Texas Lawsuit Includes a Mix of Race and Water

Texas Lawsuit Includes a Mix of Race and Water by Ralph Blumenthal, July 9, 2006, The New York Times
DeBERRY, Tex. — Frank and Earnestene Roberson no longer need to drive the 23 miles to a Wal-Mart near Shreveport for a safe drink of water. Instead, it is delivered to them in five-gallon jugs, courtesy of the Environmental Protection Agency. But they and neighbors in this historically black enclave in the East Texas oilfields seem no closer to being able to drink, cook or bathe safely from their own wells since the E.P.A. found the groundwater contaminated with pollutants that included arsenic, benzene, lead and mercury. Calling themselves victims of “environmental racism,” community members in June filed suit in federal court, accusing the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates the state’s oil and gas industry, of failing to enforce safety regulations and of “intentionally giving citizens false information based on their race and economic status.” The commission said it had yet to receive formal notice of the lawsuit and had no comment on it. But almost two decades after Mrs. Roberson first began complaining, setting off years of inconclusive state inquiries, the agency says it is now moving against a large oilfield services company that deposited wastes at a nearby disposal site that has since been closed.

“I look at this as poisoning the only source of groundwater,” he said, “as tantamount to lynching.” … The railroad commission said that Basic Energy had operated the tanks for more than two years without a permit, resulting in a demand by Panola County in 2003 that the disposal line under the county road be shut down. The commission has been asking the company to track any migration of pollution. “Basic has been slow to respond to our requests,” said John Tintera, the commission’s assistant director for site remediation. … But Mr. Hudson, who runs a local family ministry and teaches at the Church of the Living God, said the commission had close ties to the industry and had denied that DeBerry had a problem. … Mr. Hudson recently settled a state civil lawsuit against Basic Energy under terms that remain confidential. “We didn’t get enough to get shoelaces,” he said. The lawsuit was settled, he said, after his lawyer found that the railroad commission had fined one of the site’s operators, Falco S & D Inc. of Shreveport, La., $27,747 in 2000 for having illegally dumped about 3,000 barrels of chemical waste there. That made it difficult to determine Basic Energy’s liability, Mr. Hudson said.

In 2003, the railroad commission found in residents’ wells benzene, barium, arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury “at concentrations exceeding primary drinking water standards,” said Peter Pope, a specialist with the commission. But the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, in tests taken last August, found no excessive contamination there, said Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman. … ” The railroad commission took samples in October 1996, finding “no contamination in the Robersons’ household supply water that can be attributed to oilfield sources.” By April 2003, however, commission tests found barium and chloride above maximum contaminant levels in Mr. Hudson’s well, along with traces of two oilfield chemicals. The source was unclear. He plugged his well and moved to another house connected to the Bethany-Panola Public Water System.

The E.P.A. arranged last August for the delivery of bottled water to the Robersons and others with tainted wells. Some residents, however, have been less fortunate. Maggie Golden, a 73-year-old cousin of Mr. Hudson’s mother, had been getting water piped in by Basic Energy to replace her hand-pumped spring-fed system which had been contaminated, said her sister, Mary Lee Kellum, a Houston teacher. “Then all of a sudden they cut it off,”

[Refer also to Polluted Water Fuels a Battle for Answers ]

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