News 8 Investigates
Brett Shipp reports
STONEWALL COUNTY, Texas - There are new allegations of favoritism and protectionism by members of the Texas Railroad Commission.
This time, a North Texas rancher says the state's oil and gas regulators are letting toxic waste seep into the nearby Brazos River north of Abilene, putting a precious public resource at risk by their inaction. State officials deny the claims and say they are doing everything they can.
The pristine waters of the Brazos River are not only a source of beauty; they provide drinking water for millions of North Texans. In Stonewall County, the river is kept flowing by the massive yet shallow Seymour Aquifer, which runs right underneath Robert Crowell's ranch.
"That aquifer really accelerates as you get closer to this river, and it's bringing anything that's in there," he said. "It's bringing it down here really, really fast."
What's in there, according to Crowell, is poison - coming from an abandoned gas processing plant just 400 feet away.
When Crowell bought the land in 2003, the site appeared to have been cleaned, but the old plant had only been dismantled. The Railroad Commission never enforced state regulations requiring remediation.
The result, according to Crowell, an ecological disaster.
Dangerous levels of petroleum waste are leeching through the soil toward the river. "In my opinion, they've been in that river a long time," Crowell said. "Lead, benzene, mercury, arsenic, PCBs - we found all of that in that plant up there."
The contamination did not stop with the abandoned processing plant. Extensive testing throughout Crowell's ranch revealed up to 15 contaminated sites. Test after test uncovered evidence of toxic chemicals left over from oil and gas operations that Crowell said the Railroad Commission should have ordered cleaned up years ago.
"What sort of cleanup is going on right here, right now? Zero," Crowell said, adding that the Railroad Commission has been presented with all of the analytical data from the tests on his property.
While the old Oxy Chemical gas processing plant remains polluted, the Railroad Commission is working on a cleanup plan. The Commission has also forced another operator, Kinder Morgan, to test and clean up pollution elsewhere on Crowell's land.
But the Commission is also critical of Crowell.
In documents obtained by News 8, one Commission staff member dismisses many of the findings of Crowell's tests, saying they were conducted "without regard to standard environmental investigative methods." The rancher is accused of "trespassing" and "preventing access" to his property.
Yet Crowell showed us a sign prohibiting him from testing other sites he believes are contaminated. "Until we can test this area, we don't know whether it's contaminated or not," he said.
Environmental consultant Jerry Nickell was hired by Crowell to document the contamination. He said state regulators have a long history of letting polluters off the hook. "They are very biased in favor of industry versus the landowners," Nickell said. "Our regulatory framework and laws in this state have been set up to be so pro-industry - as the Railroad Commission will tell you - the mineral estate takes precedence over over the surface estate ... No bones about it."
Campaign records show Oxy Chemical's political action committee and Kinder Morgan's C.E.O, Richard Kinder contributed $33,000 to all three Railroad Commissioners since 2001, with the majority going to Chairman Michael Williams. But they also gave money to many other candidates, and both companies have been responsive to Commission directives to clean up the Crowell ranch.
Crowell, however, says those directives are minimal and inadequate - especially when it comes to protecting one of the most valuable resources in the state. "In our opinion, there's a huge threat to the Brazos River and everybody downstream," he said.
As for the actual threat to the Brazos River, while Crowell's tests show dangerous levels of toxins leaching into the water table, the Brazos River Authority has not found dangerous levels downstream.
But Crowell said laws are in place to protect the drinking water, and he said the Railroad Commission should start following them.