How ‘Landfarms’ For Disposing Drilling Waste Are Causing Problems In Texas

How ‘Landfarms’ For Disposing Drilling Waste Are Causing Problems In Texas by Dave Fehling, November 12, 2012, State Impact NPR
Landfarms are privately-owned but state-regulated fields where “low toxicity waste” is thinly spread then tilled into the soil. The tainted waste is supposed to degrade naturally. In Texas, landfarms are used to dispose of the drilling fluid used to reduce friction as the drill chews through thousands of feet of rock and sand. But a criminal case involving the operation of a landfarm near Beaumont raises questions about how the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) is enforcing the state’s pollution laws.

A Criminal Case
The Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force, run out of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office but with statewide jurisdiction, recently won a criminal conviction and a $1.35 million fine against the company that had operated the landfarm, Pemco Services, Inc. “For over a decade the company was out of compliance with their permit and there was little done to regulate them,” said Patricia Robertson, the task force’s environmental crimes prosecutor. Robertson credits the efforts of a couple officers from Texas Parks and Wildlife for investigating the site and then alerting her office.

“I don’t know why (the Railroad Commission) allowed them to operate for that many years,” said Jim Yetter, a game warden with the department’s Environmental Crimes Unit who became the lead investigator on the case.
Back in 2005 another game warden had checked the site and found what later was determined to be “the pumping of unauthorized stormwater from the landfarm into nearby Peveto Bayou” according to a court document. Tipped by that game warden, the Railroad Commission sent a letter to the site operators telling them to stop the discharge. A few years later, Yetter decided to check the site himself to see if the discharges had, in fact, ceased. “So in 2009 I came back to follow up and we were suspicious things had not been corrected,” Yetter told StateImpact. The discharge was still flowing and things were far from corrected, according to prosecutor Roberterson.

Ignoring the Railroad Commission
“The company pretty much ignored the Railroad Commission,” she said. The task force would later allege that from 2002 to 2009, a total of nearly 57 million gallons of drilling fluids were deposited on the landfarm in violation of the permit issued by the Railroad Commission.Yet, the Commission which has the power to take “enforcement action” never did. In 2010, the Texas Environmental Enforcement Task Force got search warrants to go on the site and take water samples. Prosecutors said lab tests confirmed the site was causing water pollution. They headed to court and eventually got a conviction and then earlier this month, a judge in Travis County imposed the big fine on Pemco Services, Inc.

The Arkansas Experience
In 2009, problems with landfarms in Arkansas prompted an investigation there by the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ). The ADEQ looked at 11 landfarms and found that at all 11 drilling fluids had been “improperly applied” and were endangering the environment by causing runoff to the state’s waterways.  [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to: Alberta Landspraying While Drilling (LWD) Review ]

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