A1 A1
top story
DeWitt County residents remain evacuated after oil well blowout

Residents were still not able to return to their homes and property in DeWitt County on Thursday, almost a week after a blowout occurred at one of Devon Energy’s oil wells near Yorktown.

The company is providing lodging and meals to those who had to be evacuated because they live within a two-mile radius of the well located near Farm-to-Market Road 952 and Cotton Patch Road, said Tim Hartley, a spokesman for Devon.

The evacuation zone totals about 8,000 acres.

No persons have been reported injured as a result of the blowout, though many residents have grown worried about their livestock since the incident, said DeWitt County Sheriff Carl Bowen.

“There have been some instances where landowners have removed their livestock, so it is just the remaining ones that are out there in the work zone that Devon is making sure have the arrangements they need to care for their livestock,” he said.

An estimated 12,000 pounds of natural gas will be released during the incident, according to the initial report Devon filed with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. After the event ends, the company will have two weeks to submit a final report to the agency.

Natural gas contains benzene, a carcinogen associate with multiple health risks, and methane, a greenhouse gas that is 86 times more powerful at warming the climate than carbon dioxide.

Multiple authorities responded to the scene, including the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Railroad Commission of Texas and Houston-based Great White Well Control, which Devon contracted to assist in containment.

“Crews are working quickly to regain control of the well (and) preparing the site for safely capping the wellhead,” Hartley said. “A number of steps have been taken to contain any fluid runoff at the well site to protect the surrounding environment.”

Devon identified seven stock ponds within a one-mile radius of the uncontrolled well, and started installing oil absorbent booms Thursday morning at the banks of each pond to prevent runoff from the well into the ponds, said Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the Railroad Commission of Texas.

The company also told the commission that it will build up berms or raised barriers around the well in advance of predicted rain, she said.

“The Railroad Commission continues to monitor the operator’s efforts to bring the well under control,” Nye said. “Once it is safe to do, the commission will inspect the site for compliance with RRC’s Oil & Gas Division rules.”

Contributed model 

A NOAA hysplit model shows that the plume from the oil well blowout in DeWitt County was north of Karnes City before and after midnight on Friday and Saturday, then drifted south to the southeast side of the city, where TCEQ's air quality monitors are located. At that time, it showed its highest hydrocarbon levels.

Air quality

TCEQ is supporting local authorities by conducting handheld air monitoring in the area with equipment that provides instantaneous readings for compounds, including volatile organic compounds, benzene, lower explosive limit, hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and radiation.

The commission has not detected any levels of concern exceeding short-term health exposure outside the two-mile evacuation zone, said Marty Otero, a spokeswoman for TCEQ.

Though air quality monitors stationed in Karnes City, about 18 miles southwest of the blowout, did show spikes in levels of benzene and xylene in the days after the incident.

Otero said it is unlikely that these measurements are associated with the event because of the recorded wind speeds and direction.

But Gunnar Schade, an associate professor in the atmospheric sciences department at Texas A&M University, said models from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tell a different story.

“I’m actually running a dispersion model right now and it matches exactly the times when the plume arrived in Karnes,” he said.

The model shows that the plume should have been measurable in the Karnes area between 2-4 a.m. Saturday morning, and monitors show a peak in benzene and xylene carcinogens about 2 a.m. A similar correlation is evident on Sunday morning.

“Since the monitor picked it up when the model says it should have, you can be confident that the areas the model indicates the plume reached were indeed the areas people would have smelled it (or were exposed to it),” he said.

The levels measured are below what TCEQ considers of concern, but they are “extraordinarily high,” considering that Karnes City is almost 20 miles downwind from the blowout, Schade said.

“It does penetrate,” he said. “Our buildings in this part of Texas are not very well insulated ... a lot of older buildings have poor insulation, and so within a few hours your indoor air will be similar to your outdoor air.”

The incident happened days after the well was transferred from BPX Energy, the U.S. onshore oil and gas arm of BP, to Devon on Oct. 28, Railroad Commission records show.

The company previously had to evacuate employees and residents in 2014, after another oil well blowout in the county.

Sharon Wilson, an activist against hydraulic fracturing with Earthworks, said the blowout reflects the inability to ensure safety from oil and gas production.

“This isn’t Devon’s first blowout, or second, despite its promises of safe operation ... despite our state government’s promises of responsible oversight,” she said in a statement. “We need strong rules, reliably and transparently enforced.”

This article was updated to correct errors in a quote from Gunnar Schade.

Veterans remembered, honored at Vietnam War tribute wall in Goliad (w/video)

GOLIAD – As American flags waved purposefully in the wind, Ronnie Primrose stood quietly at the Goliad County fairgrounds, searching through a list of more than 58,000 names.

Primrose, 70, was standing in front of the American Veterans Traveling Tribute Wall that will reside in Goliad through Veterans Day. When he saw it, he said, he was overcome with emotion.

“I can’t stand by it too long or I break down. Standing out here and seeing this wall, it’s …” he said before trailing off, speechless.

Evan Lewis | elewis@vicad.com 

The traveling Vietnam wall is on display in Goliad.

The Vietnam tribute wall is about 80% of the size of the original memorial that was completed in 1982 in Washington, D.C. The traveling wall stands about 8 feet tall and is about 300 feet long, and pays tribute to the more than 58,000 members of the U.S. Armed Forces who fought in the Vietnam War and were killed or missing in action.

It’s the first time the traveling tribute wall has come to Goliad, according to Jimmy Schulze, the commander of Ewell-Pompton American Legion Post 193.

“To see this wall,” he said Thursday, “it touches you.”

Evan Lewis | elewis@vicad.com 

Enrique Arredondo, 67, reads the names of fallen soldiers listed on the traveling Vietnam wall that is on display in Goliad. Arredondo served in the Marines from 1972 to 1974 and said he hasn't had the opportunity to visit the actual memorial in Washington, D.C.

Schulze said the plans to bring the wall to Goliad began about 18 months ago, and thanks to numerous donors – most significantly Weesatche 4 Warriors – it became a possibility to bring the wall into the community.

The wall arrived in Goliad on Wednesday and setting up the wall began Thursday morning, Schulze said. It went up easily, and members of the public began trickling in to see it before noon, he said.

Schulze said he’s seen the original wall in Washington, D.C., many times, but when he saw this wall in Goliad, he was “in awe.”

Walking alongside the wall Thursday, Primrose appeared in awe, too. He said he has never seen the memorial in Washington, D.C., but the first time he saw it displayed on TV, he had to leave his house because he was so moved.

Primrose said he grew up in East Bernard and has lived in Goliad since 2008. He said he served in the U.S. Army for six years in the 1970s, and “narrowly missed having to go to Vietnam.”

Evan Lewis | elewis@vicad.com 

Ronnie Primrose points out the name of Alfredo Salazar, of Goliad, who died during the Vietnam War.

Raymond Kozik and Frank Michulka, who Primrose said he grew up with, both served in the Vietnam War.

Their names are engraved on the wall, something Primrose said is an honor to see.

“If you were old enough to see what the war was really like …” he trailed off. “This is the way we can remember our friends.”

Within the first few hours of the wall’s opening Thursday afternoon, a group of students from Goliad High School, led by U.S. history teacher Doug Williams, also visited.

As the students walked along the wall, stopping to take it all in, Allison Carbajal searched for one name in particular: the name of her great-grandfather. She found it with the help of Williams and Primrose.

Allison, 14, said finding her great-grandfather’s name was meaningful to her, and will be “very special” for her mother.

Primrose, who helped other visitors find names of friends and relatives, too, said he felt it was his duty to help.

“It’s a way for me to respect these fellow Americans who served,” he said. “Now, they’ll be able to carry this on with them, this memory of seeing the names on the wall.”

Evan Lewis | elewis@vicad.com 

Ronnie Primrose, 70, left, a volunteer and retired Army serviceman, comforts Eldon Pfenningen after helping Pfenningen find the name of a fallen friend.

The wall is open 24 hours a day until 9 p.m.

Veterans Day, Schulze said, to allow members of the community to come and see it at any time they feel comfortable.

Two American flags have been placed in front of the panels that list the two Goliad residents who served and died, and another row of American flags have been placed along the entire wall.

Schulze said he hopes those who served can visit the wall to get closure.

He said having the wall in Goliad for Veterans Day is “an honor.”

“I hope it touches a lot of people; I know it will,” he said. “It’s a chance for people to come, pay respects and make their peace.”

top story
Texans shopping for private health insurance have until Dec. 15 to buy a plan

Last year, Nancy Schmidt went to the hospital with a stomach ache.

Hours later, she was on the operating table where doctors performed a triple bypass surgery.

The life-saving operation would have cost about $500,000 if she had no insurance. But with the plan that Schmidt bought on the Affordable Care Act Marketplace, she paid $2,600.

Now, during the open enrollment period for people who shop for their own plans, Schmidt plans to continue her health coverage through the marketplace.

The open enrollment period in Texas started Nov. 1, and runs until Dec. 15, giving Texans without health insurance about six weeks to purchase a plan. Since the Affordable Care Act passed in 2010, the law has been challenged, changed and debated repeatedly, causing confusion among people who don’t know if they’ll be able to afford health insurance, said Jeanette Rojas Flores, an independent insurance agent in Victoria. Flores has taken it upon herself to urge those without insurance, or who have a plan that’s not compliant with Affordable Care Act, to see if they qualify for a tax credit that could help with their monthly premiums.

About 11.5 million Americans buy insurance through the marketplace. Most Americans get insurance through their jobs, or else qualify for public health insurance programs like Medicare, Medicaid or Tricare, the insurance program for veterans. But millions of Americans lack health insurance, which can make life-saving treatments unaffordable if they have an emergency or get diagnosed with a serious illness like cancer. Texas has the highest rate of people without insurance in the nation.

For Texans who don’t qualify for Medicaid or who have jobs that don’t offer insurance, a private plan could help protect them if they get sick, Flores said. Nationwide, the monthly cost for a plan on Marketplace has dipped slightly, although the costs vary widely depending on where you live, how much you earn, and how many people are in your household. Almost all low- and moderate-income Americans can qualify for a tax credit or subsidy to help with their health insurance cost. But if you make more than $50,000, you’ll have to pay that cost on your own.

For those Americans who make a little bit too much to qualify for a subsidy, plans on the marketplace can be wildly expensive.

“The ones that aren’t eligible for subsidies are the ones that are still really struggling with affordability in this market,” said Rachel Fehr, a research assistant at the Kaiser Family Foundation who focuses on the ACA.

During the open enrollment period, consumer advocates are urging people to make sure the health plans they purchase have the coverage they need. There’s been a huge expansion in short-term plans recently, Fehr said, which are plans that are not compliant with the ACA and are much more loosely regulated.

Short term plans often don’t cover prenatal care, mental health care or preventative care, but they usually have lower monthly premiums, making them attractive to some consumers.

“It’s really important that you understand what it covers,” Fehr said.

To make sure that you’re buying a plan that is compliant with the ACA, shop on healthcare.gov.

In Victoria County, one carrier is available on the ACA Marketplace, Blue Cross Blue Shield, which means consumers locally don’t have the same options in other areas of the state where there are more insurance companies selling plans.

More than 10 years after the ACA, also known as “Obamacare,” was passed, opinions about the law are still mixed, largely along party lines. Although overall opinions vary by party, many of the law’s core tenets are popular with voters across party lines.

Eight-two percent of people polled had a favorable opinion of the health insurance marketplace, where individuals and small businesses can buy coverage, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s most recent polling.

The subsidies available to help reduce premium costs, like the ones that keep Schmidt’s monthly payments low, are seen as positives by about 81% of people polled by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Texas is leading a group of states that is trying to have the entire law declared unconstitutional. An appeals court in New Orleans could make a decision in the case any day, although officials with the Trump administration have said that people with a marketplace plan won’t see any immediate changes to their plan if the law is overturned.

Schmidt, a lifelong Victoria resident, said buying a plan through the marketplace has made a huge difference for her and her family’s health, and their medical bills.

Schmidt runs her own business, Big State Auto Salvage, with her husband, and previously had a more expensive independent plan.

“Just let them know that it could cost them nothing at all,” Schmidt said when asked what advice she’d give to those without insurance. “A lot of people are scared to do open enrollment thinking they can’t afford the fees, and if you have children you may not have to pay anything at all, or depending on your pay you may not have to pay a single penny.”