Small-town residents brace for environmental battle

Sara  Sneath By Sara Sneath

July 26, 2014 at 2:26 a.m.
Updated July 27, 2014 at 2:27 a.m.

Residents are concerned about a  proposal by Pyote Reclamation Systems  to build an open-pit disposal site in a rural setting less than a mile from Nordheim. Signs and billboards, like this one on state Highway 72, express concerns over possible permanent damage to the environment in the community of about 300 residents.

Residents are concerned about a proposal by Pyote Reclamation Systems to build an open-pit disposal site in a rural setting less than a mile from Nordheim. Signs and billboards, like this one on state Highway 72, express concerns over possible permanent damage to the environment in the community of about 300 residents.   Frank Tilley for The Victoria Advocate

NORDHEIM - Two white signs with black lettering that read "Don't dump on Nordheim" are stuck in a fence along Hohn Road in front of Kevin Styra's home.

In black magic marker, Styra added, "You might win this war, but we'll win the eternal one," on the corner of one sign.

Directly across the road, on a 204-acre plot owned by Pasiano DeWitt, Pyote Reclamation Systems of San Antonio has proposed an oil-field waste disposal and treatment site, a proposal that has passed one more step toward approval. A proposal that Styra and his neighbors have been adamantly fighting since they received two 4-inch-thick binders with the site applications in the mail a year and a half ago.

"To put a hazardous dump next to a town where it could affect people's water, air, soil - you know, to me, that's just not just," Styra said.

Styra and his neighbors aren't aspiring environmentalists or activists. Most of the neighbors of the proposed Hohn Road site are near retirement age and use the little plot of land they have to grow hay or run a few head of cattle.

"I've never considered myself an environmentalist. I try to watch what I do and recycle my papers and the like," said Lyn Janssen, who lives down the road from the proposed site. "I thought I was going to have a nice, quiet retirement, you know, and travel. But can you picture the smell, the noise? They'll have lights. Those lights will be on all the time, like a parking lot at the hospital. And then it will reveal what's there: the big piles of stuff. Would you want your little town to be known for that?"

Nordheim residents are no strangers to oil-field activity. White pickup trucks with energy company decals, tractor-trailers and oil-field chemical trucks compose most of the traffic through the one blinking light in Nordheim, a town with a population of about 300. But neighbors worry about the proposed waste facility's proximity to town - about a quarter-mile east - and the lay of the land. At the 204-acre Hohn Road site, 2 inches of rain runs off the land and fills neighbors' stockponds.

The application says the water- and oil-based drilling fluids received at the facility will be nonhazardous. But environmental scientist Wilma Subra has warned neighbors that suspected cancer-causing compounds as well as mutagens are among the chemicals that would be received.

Still, the site has to pass the Railroad Commission's application process, which Pete Dlugosch, who owns Pasiano DeWitt, and Pyote Reclamation Systems' engineering firm have said will ensure the proposed facility is up to par.

"The facility will be constructed as required by the Railroad Commission rules and regulations for commercial units and designed to be protective of soil and groundwater," said Kelly Beck of Daniel B. Stephens and Associates Inc., the company's engineering firm. "The permit application must first be approved by the RRC to assure that the facility will meet the stringent requirements for construction and operation of these types of facilities."

Pyote Water Systems, a sister company of Pyote Reclamation Systems, is an experienced oil and gas waste management company, Beck said.

"I want to assure my neighbors that the facility being developed on Hohn and Eckhardt road(s) are state-of-the-art reclamation/treatment facilities designed solely to process non-hazardous oil and gas materials being generated in our area as well as comply with all the strict environmental standards established by the regulatory authorities," wrote Dlugosch in a letter to residents.

The waste trenches at the site would be 20 to 25 feet deep and extend 20 to 25 feet above ground. The trenches would not be capped, allowing the waste to evaporate into the air and oxidize by sunlight. Although the pits will be lined on the bottom, the application allows the facility to leak 100 gallons per acre per day from the disposal trenches and 1,000 gallons per acre per day from the collection pit.

"This isn't a saltwater injection well. Unless you read that binder, you don't know how bad it's going to be. People don't even know that them pits are going to be out there forever," said Paul Baumann, who owns land next door to the proposed site on Hohn Road. "I've been depressed ever since I got them binders."

"You have 300 people who have no idea what's about to hit them," Styra said.

Styra bought his slice of countryside about a quarter-mile outside town from his grandmother when he was 19. He dreamed of building a home for his family on the 42-acre property, which has been in his family for more than 100 years. In 2009, Styra moved into the white-rock three-bedroom home he had built for his wife and daughter.

"My life is going to be changed just like everybody else's. I'm not going to profit from this any economically. If anything, I'm going to lose," Styra said. "Who wants to come outside and smell this awful smell, deal with all the truck traffic and noise? You know, is your water going to be good today, not tomorrow, or ever again?"

Styra and his neighbors fear their air, soil and water will be contaminated by the site.

"I have grandchildren, great-grandchildren. We have to fight for them. They may want that land some day," said Ruth Newman, who owns farming land next to the proposed Hohn Road site.

More than 100 residents have joined together to form Concerned About Pollution to protest the proposed waste site on Hohn Road and a second, larger site proposed on Eckhardt Road.

"We got to stick together here," Baumann, who is the group's president, said at a meeting Monday night.

"I worry about the little land I got out there," he said.

The group has hired a lawyer, a petrochemical professional and a groundwater professional to help in the fight. Members of the group have also toured waste sites in Texas similar to the ones proposed in Nordheim.

"The road was all sloppy, and the smell in the air was terrible," Baumann said of an oil-field waste disposal site he checked out in Altair.

Applications for the DeWitt County sites were first filed in April 2013. The permits were denied once by the Texas Railroad Commission but have been amended and are once again in the review process. Letters from the Texas Railroad Commission denying the first applications state the sites were denied because the proposed facilities "may cause or allow pollution to surface or subsurface waters" and because the facilities were protested.

But the revised application for the Hohn Road site was recently administratively approved and will go before two hearing examiners Sept. 10 and 11 in Austin. The examiners will use the two days to collect evidence relevant to the application, which they will use to make a recommendation to the Railroad Commission.

"The engineers, geologists and other company representatives that are developing this facility will be at that hearing and will be prepared to answer any and all questions you have at that time," Dlugosch wrote in his letter to residents.

A subsequent public meeting will occur before three Railroad Commission commissioners, who will decide whether to approve the application.

Pyote expects the applications to be approved, said George Wommack, spokesman and CEO of Petro Waste Environmental, which has a partnership with Pyote. The sites are a good choice for the waste facilities because of their proximity to Eagle Ford Shale play drilling activity and major transportation arteries serving the play, he said.

If the proposed site was farther away from the town and school, if it wasn't within a rural neighborhood, if the land was flatter there, Concerned About Pollution members said they would understand. But as is, they feel as though they have no other choice but to protest.

"Although it looks like it to you who live in the city that this area is unpopulated, it's not," Janssen said. "We all have lungs. We don't all have money, but we have lungs."



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