BLOOMINGTON – Massive, rusted tanks block the front view from Lucy Morales’ Bloomington home.
The tanks and oil wells that were commonplace during the Amerada-Hess drilling heyday of the late 1940s are moving back into the community. With that, disposal wells are spreading, and companies are pulling permits for sites inside city limits.
“I think we need to do something about it,” Morales said. “I think we need to try to stop it.”
Victoria County residents line both sides of the fence when it comes to disposal wells. As oil and gas production in the Eagle Ford Shale continues and fracking continues producing millions of barrels of wastewater, companies are looking for places to dispose of it.
Industry personnel say the water is stored securely in wells drilled thousands of feet deep. However, the wells cross aquifers residents’ lives depend on, the injection pressure of the water often exceeds permitted values, and lists of chemicals in the water are not always made public.
While the disposal wells are seen almost as tradeoff to the blessings of oil, Morales is organizing residents, educators, groundwater conservation members, health professionals and local elected officials to protest a saltwater injection well proposed by the Houston-based company Petrodome Operating LLC.
Life after the boom
Along Melrose and Nueces streets and at the corner of Indiana and Seventh streets, exposed pipelines line the pavement in front of metal fabricated cottages rented to “newcomers” at $125 a month.
“They’re from the oil field, chemical plants, all over,” Victoria County Commissioner Danny Garcia said about the tenants. Some come because they can’t afford to live anywhere else.
“So this is life after the oil boom,” Garcia said.
Bloomington’s population lingers about 2,500 – the majority is Hispanic, and almost 23percent is living below the poverty line, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. The unemployment rate sits at 6 percent, just below the national average, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
The unincorporated town has a school district and a post office, a handful of taco joints and a dollar store. Traffic comes on schedule as the trudging train rolls by, blocking the main road in and out of town.
Morales said the town missed its opportunity to incorporate. Without ordinances to enforce community standards, residents live in dilapidated homes along rutted streets, out of sight, about 12 miles from the county seat.
Garcia is taking charge to be the town’s voice, to make life better.
Across a rusted cattle guard off Key Road, brittle mesquite trees line the road to a former saltwater pit.
The distinct odor of oil leaches from the dirt, coating ditches and puddles with a thick sheen throughout the field.
“This is what’s left after the oil boom,” Garcia said. “Tell me why the grass doesn’t grow there. Is there something in the water? There’s something there.”
It’s another reminder of the community’s past life and the prosperity that’s now gone.
“It’s just a hole they dug up and dumped whatever they wanted in,” Garcia said. “You can tell by the sand – it’s salt.”
The well, used by XOG Operating, is surrounded by clumps of oil, dead grass and dead mesquite trees.
“Why is this one dead and those aren’t?” Garcia asked, pointing to a row of lifeless trees.
The Railroad Commission of Texas, which monitors the oil and gas industry, reported in 2011 that there has never been a recorded case of frack fluid entering a water table.
That record doesn’t appease Bloomington residents. The property is ungated, unsupervised.
Garcia worries about reckless teenagers trespassing in the field, the potential for an accident and the unavoidable day a student falls into one of the open pits.
He worries that it’s upstream from the school’s water well, creating the potential for disaster.
About 200 feet away, the oil company’s property backs up to residences on Fifth Street.
For those homeowners, “it’s all they can afford,” Garcia said. “And they don’t have a clue it’s here.”
‘It was terrible’
Morales, who has made her name in the community as an outspoken activist, spearheaded the petition effort to protest one of the most recent disposal well applications in Bloomington, this one from Petrodome, a Houston-based company proposing a site north of the community’s water supply.
Morales lives near the water tower, where exposed oil and gas pipes have jut across the culverts for years. She remembers the toll the oil boom left on the community, the unlined salt pits left behind.
“It was terrible,” she said.
She filed a petition against the owners of the pits back then. She wanted them covered and eventually got her way. But that was many years ago, and this fight against Petrodome may not be so easy.
Petrodome is operating an oil well on the Heins lease, located near the proposed disposal well, that was originally drilled in the late 1940s into the Greta formation, said Robert Wonish, president of the company.
“We’re looking for leftover oil and gas,” he said Friday.
Wonish said the well’s pressure would be tested every five years. If there’s a leak, it would be reported within 24 hours, the company would stop injecting water and make the necessary repairs, he said.
Victoria County Groundwater Conservation District, the Bloomington school district and the Victoria County Water Control Improvement Development board there have formally protested the well.
During a meeting Friday of the groundwater conservation district, Bloomington residents, elected officials and state Rep. Geanie Morrison expressed their concerns and raised questions about the worst-case scenario.
Wonish responded, “You’re asking questions that most likely would never happen.”
The company has plans to drill a third well in the area.
“I want safe water for my community,” Morales said. “I want to make sure my grandchildren and great-grandchildren – all the people in the community – have good, clean, safe water.”
Lisa Campbell, a doctor of nursing practice, advocates for the health of the blighted community.
“As a public health nurse, it is unethical for me to sit back and not say anything when there is a potential harm to the public’s health,” she said.
Campbell and Garcia, the county commissioner, will present their case against Petrodome’s permit at a railroad commission hearing, which does not yet have a set date.
“You may have the latest technology and the best methods; you may not have any problems, but there are no guarantees,” Garcia said. “We don’t live in a perfect world.”
Garcia speaks in a flustered tone when conversation sways to the oil and gas industry.
“This land is owned by somebody, and he’s entitled to his minerals,” Garcia said. “There’s oil down there, and he wants it. There’s also water down there, and that belongs to us.”
Potential for disaster
Whatever the outcome, Garcia is convinced it will come down to money – the money for the residents to hire an attorney, the attorney already hired to represent the industry, money for research and money for good public relations.
It wouldn’t be an issue if it didn’t come down to money, he said.
Oil and gas producers have options for managing and treating frack water. However, injection requires little or no treatment and is often the least expensive option, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Jim Allison, an Austin-based attorney who represents the groundwater conservation district, spoke during Friday’s meeting.
He wants to see rules changed so oil and gas companies are required to have a larger buffer zone between their producing wells and their disposal wells.
“We saw these injection wells normally located on large tracts, away from population centers and public water supply sources,” Allison said. “Over the years, the cost of transporting and the risk of transporting have led to them being located closer and closer to the production source. In this case, it’s also closer to the public water supply source.”
In a quarter-mile radius from the proposed well, 10 wells have been plugged; two were permitted but later abandoned.
If the plug is installed incorrectly, “fluids could come back up the old well and, thereby, reach the groundwater,” Allison said.
Another company in the area, KDM, wants to amend its disposal well permit to increase the pressure. Petrodome officials are protesting that application with concerns that it could affect their mineral rights at the Heins lease.
While the public protest is ongoing, Petrodome is trucking its wastewater from the Heins lease to another well outside Bloomington’s city limit, Garcia said, proving to him there are other locations and options outside the community.
Petrodome is proposing to inject up to 10,000 barrels daily of salt water into the Catahoula Tuff for permanent storage, about 3,600 feet underground and through the Evangeline aquifer, which sits about 1,200 feet deep.
Despite industry reports that the technology is more advanced than it was in Bloomington’s past, the potential for disaster still exists.
The aquifer in the Pecos Valley is living proof.
Still dealing with contamination caused by oil-field brine in 2005, a Texas Water Development Board report found most of the groundwater’s contamination “is related to past disposal of large quantities of brine in unlined pits or improperly cased oil wells.”
The company that was drilling there had its permit revoked, and it later went bankrupt.
From her position as a health nurse, Campbell wants to test Bloomington’s water, which residents like Morales have stopped drinking.
“For me, it’s the safety of the drinking water,” Campbell said. “This is a blighted area of our county, and they need people who can advocate for them. That’s my job.”
The industry, and fracking in particular, has loopholes and exemptions from federal law, including the Safe Drinking Water Act; Clean Water Act; Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act; Resource Conservation and Recovery Act; Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act; and Clean Air Act.
One such exemption allows companies to inject anything other than diesel fuel underground without violating the Safe Drinking Water Act.
“They don’t allow that for anybody else,” Campbell said.
She said the country, let alone Bloomington, will never see a moratorium on fracking, but residents can do all in their power to protect their drinking water.
Morales is more hopeful.
“I’m hoping that they don’t get their permit,” Morales said. “There’s got to be another way of doing business that doesn’t harm the community.”
Jan. 19, 2014