Feature Not a drop to drink
An East Texas town’s wells are fouled, but no one is willing to finger the culprits or find water for the residents
Gladies Hudson was born on the Lone Star side of the Texas-Louisiana state line, in Panola County, where for decades her family grew persimmons and peanuts, cotton and corn, melon and muscadine on 40 acres that her grandfather bought in 1911 for $289 and a mule. The family plumbed the land’s abundant springs for their water, which they used for drinking, cooking, and bathing. “We raised anything you need, everything a person could want,” says Gladies, 79.
|Gladies Hudson’s family has lived and farmed in Panola County since 1911. Today, residents of County Road 329, where her family’s homestead is located, cannot drink the water from their wells because it is contaminated with chemicals, including benzene, barium, and petroleum hydrocarbons, at times hundreds of times above federal safe-drinking-water levels. (Photos by Lisa Sorg)|
She lives a few miles away in Louisiana, but still owns part of the family homestead along County Road 329 near Bethany, 23 miles west of Shreveport. Yet the land looks different than it did when she was a child. Energy companies such as Mobil and Pennzoil have poked so many holes in Panola County that the land is like the head of a salt shaker.
The water is also different. Tests conducted on residents’ private wells and one owned by Antioch Baptist Church have found intermittent hits of chemicals including benzene, barium, and petroleum hydrocarbons, occasionally hundreds of times above federal safe-drinking-water levels.
Although state and federal environmental officials insist there is no evidence so far linking oil and gas wastes to the well contaminants, the neighborhood, which is solely African-American, lies near several oilfields, injection wells, and saltwater-disposal wells. And among the low-slung houses, mobile homes, and campers scattered along this woodsy stretch of rural road, Basic Energy Services, the nation’s third-largest well contractor, operated a saltwater-disposal well from 2001 to 2004. Coincidentally, beneath Basic Energy’s well site, contamination similar to that detected in residents’ wells has been found in the soil and groundwater.
1996: Gladies Hudson and Earnestene Roberson complain to the Railroad Commission about their water, which they say makes them nauseated when they drink it. RRC tests show wells are clean.
2002: David Hudson complains to the RRC about the water, which he says smells and tastes odd. Basic Energy tests show no chemicals above safe drinking-water levels. The church well contains E. coli, which is found in human and animal feces; the Robersons’ tested positive for total coliform, indicating the water contains bacteria.
April 2003: Hudson hires a private contractor, Eastex, to sample his well. Results show it has high levels of benzene and petroleum hydrocarbons, both related to oilfield waste.
June 2003: The RRC decides oilfield waste isn’t contaminating Hudson’s well because no similar chemicals were found in residential wells closest to the Basic Energy site. There were also possible errors in sampling.
October 2003: The RRC and Eastex retest residents’ wells. Three test positive for the gasoline additive MTBE. Nearly all contain E. coli. Hudson’s water has high levels of 18 chemicals, including byproducts of oilfield waste, such as barium, benzene, and xylene, at levels dozens to hundreds of times greater than safe-drinking-water standards. Benzene can cause cancer; xylene neurological disorders.
Forrest Anderson’s well registers high levels of 15 chemicals. The Robersons’ well tests high for lead, which can cause developmental delays in infants and children; the Robersons’ three grandchildren, all under age 4, live with them.
April 2004: The TCEQ retests several residential wells. Although chemicals are still present, high levels of contamination have subsided; MTBE isn’t detected, and state officials theorize that gasoline spilled from a car or mower had run into the wells. High levels of benzene are detected in the groundwater at the Basic Energy disposal-well site.
Summer and fall 2004: Basic Energy’s soil and groundwater tests at the disposal-well site show high levels of barium, chloride, and benzene. The RRC requires Basic to contain, cleanup, and monitor contamination at the well site.
December 2004: Basic Energy asks the RRC to cancel its disposal-well permit two weeks before a public hearing on its well operations.
Summer and fall 2005: TCEQ tells the EPA it should provide bottled water to the residents. The deliveries begin in October. Hudson files a complaint with the EPA’s Inspector General, prompting an investigation.
2006: The EPA continues its investigation.
Although questions remain about the contaminants’ origin, one thing is for certain: These seven families on County Road 329 haven’t had a reliable source of clean drinking water since 2003, when the Railroad Commission advised them not to use the local well water. Last October, the Environmental Protection Agency began monthly deliveries of water and dispensers to the residents, who don’t have the money to connect to nearby public water systems.
“It’s just a handful of folks,” says Reverend David Hudson, the oldest of Gladies’s nine children. “But what’s the difference how many people live out there? Clean drinking water should be a human right.”
Several years ago, Hudson, 60, retired from the television industry and became a minister and citizen activist. He returned from California to his family’s homestead in 2002, as the neighborhood’s water problems worsened.
“It’s a heckuva world to come back to,” he says.
With gospel music playing on the radio, we drive south on State Line Road past grazing cattle and forest thickets to the intersection of CR 329. To the left, Louisiana residents drink clean water from a public utility; to the right, seven families and a church relied on primitive wells for their water until they became contaminated. Many of the wells are hand-dug holes in the ground — RRC District Director Randy Earley described them in an internal e-mail as “cisterns” — ranging from 18 to 60 feet. (In contrast, Basic Energy drilled a 150-foot water well at its disposal site.) Some wells have cracked casings, making them vulnerable to surface runoff from nearby outhouses and land.
When contaminants first appeared in Hudson’s well, the RRC seemed alarmed. In April 2003, Deputy Director of the Oil and Gas Division Tommie Seitz wrote in an e-mail to RRC staff, “It is troubling there are some oilfield-related contaminants in some of the water wells. We need to be prepared to tackle that issue.”
Yet, within weeks, the RRC changed its tone and discounted the possibility that Basic’s operations could be the pollutants’ source. Commission higher-ups seemed irritated at Hudson’s barrage of complaints to state officials. “We can’t find reason to react the way that Mr. Hudson wants,” wrote Earley to RRC staff. “I think he wants us to provide water or get the operator to provide water for them.”
In October 2003, after a second round of well testing showed high levels of hazardous chemicals, Hudson felt vindicated. The RRC sent letters to affected residents advising them that their water contained material “that may pose adverse health effects. We do not recommend that it be used for any domestic purposes.”
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality intervened because some wells contained MTBE, a chemical it regulates, but waited four months to begin looking for an alternate source of drinking water for the residents.
“I started buying my water from Wal-Mart,” Hudson says. “Some people still drank the water; they didn’t have the money or transportation to Shreveport to buy it.”
We stop at the home of Forrest Anderson, a man in his 50s who works odd jobs. A small TV is on in the corner of the living room, which is warm from oak burning in the fireplace. The rest of the house is dark and chilly. “My parents drank the water, but I don’t,” Anderson says, holding up an orange-stained pan. “And it burns.”
One RRC description of residents’ wells notes that water in Anderson’s well, which is inside his house, had an oil sheen. Two springs and two outdoor wells also appeared to have an oil sheen and odor.
No one noticed an oil sheen in a well belonging to Frank and Earnestene Roberson, who live with their young grandchildren 300 feet from the Basic well site, but Frank says that’s what apparently was flowing from their tap. “We’d get a glass of water and there would be an oily film on top — like a rainbow,” says Frank, a U.S. Post Office retiree. “And it smelled.”
The Robersons still wash dishes and bathe in their well water because 120 gallons each month for a family of five — their federal allotment — is enough only for drinking and cooking. “When I take a bath in it, it burns,” says Earnestene. She pauses for a moment. “I think we’ve been neglected because we’re black.”
When crude oil is pumped from the ground, saltwater is pumped with it. Saltwater legally can’t be dumped on the ground or into waterways, so it is re-injected into deep disposal wells. But this saltwater isn’t an innocuous mouth rinse; it contains not only brine, but also drilling chemicals and corrosion inhibitors that can contaminate groundwater if it is spilled or leaked through well casings. Since 1989, of the 230 closed cases of groundwater contamination related to oilfield operations in Texas, in 222 the contaminants were saltwater and/or hydrocarbons, according to a 2004 report by the Texas Groundwater Protection Committee, of which the RRC is a member.
John Tintera, RRCs assistant director of site remediation, says saltwater-disposal or injection wells were not necessarily the sources of the contamination. Sources include oilfield practices that are no longer allowed, pipeline leaks, well blowouts during drilling, or accidental spills. However, Tintera says he can’t rule out that possibility that any of the 222 cases involved saltwater-disposal or injection wells, but adds, “it’s my opinion they are probably a minority statewide.”
|David Hudson (left) and Frank Roberson live on County Road 329 in Deberry. They are suing Basic Energy Services, which operated a nearby saltwater disposal well, alleging the company contaminated their private drinking-water wells. Residents along the road have been receiving bottled water from the EPA since last year. (Photos by Lisa Sorg)|
In Louisiana, commercial saltwater-disposal wells are considered hazardous enough that state regulations prohibit their property boundaries to be within 500 feet of a residence, church, or school. But in Texas, there are no such regulations, although local governments can pass ordinances to restrict their use. Panola County has passed no such law, and the property boundary of the Basic well is within 300 feet of the church and two homes. All the houses on CR 329 are within 700 feet of the disposal-well property.
Hudson speculates that it’s cheaper for energy companies to haul their waste to East Texas where, with laxer rules, the wells are abundant. “They can’t put this stuff in Louisiana so they bring it over here.”
A Louisiana company did just that in 1995, when Falco, a crude-oil company that had the permit for the disposal well on CR 329, was illegally dumping improper waste into it. According to RRC records, for eight months Falco injected more than 113,000 gallons of material including crude oil and plant fluid into the well, which was approved only for oilfield and gas waste.
Falco used misleading oilfield and gas manifests to falsely describe the materials it was putting in the well, apparently to avoid paying extra to properly dispose of it in an industrial facility in southern Louisiana.
In correspondence with Falco, the RRC characterized the violation as “serious” and “a hazard to public health and safety because disposal of unpermitted wastes into wells may contaminate surface or subsurface water.” Falco paid $27,747 in administrative penalties to the RRC.
Asked if contamination from Falco’s illegal dumping 11 years ago could have polluted residents’ wells, John Tintera, RRC’s assistant director of site remediation, says he’s “unaware of any data” that would substantiate such a claim.
Since 2004, Basic has tested and monitored soil and groundwater at the disposal-well site. Those tests indicated the groundwater contains barium, chloride, and benzene at above maximum-allowable levels, although state officials argue the chemicals haven’t migrated into drinking-water wells. “Groundwater moves with glacial slowness” Tintera says.
Ray Leissner of the EPA’s Region 6 water quality protection division, agrees: “It’s not [that] there isn’t contamination at the site; the contamination [in the wells] is not the result of injection activity.”
“When I take a bath in it, it burns. I think
we’ve been neglected because we’re black.”
- Earnestene Roberson
However, a January 2006 letter from Johnny Ross of the EPA’s Inspector General’s office sounds more open to the possibility that disposal-well operations contaminated the groundwater beyond the Basic site. “We found the groundwater in the Panola County community is indeed contaminated with several substances ... that pose a threat to human health and environment,” Ross wrote to EPA Region 6. “The contamination, levels of concentration, source, and migration patterns have not been fully assessed or established. We did not find suitable plans to address the community’s need for safe drinking water and for the full assessment and remediation of the contamination.”
Surface-water runoff could have contaminated residents’ wells, although Tintera contends pollution wouldn’t have left the Basic site. Yet, samples at a monitoring well at the disposal site and a neighborhood spring showed nearly identical concentrations of barium and chloride. In TCEQ documents reviewing Basic’s test results, someone wrote in the margin, “interesting coincidence.”
Frank Roberson recalls that in 2001, when 8,400 gallons of saltwater spilled from a ruptured pipeline that crossed the church property, water “was running down the road.” The spill killed nearby trees. Basic cleaned up the spill and in 2005, drilled a new well for the church and paid it $5,000. The RRC didn’t cite Basic for the accident.
(Bill Godsey of Geo Logic Environmental Services, Basic’s contractor for testing and remediation, declined to comment for this story; in correspondence with the RRC, the company has repeatedly denied responsibility.)
Hudson, who with six others sued Basic Energy, alleging it caused the well contamination, claims it’s politically sensitive for the RRC — whose elected commissioners receive hefty campaign contributions from energy companies — to name the responsible party.
“No one wants to pin the tail on the donkey,” Hudson says.
THE HUNT FOR H20
A short, sturdy, stormy man, Hudson has for the past four years called, cajoled, and complained to everyone from the Panola County commissioners to Governor Rick Perry to U.S. Senator John Cornyn about the quality and availability of the neighborhood’s drinking water.
Hudson pours a glass of water and reassures me, “I get my water from Panola Bethany.” Unlike many people on CR 329, Hudson could afford to leave, so he capped his well and moved to a home about six miles away on Highway 79 that is connected to a public water system.
“CR 329 is in the middle of two public water suppliers,” he continues, “but we can’t get service from either.”
|This house belonged to Maggie Golden, who died last June. She lived across the road from Basic’s saltwater-disposal well site. (Photos by Lisa Sorg)|
Last year, residents were hopeful when Harold Hunter of the Community Resource Group, a USDA contractor that advises borrowers trying to obtain loans or grants, scrambled to offer the non-profit Panola Bethany Water Supply Corporation a low-interest, $369,000 loan. The money would have paid for hookups for 55 customers, including those along CR 329. But at a public meeting, the Corporation board voted against the loan.
Corporation President James Youngblood says the Panola Corporation spent $20,000 on engineering and environmental studies in preparation for a grant, and the board had clearly indicated that it wouldn’t approve a loan. “We told them up front it’s not fair to the people who built this water system to pay the surcharge,” says Youngblood. “They promised us a grant.”
Hunter says the CRG never promised the corporation a grant, only that it could qualify for one if the USDA okayed it after the application process. The CRG has no input on USDA funding decisions.
“I feel for those people,” says Youngblood, who’s been Corporation president since 1976. “We offered to go to the bank and borrow money and lay the lines. But they have to put up membership fees like everybody else.”
To pay off the 40-year loan, the Corporation’s 650 current customers would have paid an extra $20 a month in addition to their monthly $15 membership fee and water usage fees that begin at $15. Households that connect to the system pay $350 for the hookup and a meter.
“We’re not the bad guys; we’re not trying to keep people out of water,” Youngblood adds. “But we can’t jeopardize our system.”
Had the Corporation accepted the loan, it would have also received a $10,000 grant from the Sabine River Authority. The Authority can award grants only to governmental entities or non-profit, member-owned water corporations.
Panola County Commissioner Hermon Reed, whose precinct includes CR 329, acknowledges that “we haven’t done too much at the county level” for the residents, adding “Reverend Hudson has done that with ORCA.”
However, Jill McFarren, spokesperson for the Office of Rural and Community Affairs, says that like most government agencies, it can’t contract with individuals. McFarren notes that Panola County Commissioners contracted with ORCA for assistance to another water supplier, but they haven’t approached the agency on behalf of CR 329 residents.
Reed suggests the residents hook up to a Louisiana public water-supply system that runs along State Line Road. “They had the opportunity to do so several years ago when the pipes were laid,” Reed says, “but a lot of the people don’t have the money to pay to hook up.”
Hudson, Roberson, and I trudge through tall weeds to two outdoor springs. “It’s too cold for snakes,” Roberson says, clearing leaves from the Golden Spring. Maggie Golden died in June 2005, shortly after Basic dismantled their operations across the road and before the EPA began monthly water deliveries. The spring was that household’s source of drinking water; her son, Clifford, still uses it.
The RRC has required Basic to plug its wells, remove tanks and pits, and monitor and test the groundwater, although the company has encountered problems with the property owners — who live out of town and leased the land to Basic — in accessing the site to install more wells.
Basic has contended to the RRC that, “There were a few upset conditions with little environmental impact to the area.” Asked if that’s an accurate assessment of Basic’s activities, Tintera replies: “It’s a conclusion we haven’t drawn yet,” adding “the Commission hasn’t reached any final determinations. We’re collecting more data.”
Residents’ concerns seem to have vanished from state radar. “We’ve sampled the residents’ wells,” Tintera says, adding the RRC might extend its investigation into the neighborhood, “but we’re focused on the facility we regulate.”
Leissner of the EPA says he can’t speculate how long the feds will provide water to the community. “We haven’t given up,” says Leroy Biggers of the TCEQ, adding that residents could use the church well temporarily. “It gets down to money.”
CR 329 residents are considering starting their own water-supply corporation, which could be funded initially with grants. Residents and Basic are trying to settle the lawsuit out of court, although the terms haven’t been disclosed. Hudson has filed a civil-rights complaint with the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, and is planning to sue the EPA and RRC, alleging the neighborhood’s concerns have been dismissed because its residents are African-American.
Gladies Hudson returns most weeks to her homestead when she attends services at Antioch Baptist Church. “When I go back there, I feel like home,” she says. “It’s not worth anything but memories now.” •
By Lisa Sorg