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Community 'shocked' after government permits construction of toxic waste ponds near kids' camp: 'It's a kind of chemical stew ... going into these ponds'

"I, quite frankly, was shocked at seeing the proximity of the camp to the facility."

"I, quite frankly, was shocked at seeing the proximity of the camp to the facility."

Photo Credit: iStock

A Texas community was outraged after state regulators approved the construction of an oil and gas waste recycling facility directly next to a summer camp.

What happened?

Inside Climate News reported in February that Martin Water received preliminary approval for a state permit to operate ponds that will "store and recycle millions of gallons of oilfield wastewater laced with toxic chemicals." The issue is that the open ponds of produced water, a result of oil and gas drilling, will be located just 500 feet from the Circle 6 Baptist Camp in the Permian Basin, putting the camp's well water at risk and potentially exposing children to harmful pollution.

"I would be very alarmed if I was working at that Baptist Center," said Dominic DiGiulio, a retired geoscientist who worked for 25 years at the Environmental Protection Agency and now consults for non-governmental organizations. "It's a kind of chemical stew that's going into these ponds."

Martin Water claimed the recycling facility is needed to provide a way to repurpose wastewater so it's not injected underground. Research shows that produced water in the Permian Basin already contains "radionuclides, volatile organic compounds like benzene and extremely high salt content."

Circle 6 and Martin Water took their debate to court and presented their cases during a hearing in Austin on July 24 and 25 before Railroad Commission of Texas administrative law judge Alissa Zachary. Among the witnesses called by Circle 6's lawyers was William Rogers, a West Texas A&M University environmental scientist and oil and gas remediation expert.

"In my 40-some years, this is probably the worst siting that I've ever seen, as far as being close proximity to a camp, proximity to the groundwater, the potential risk and the unknowns," Rogers testified. "I, quite frankly, was shocked at seeing the proximity of the camp to the facility."

Zachary still recommended that the Railroad Commission issue the permit, deeming the facility design "sufficient" to prevent water pollution. The three RRC commissioners approved the permit without qualifications during an open meeting Jan. 30.

Why is this important?

The decision to allow Martin Water to begin the operation will hinder progress toward creating a cleaner planet. Placing a facility that has the potential to do such significant damage to the environment next to a children's camp is borderline irresponsible.

"We have so many concerns with this recycling facility dealing with 'non-hazardous' produced water," Circle 6 Camp executive director Brian Colbath wrote in an email to a representative of Martin Water in summer 2022. "That sounds like an oxymoron considering all the information in the material safety data sheets we have pulled up."

Inside Climate News reported that the Circle 6 Camp "relies on water wells that tap into the Ogallala Aquifer, which is the largest in the nation." Circle 6's lawyers argued that the pit design of the recycling facility would not sufficiently prevent contamination of the aquifer, which could cause residents and campers to be exposed to dangerous air pollution such as hydrogen sulfide gas, which can be fatal. 

Rogers noted that Martin Water's claim that it wouldn't accept at the facility produced water that contains detectable amounts of hydrogen sulfide was simply not feasible.

"I have heard testimony there will be absolutely no hydrogen sulfide. That's virtually impossible," Rogers said.

What can be done about this?

While Martin Water is set to move forward with the construction of the wastewater recycling facility, the concerns raised by Circle 6 prompted the Railroad Commission to review and update its waste pit rules for the first time in decades, with the final version expected to be put in place later this year.

Under the drafted rule changes for commercial recycling, facilities like the Martin Water site would be required to be more than 1,000 feet from permanent residences. Circle 6's lawyers contended that if the rules were already in place, the Martin Water site would never have been permitted, which indicates that the location of the ponds is "completely unacceptable."

Virginia Palacios, executive director of Commission Shift, a nonprofit dedicated to reforming the Railroad Commission, recommended that the RRC seek feedback from communities around Texas that have been impacted by similar situations.

"There is nothing standing in the way between a polluting facility and the people who live next to it," she said.

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