receiving and granting permit applications by e-mail within a day - without soil tests or site inspections - leaving no time for a protest to be launched.

He learned that minor permits were granted to XTO, yet approval letters for the same site were also being sent to Chesapeake Energy and Devon Energy, allowing them to spread 2,500 barrels of waste at a time.

"It was just nonstop - there were 10 trucks at a time," Ross says.

Eventually, state and company officials telephoned Ross to answer his concerns.

He learned that plans were not for two years of landfarming, as stated on the minor permits, but five years.

Even though the plans were for a landfarm of the length and scope of a commercial project, none of the soil testing, reporting and inspections occurred.

The Railroad Commission has since revised its guidelines so that large areas of land cannot be dissected into cells with minor permits, Nye said. Large areas of land require centralized permits.

In September 2009, Ross sent photos to state and federal officials of huge quantities of waste and rainwater from the landfarm washing out a section of County Road 4114 and washing into the adjoining farm.

Two weeks later, documents show Railroad Commission inspector Roger Satterwhite went to the site to assess the runoff. Fellow employee Chris Evers, an engineering specialist, closed the complaint with a letter citing Statewide Rule 8, that "drilling fluid and drill cuttings are not considered hazardous."

When Ross contacted TCEQ to request tests of soil and air, he was told that although they were sympathetic to his concerns about contamination, they had no jurisdiction. Agency officials advised him that as long as the rules of the minor permit were followed, there should be no contamination.

"Tell them to come up here when the soil's all white and the corn won't grow," Ross recalls saying.

Ross recalls watching his neighbor Todd Kimbrell drive his big rig past his house, and downshift to make noise. Although Ross never dealt with him directly, he figured the intention was to scare him.

Attempts to contact Kimbrell by calling the contact phone number on the landfarm application were unsuccessful.

"They'd get in their trucks and pretty much follow me everywhere," Ross says.

He received a number of letters from the Kimbrell family's attorney, telling him that if he didn't stop his protests, legal action would be taken against him.

Ross watched his neighbor plow and plant on the land immediately after dumping had ceased, and after a year, a scarce crop of corn came up.

There are no Texas regulations governing how much time must pass between the end of landfarming and when crops can be grown on the site.

"Weeds wouldn't grow on it for a year," Ross says.

He watched as even rainwater wouldn't seep into the soil during drought.

Crops such as corn will not necessarily ingest and pass on carcinogenic substances from industry waste, according to Travis Wilson, of the Texas Agri-Life Extension Service.

However, "heavy metals from soil will certainly be taken up by plant life," he said.

Cadmium, lead, silver and arsenic are all listed as part of the waste spread on the corn field next to Ross.

Ross believes his efforts paid off in getting the landfarm shut down, although the Railroad Commission says the permits simply expired and were not renewed in 2009.

Still, Johnson County residents contacted Ross recently. A landfarm had been set up near them.

"I told them who to speak to and what questions to ask," he says.

Throughout his two-year struggle, Ross had compiled a giant pile of e-mail correspondence with various Railroad Commission staff, attorneys, scientists and government agencies.

He was able to provide the Johnson County residents with a step-by-step guide on how to shut down a landfarm.

"I should start charging consultancy fees," he jokes.

He says he isn't done yet. He plans to continue his fight against the Railroad Commission's lax permitting process. He describes another landfarm close to his home that he pressed to close.

Closing two landfarms isn't much of a victory. Ross is battling with a regulatory agency that has permitted more than 2,300 landfarms in the Barnett Shale region, and will continue to allow new crops of farmers to open their gates for the tilling of toxic waste across the Texas prairie.