Conroe residents fear landfill could taint water

March 5, 2011 5:12:24 PM PST
A giant red sign sitting in a front yard reads, "Warning. Toxic Wells Coming." Further down a snaking, wooded road is a clearing with another sign posted on a metal gate warning trespassers of video surveillance. This is ground zero in a 5-year-old battle that has pit residents of this Houston suburb, federal regulators and a multibillion-dollar oil company against Texas environmental officials who approved an underground landfill despite arguments it could contaminate aquifers that provide drinking water to millions of people in South Texas.

Opponents to the plan point to the cancer-stricken California town of Hinkley made famous by Julia Roberts' film "Erin Brockovich" as an example of what can happen when water is contaminated.

"Once your water is dirty, you'll never get it clean again," said Rebecca Kaiser, a Conroe resident who has spent five years fighting the plan by TexCom Gulf Disposal LLC to operate an injection well barely a mile from hundreds of homes and several schools.

TexCom wants to bury liquid commercial waste that is classified as nonhazardous, but could include trace amounts of toxic chemicals, including cancer-causing benzene. The company would inject the waste into a well thousands of feet underground.

The procedure is done safely in hundreds of places nationwide, but the proposed waste site in Conroe is an oil field pockmarked with hundreds of abandoned wells drilled in the 1930s, some of which officials say have not been properly plugged. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and some engineers fear these wells could act as a conduit for the waste to travel to aquifers, contaminate the water and go unnoticed for some time. "There is some scientific evidence that there could be a problem there," said Philip Dellinger, EPA's chief of the groundwater underground injection control section.

Matters are complicated further because Denbury Onshore LLC, a company investing more than $500 million in a lucrative oil drilling project in the Conroe oil field, believes the opposing pressures created by the oil production and the waste injection could contaminate the precious minerals it is mining.

Despite the widespread opposition, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality voted 2-1 in January to issue TexCom a permit to operate the underground landfill. The permit was approved after the agency's own two-member administrative panel advised against it, the state's Railroad Commission said the oil and gas resources could be harmed and the EPA expressed concern.

Lou Ross, TexCom's president, said he is confident the company will be able to proceed with its plans after the expected appeals process is complete. He said the science is sound and "the geology in the area is proper for this type of well," including 1,100 feet of impermeable shale that would separate the waste and the aquifer.

"It's problematic because of what's going on with humanity on the surface, not because of geology," Ross added.

Dellinger said the agency generally supports underground landfills, noting the wells tend to be safe and efficient.

But there have been problems, he said, including in Winona -- an East Texas town where a company was forced to close its injection well in 1997 because of a variety of spills and other problems that residents said increased cancer rates and birth defects. While the well did not leak, the company's shoddy maintenance led to several spills.

Something similar happened in 2005 in the North Texas town of Chico, where waste from an injection well bubbled up through other wells. The problem was resolved and the wells were sealed, but a short time later, elevated levels of radioactivity forced the shutdown of municipal water wells.

No scientific connection has been made between the injection well and the contaminated water.

In Conroe, the fear is if the water became contaminated it could cause irreparable harm to the only water source for the half-million residents in Montgomery County. And that aquifer feeds additional underground streams that provide water to millions of other people in 54 counties.

Residents here also point to Hinkley, Calif., where Pacific Gas & Electric settled in 1996 for $333 million with 600 residents after the water became contaminated with cadmium and residents argued it was making them sick.

Shirley Hoagland is among the most vocal Conroe residents opposing the project. The well from which her family draws its water sits barely 300 feet from the proposed waste site.

In 2005, when TexCom bought 27 acres in Conroe and applied for the permit, the fashionable, then-65-year-old evolved into a door-knocking grass-roots activist. First, she took her high heels and Texas twang door-to-door. Then she went on a petition drive. Today, she is a veteran leader of Citizens, Residents Oppose Wells.

"I don't want my water ruined," said Hoagland, whose home is adorned with a massive red sign declaring her opposition to the well. "I want my family safe."

Today, her group is backed by an army of angry residents, state lawmakers, local water authorities and the Montgomery County attorney, David Walker.

The city and county are concerned about water contamination and the hundreds of additional 18-wheelers that would travel the already congested, snaking road that leads to several rapidly growing subdivisions, Walker said.

The battle has already cost $200,000, he added, but they will go to court if necessary.

The TCEQ, anticipating further appeals and possible litigation, would only answer e-mailed questions. It acknowledged the state Railroad Commission reversed an initial position that stated the oil and gas resources would be unharmed, but did not indicate it would reconsider its permit.

The TCEQ also downplayed EPA officials' opposition to the project, saying the federal agency only suggested a "correction to a typographical error" to the draft permit.

"Waste activity authorizations are contentious and rarely supported by the majority of those who comment on the applications," the TCEQ said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "That is why TCEQ relies solely on our scientific review and state and federal law to base our decisions."

Dellinger said the EPA is concerned the abandoned oil wells could act as conduits and believes the calculations TexCom used to test the shale's permeability were incorrect -- meaning the likelihood waste could migrate through the formation could be greater than estimated.

"We have expressed concern at both at various points in the process," Dellinger said.

In the end though, the residents may find their best friend is Denbury, the oil company that plans to pump carbon dioxide underground to extract minerals packed deep into the hard rock.

Already, Denbury has arrived at hearings with attorneys and conducted expensive seismic testing. After the test results were presented to the Railroad Commission as evidence the waste project could harm the minerals, the agency rescinded its "no harm" letter.

Denbury President Tracy Evans said the company will exhaust its internal agency appeals and views litigation as a possible solution.

"We will defend our position vigorously," Evans said, noting that while he doesn't believe the waste would migrate to the aquifers, "there is no question they will interfere with the oil and gas production."

In Texas, those could be fightin' words.