In East Texas, a town fights to keep an oilfield waste dump from opening near wetlands and water wells

Janet Ritter, a local cattle rancher, points to the planned dump site illustrated in McBride Operating LLC's permit application on Jan. 19. (Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News, Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News)

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PAXTON — Deep in the Piney Woods of East Texas, a landfill developer wants to build an oil sector dump site some 500 yards from this small town’s wells.

In Paxton, water lies just a few feet below ground. Ponds and wetlands dot the boggy forests. The town, population 850, has plenty to drink. But residents fear it could all be at stake with Texas regulators poised to permit plans to permanently bury hundreds of millions of tons of oilfield waste here.

“It’s just common sense. You don’t go dumping that kind of stuff right next to a local water supply,” said Eric Garrett, president of the nonprofit Paxton Water Supply Corporation and pastor of a local Pentecostal church. “That’s not even up for discussion.”

This discussion, however, doesn’t seem to end. The community has spent four years and a small fortune fighting the proposal. No matter what they do, residents say, they can’t convince Texas regulators that this is a bad idea.

“As hard as they have fought, as protracted a battle they’ve put up, there must be quite some stack of money involved,” said Garrett, 61 with slicked-back hair, wearing a suit and tie in his church.

In Texas, the nation’s top petroleum producer, regulation of the oil and gas business falls to the Texas Railroad Commission. Headed by three elected commissioners, all Republicans, the commission issues permits for every oil well and dump site in Texas.

Permit applications are typically approved unless challenged by a third party, such as the residents of Paxton, who have found that threats to public health must reach a high bar to compete against economic interests for the commission’s sympathies.

When the commission met last December, its technical permitting division rejected the Paxton project’s permit for the second time in four years over concerns about groundwater contamination. But Commissioner Jim Wright, a former rodeo cowboy and landfill developer, wasn’t ready to let the project die.

“I myself have constructed safe landfills in similar conditions,” Wright told the meeting in the Texas Capitol. “It can be done.”

Instead of issuing a final rejection, Wright suggested the commission provide the developer, McBride Operating LLC, with a list of edits and additions to the application and invite them to resubmit. The commission had already asked the firm to amend its application at least four times since 2019.

“The cost for oil and gas waste disposal in East Texas is high, and I don’t want to negatively affect production in the area,” Wright said.

A truck transports lumber along a highway near Paxton on Jan. 19, 2023.

A truck transports lumber along a highway near Paxton. While lumber has remained big business in East Texas, the area has also seen a fracking boom in the Haynesville Shale, and several industrial dumps have opened to serve the oil and gas industry. Credit: Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News

Dumping in East Texas

Several industrial dumps have cropped up in Deep East Texas to serve the fracking boom in the Haynesville Shale, which straddles the Texas-Louisiana border.

According to Geoffrey Reeder, a former environmental manager with Union Pacific Railroad who lives in East Texas, Texas has fewer rules for oilfield waste dumps than Louisiana, making it economically attractive to landfill developers.

Louisiana requires lab tests to verify the contents of all oilfield waste brought to landfills. Texas doesn’t.

“Texas has nothing more than the good ol’ boy system,” said Reeder, a certified geoscientist in both states. “You could send radioactive waste over there and nobody would know.”

Louisiana also limits how close waste dumps can sit to water wells and schools, while Texas doesn’t, said Reeder, who previously fought against plans for another oilfield waste near his home in San Augustine County, which was canceled last year.

Solid wastes from oil production include mud used for drilling that is laced with chemicals, other substances that settle at the bottoms of oil tanks and any hydrocarbon-bearing soils from the well site. All of them are considered “non-hazardous” in Texas because federal law exempts most oil and gas waste from regulation. Still, oilfield waste may include benzene, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury and selenium.

“Trying to protect our water”

McBride, the Paxton project developer, rejected allegations that the facility may threaten groundwater quality. In a statement, McBride said it has hired the environmental consulting firm Wood PLC to review the site, finding that “the surface of the property consists predominantly of low permeability clays which act to safeguard the deeper groundwater.”

“The prospect of groundwater contamination has been exaggerated by certain owners and their agents who specialize in such exaggeration to generate fear without regard to the actual facts,” a statement provided by McBride’s lawyer said. “This facility is designed with multiple redundant synthetic and natural barrier systems to prevent groundwater contamination and will be able to contain rainwater that comes into contact with the waste for proper offsite disposal.”

The proposed location in Paxton has two ponds and a wetland. A creek originates there and then meanders into the Sabine River.

That creek, Cypress Creek, runs along the land that Linda Wheeler, a 54-year-old retired nurse, shares with six other households and four generations of her family. These 200 acres, which Wheeler's grandfather once split between his children, are full of ponds, swamps and natural springs. The families drink from three private wells.

“Why are we still fighting this? It’s disheartening that they’re giving them another chance,” she said. “It’s already been denied.”

Water flows in Cypress Creek, which originates on the proposed dump site, in Paxton on Jan. 18, 2023.

Water flows in Cypress Creek, which originates on the proposed dump site, in Paxton on Jan. 18, 2023. Credit: Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News

A mound of sandy soil at the proposed dump site in Paxton on Jan. 18, 2023.

A mound of sandy soil at the proposed dump site in Paxton on Jan. 18, 2023. Credit: Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News

First: Cypress Creek originates on the proposed dump site in Paxton. Last: A mound of sandy soil at the proposed dump site in Paxton. Credit: Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News

The first denial was in December 2019. The Railroad Commission’s technical permitting division wrote that the presence of wetlands, shallow groundwater and permeable soil meant “the proposed facility location is not a viable option for the processing and permanent internment of oil and gas waste.”

“The design and layout of the facility is not protective of surface waters features or groundwater,” the ruling said.

It then listed more than 40 recommended changes for McBride to make to its application and gave the developer 30 days to resubmit. Over the next two years, the commission gave McBride at least three more opportunities to fill in missing information.

In November of 2021, the commission held a two-week hearing in which experts, engineers and lawyers for McBride argued their case before an administrative judge. Residents of Paxton attended, including Wheeler, as did the head of Paxton’s water supply, to argue against the proposed dump. The town raised tens of thousands of dollars to hire experts and lawyers of its own, and to order independent studies of the terrain.

“Money makes the world go round, but there are things more important than money,” Wheeler said. “We’re just trying to protect our water.”

At the hearing, Paxton residents pointed out McBride’s record of contamination. The developer’s facilities failed Railroad Commission inspections 48 times since 2015 over pollution violations, sometimes with multiple infractions, commission records show.

According to Janet Ritter, who owns a cattle ranch adjacent to the proposed dump site and attended the hearing, the judge ordered the complainants only to focus on the technical merits of the specific permit under review, and had comments about McBride’s other facilities stricken from the record.

After a yearlong review, the commission’s technical permitting division again recommended denial of the permit at its December 2022 meeting, when Commissioner Wright again moved to offer McBride another chance.

“I think some of us are starting to realize the beast we are dealing with. You can’t afford to fight them,” said Janet Ritter. “We’ve spent roughly $50,000, but our neighbor has spent more.”

A cabin and windmill seen from Highway 84 in Paxton on Jan. 19, 2023.

Cows graze near a cabin off Highway 84 in Paxton. The town, with a population of 850, has spent years and large sums of money fighting the proposed oilfield waste dump plan. Credit: Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News

Another opponent, a banker and rancher named Terry Allen, posted a $300,000 deposit to sue McBride in county court. Allen’s 93 acres border the proposed dump site, and several creeks run from that tract to his.

The lawsuit alleged the project would pollute local weather supplies, a violation of the Texas Natural Resources Code. A county judge initially agreed and issued a temporary injunction, barring McBride from beginning construction.

But McBride appealed, and a higher judge reversed the decision.

The judge invoked “mandamus,” a legal tool which he, in his opinion, called “an extraordinary remedy … appropriate when the trial court abuses its discretion.”

The judge acknowledged the Railroad Commission’s initial rejection of the permit over water contamination concerns but wrote that legal standard “requires a plaintiff to have concrete injury before bringing a claim.”

Because McBride had not yet received a permit to build its waste facility, the judge wrote, “the dispute remains abstract and hypothetical, rendering it unripe for judicial review.”

He ordered the trial court to reverse its decision and dismiss the case against McBride.

Allen declined to comment, citing advice from his lawyer, who did not respond to requests for comment.

Two wells of the Paxton Water Supply Corporation sit about 1,000 yards away from the proposed dumpsite on Jan. 18, 2023.

Two of the wells managed by the Paxton Water Supply Corporation sit about 1,000 yards from the proposed dump site. Credit: Dylan Baddour/Inside Climate News

According to Stacy Cranford, general manager of Paxton Water Supply, the court wants Paxton to wait until it’s too late.

“When the damage has been done, it’s irreversible,” he said, wearing steel-toed boots and a camouflage jacket. “Ten million dollars won’t fix our water then.”

It’s not just Paxton that’s at stake, he said. This town overlies the massive Carrizo-Wilcox Aquifer, which arches from Arkansas to Mexico and provides drinking water for millions of people.

“If you contaminate one spot, you contaminate the whole thing,” Cranford said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that’s a plan for disaster.”