Until recently, oil industry waste haulers had been using the roads of Jim Wells County, Texas as their dumping grounds, allowing disposal materials to spill from their leaky or poorly maintained trucks unchecked. But now the county's new focus on environmental crimes enforcement has left the county cleaner and is paving the way for other counties in the region to cut back on similar dumping problems.
Jim Wells County is one of the more than two dozen counties located in proximity to the fracking operations that have been taking place in the Eagle Ford Shale region since 2008. Fracking is a method of natural gas extraction which injects chemically treated water into the ground under high pressure to crack rock deposits and allow natural gas to flow to the surface for collection. Additional substances like drilling mud (diesel-based well lubricant used to carry away rock cuttings and debris from the well site) are used in the process and must somehow be disposed of when operations are completed.
Jim Wells was once hit particularly hard by oil industry dumping because it was home to Eco Mud Disposal, one of the few sites in the Eagle Ford region where haulers can legally dispose of the drilling mud. According to Section 29.044 of the Texas Water Code, no hauler may dispose of oil and gas waste on public roads or on the surface of public land in other than a railroad commission-approved disposal facility like Eco Mud.
Even though waste haulers were willing to drive hundreds of miles to legally dispose of the oily substance, they neglected to take appropriate precautions to secure the oily substance as they drove. The result of their carelessness was numerous oily slicks along the roads of Jim Wells County, many of which caused traffic accidents or environmental contamination.
As the problem became worse, the County decided to crack down on these waste haulers, allowing environmental crimes officer Hector Zertuche to turn his enforcement efforts away from illegal trash dumpers onto the oil industry violators, most of whom were independent contractors looking to make some extra cash by working for drilling companies.
The effort seems to be paying off. In the month of June alone, Jim Wells County court heard the cases of 38 different violators, 21 of whom pled guilty and paid fines between $400 and $800. The roads of Jim Wells County are cleaner and the trucks seen lining up at Eco Mud are now almost always in compliance with ordinances that prevent leakage of dangerous substances.
Jim Wells County has been so successful that officer Zertuche is taking his show on the road, educating law enforcement officers in other Eagle Ford counties on how to minimize dangerous dumping in their towns. The environmental attorneys at Arnold & Itkin hope that enforcement efforts in other counties will prove to be equally successful, so that the energy boom in south-central Texas does not come at the cost of environmental health and the well-being of local residents.