Sept. 28–PAWNEE — Ava DeLeon, one of six eighth grade students in this small town’s only school, knows a thing or two about oil and gas since both her parents work in the industry in the nearby Eagle Ford shale. But now she’s learning what happens to the contaminated soil, drill cuttings, and other solid waste that piles up at well sites.
A lot of that waste could be headed two miles down the road from her school, where the Phoenix waste management company Republic Services wants to build a 156-acre landfill that would rise more than 170 feet just outside of this South Texas community. DeLeon worries about heavy metals, chemicals and other pollutants from drilling waste escaping into the environment and how they could affect her health and that of her 12-year-old sister, Olivia, and 14-month old brother, Augie.
“It can go into the air. It can go into the water,” she said, sitting at table in the school’s cafeteria. “It’s just the little things that concerned me because we’re always outside.”
DeLeon is part of the local opposition to Republic’s proposed waste dump as Pawnee joins a handful of small communities in South Texas that have fought similar facilities that they say bring toxic materials, heavy trucks and industrial operations, and mar the quiet, rural character of their communities. Other small towns will likely face similar fights. Even with an increase in the number of landfills, there are still not enough to handle solid waste generated in oil and gas fields around the state.
The proliferation of these sites represents another side to a drilling boom that is generating mountains of money for energy companies and their investors, but leaving small communities like Pawnee to deal with mountains of waste. At least 19 oilfield landfills already operate Texas, and the Railroad Commission of Texas, which oversees the oil and gas industry, has approved at least 5 new permits this year alone.
Inevitably, the siting of the oilfield landfills pits poor rural communities against the state’s powerful oil and gas industry and rich landfill operators such as Republic. In 2017, for example, Republic reported profits of $1.3 billion. All the property in the Pawnee Independent School District is valued at less than $330 million, according to the Texas Education Agency.
“Even if they spend a bunch of money on lawyers and experts it’s nearly impossible” to stop such a project, said Neil Carman, clean air program director for the Texas chapter of the Sierra Club, a national environmental advocacy group. “The best they can do is delay it.”
Pawnee, population 166, passes by in a flash while traveling along Highway 72 through a countryside of of huisatche, oak and rolling fields, where towering drilling rigs rise over hay baled in large rounds.
The town has a single intersection, but no traffic light, next to the one-story school that educates students from pre-K to eighth grade. In a county where one in four people live in poverty, most of the 156 students qualify for free lunches; Superintendent Michelle Hartmann said the school provides free lunches to all because it’s just easier.
Republic, which has a stock market value of more than $24 billion, acquired the property for the landfill in 2015 when when it bought a subsidiary of the Canadian waste management company Tervita. In July, Republic proposed developing the property, about 2 miles southeast of Pawnee, into a landfill with the capacity to hold more than 11.6 million cubic yards of oilfield waste piled 170 feet high — an amount that would cover 11 square miles if the waste was spread a foot deep.
As many as 50 trucks a day would pass through and near the town, hauling waste to the 24-hour, 7-days-a-week operation. Republic says that material, which would include waste oil and gas liquids, fracking fluids and other materials, would be separated and dried at its facility, then stacked in a disposal pit with double lining and leak detectors to prevent liquids from leaching into the environment.
In Pawnee, residents worry about increased truck traffic and more accidents. But they are most concerned about fly ash and other fine materials that could blow from the landfill to the school and town, where residents young and old would breathe the polluted air, the tiny particles settling in their lungs.
“Friable,” which refers to easily pulverized materials that can become suspended in the air, has become a frequently used term around town.
Dennis DeWitt, who represents Pawnee on the Bee County Commission, has urged residents to send letters to the Railroad Commission, which regulates oilfield waste sites. to voice their opposition. He held up two binders side by side. One brown folder a few inches thick was the amount of paperwork DeWitt said it took to get a similar site near his land rejected. The other, about an inch-and-a-half thick, was the folder of letters and supporting materials opposing the Republic project.
“Government continues to run on paper — I don’t care what anybody says, it runs on paper,” said DeWitt, a veteran of state government, including long stints with Texas Parks and Wildlife. “The more paper we can stack up, the more they listen.”
Ava DeLeon, 13, was among the first in her class to write a letter to the Railroad Commission. “This was an instant where I was like, I have to say something or I have to do something,” she said.
Floyd Wolff, 63, is a pharmacist who owns land across the road from the proposed landfill. Wolff is familiar and comfortable with the oil and gas industry. At least three natural gas well pads sit on his land. A saltwater disposal well is also on the property, on the hill behind the gas wells, surrounded by scrub brush. A nearby natural gas processing facility operates on land that his grandfather sold to the energy company Pioneer Natural Resources.
But he doesn’t like what Republic is proposing.
“You’ll have numerous things dispersed in there, and it’s flying right to the children, right to the children day after day after day,” he said. “After a period of time, somebody’s going to die prematurely.”
Gary McCuiston, a Republic executive overseeing the landfill development, said fly ash would be used only as a last resort to dry liquid wastes, which would primarily be mixed with dry waste and, if needed, dry soil. Safety is a priority for Republic, McCuiston said, and the company would work with residents to mitigate truck traffic. Truckers would have to follow rules adopted by the town or they would be prohibited from using the landfill — which Republic has done at other sites, McCuiston said.
On Aug. 28, the Railroad Commission sent a letter requiring Republic to clarify or provide information on 35 points, including clarification of the ownership of the property, design dimensions of the disposal pit, and safety data sheets related to the materials, such as fly ash, that Republic is proposing to use. Republic has 45 days from the day it received the letter to respond to the Railroad Commission’s concerns.
Floyd said he will stay on his land if the landfill comes, but he doubts his children or grandchildren would want to keep it. He also fears that health and safety concerns will lead parents to take their children from Pawnee’s school and send them elsewhere, making it difficult for the little school to survive.
“If they’re not here, then our little community just … it’s gone if the kids aren’t here,” he said.
Rye Druzin is a San Antonio-based staff writer covering Texas energy. Read him on our free site, mySA.com, and on our subscriber site, ExpressNews.com. — firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @druz_journo
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