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Injection well worries neighbors (video)

By By Dianna Wray - DWRAY@VICAD.COM
May 13, 2012 at 12:13 a.m.
Updated May 14, 2012 at 12:14 a.m.

Gayle Parenica said she feels an almost spiritual connection to the land she grew up on between Yoakum and Shiner. This is why she has filed a petition against an injection well scheduled to be built by Pinnergy, Ltd. directly across state Highway 95. She fears that the well could one day ruin the land with harmful chemicals, and the traffic and noise will destroy the once peaceful place.

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YOAKUM - The land was silent once.

When Gayle Parenica's ancestors arrived at this spot in the 1870s, they had come to the edge of modern civilization. Their eyes would have clapped on virgin territory, an expanse of green land sloping gently downhill before it opened out into a vast plain.

The oak tree was here then, a little smaller, but still a majestic, ancient thing with the girth and spreading limbs that betoken age. Maybe they spent their first night beneath its green canvas, as the American Indians had done before them.

The tree still stands, but civilization has caught up. Each change altered their small corner of the world in ways the first settlers could not have imagined, but through the decades, Parenica's family has managed to keep hold of the land itself.

Now, the modern world has again arrived. An injection well is slated to be drilled across the way, and Parenica and her family are afraid this will change the land, taking away the world that she hoped future generations would know.

Standing on her front porch, Parenica can look across the road and spot the pink wooden stake marking where the entrance to an injection well site will go.

Pinnergy Ltd., an Austin-based company, has filed a permit application to put in an injection well along state Highway 95. If the application is approved, the injection well will be a place for companies to dispose of the salt water that is laced with fracking chemicals used to drill wells in the Eagle Ford Shale.

Parenica pressed her palm against the gnarled old trunk, as if checking for a pulse. She tipped her head back, smiling as its limbs shuddered gently in the breeze.

She has known this tree all her life, this giant with a trunk spanning six feet and a canopy of foliage that arches like a cathedral more than 100 feet across overhead. No one in the family is sure, but they believe this tree has been growing for hundreds of years, a witness to their history, to the way things used to be.

"This is going to change things. This is going to change the way we live," Parenica said, her smile fading.

For the company, it is just business, but Parenica and her neighbors fear that this well and others slated to be drilled near their land will change the land they've treasured for so many years.

She was raised on this piece of land. For years she and her husband, who live in Victoria, had planned to buy it from the rest of the family, retire there and then pass it on to the next generation when the time came.

With the advent of this injection well, they may change their plans. They've always loved this place, but it was never part of the dream to live downwind and downhill from an injection well site.

Parenica and her neighbors were informed the well was slated to be put in on a 9.53-acre tract of land adjacent to their property in early March and since then, they have been working together to oppose the move.

Gathered on the back porch of her family home, the neighbors tick off a list of worries of what the well will bring. Parenica is concerned about the fluids that will be injected through the well.

"They're putting fluid down there and who says it's not going to come back up and ruin your water well?" she said.

Despite the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency has recently found that drilling activity was not responsible for water contamination in the Marcellus and Barnett shales, she is still concerned.

"There's still so much we don't know about the impact of so much of this kind of drilling," she said.

Studies have been trying to link injection wells to earthquakes in other areas, so she is also concerned about the possibility of the ground trembling and shaking and reshaping this land that she knows as well as her own skin.

She is also worried about the drilling activity above ground.

"What if something spills? This land slopes down, so all of those chemicals will run across our property," she said, casting a worried glance at the oak tree. "Who knows what kind of damage it will do."

Sitting on the porch, Parenica's brother Kenneth Mikulenka fumbled with his one hearing aid, trying to adjust for the noise.

"It is loud out here, even without my other hearing aid," he said, sighing.

The traffic is already steadily roaring down state Highway 95, but Robert Janak, who has lived just down the road for 52 years, is sure the traffic will just get worse with trucks pulling in at all hours to unload drilling fluid at the brightly lit sites. He believes the quiet of the country will be gone for good.

Janak already has an injection well set to be drilled directly across the street from his property. He tried to fight having that one put in, appealing to the Texas Railroad Commission, the state agency charged with reviewing injection well applications. He and his neighbors didn't get anywhere, he said.

"We found out we were spinning our wheels," he said.

Now, though Janak has decided to join Parenica and his neighbors to fight this new well application being approved, he isn't optimistic about getting a different outcome, he said.

"The Railroad Commission doesn't have any priority for us landowners," he said.

Ramona Nye, with the Railroad Commission's media relations, said the state agency is working hard to protect public interests and does not lean toward the companies.

The commission is guided by science and regulations set up to ensure safe operations of these facilities for the public and the environment, she said.

Mark Mayfield, an attorney with Gardere Wynne and Sewell in Austin, is representing Pinnergy in this application. He said the company has a proven track record of safety with salt water disposal wells. He noted that the these wells are a vital part of the oil and gas production process and have been in use for decades.

"Like oil and gas, water is an important resource to the state and Pinnergy is committed to protecting the safety of the drinking water in the vicinity," he said.

Still, the people who live around the proposed well site have their worries. They are appealing the application to the Railroad Commission.

A hearing is set for June 4, though Parenica has requested an extension to give them time to get legal representation and to find experts to build a case for putting the well in another location.

The Eagle Ford Shale play has brought prosperity to many in the Crossroads, but the valuable, oil-rich part of the play doesn't run beneath this stretch of the highway, Janak said.

Landowners with wells on their property will be drilled and there might be some noise and inconvenience, but the drillers will pack up, clean up and leave. Then royalty checks will begin arriving in the mail. But for people living near injection wells, this will never be over and there will never be any benefit to having them there, Janak said.

"They won't ever leave. We won't get that kind of closure," he said. "This will be here forever."

Standing by the oak tree, Parenica can see the hollow that, legend has it, is haunted by a headless ghost.

She can just spot the neighboring hill where her grandparents once lived. She knows exactly where a mule once got stuck in quick sand and sank while her mother stood by, helpless.

This is more than just land - the history of her family is rooted in the soil as deeply as the oak tree.

"It's a part of them and because of that it's a part of you. It becomes something essential, a part of your spirit," she said. "I can almost hear my ancestors' voices here. It must have meant something to them, this land, so I feel compelled to protect it and preserve it, just as they did."

She is determined to fight to protect it the way her family always has.

"I think I owe it to future generations to at least try to intervene. At least this way it will be recorded that we tried," Parenica said.

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