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FEATURE What Lies Beneath The threat from oilfield waste injection wells BY RUSTY MIDDLETON Cecile Carson’s property has an aura of rural homeyness. The neat yard, happy dogs, and blooming flowers along her fence rails suggest a love of place. She’s a high school art teacher who picked a little swath of Wise County near the small town of Decatur, about 35 miles north of Fort Worth, to settle down. She lived in a travel trailer for the first three years while she designed and built her home. The place is well thought outits colors blend with the surrounding landscape of green, rolling hills. It took Carson 10 years to get to this point. But it took the Railroad Commission of Texas about 45 seconds to put it all in jeopardy. On April 11, at an administrative hearing in Austin, it took less than a minute for a public reading of Carson’s and her neighbor’s protests against the placement of an oilfield waste injection well just a few hundred feet from their property. Then the three commissioners immediately voted “denied” without discussion. Carson had planned to work about 10 more years and then retire here. Now she doesn’t know. Her neighbor, Jim Popp, has postponed his plan for a new house. Other neighbors, Bob Burke and his wife Deborah, have stopped planting grape vines for the vineyard they are developing. A little farther away, Tracy Smith worries about whether exposure to gases from the well might make her asthma worse. They share the same problem. Their properties border a proposed injection well that could pump hundreds of thousands of gallons a day of oilfield waste into the ground. This waste, known in the industry as “production water;’ is mostly oily saltwater used in drilling. But it also contains substances such as waste crude, sludge from storage pits and tank bottoms, used glycol, amine, and hydrogen sulfide scrubber liquid, to name only a few. There are at least 26 acknowledged chemicals in the waste, including such known carcinogens as benzene and one category unhelpfully listed as “other.” It’s not the kind of stuff Carson wants in the drinking water she brings up from her well. Yet the Railroad Commission doesn’t classify oil and gas waste as hazardous. That means the commission, by Texas law, can place “production water” just about anywhere. These wastes must be disposed ofmostly they end up underground. Suddenly Carson and her neighbors face property values cut by as much as half, according to the appraisers and local real estate agents they’ve checked with. The future quality of their Cecile Carson’s dream home all photos by Steve Satterwhite 6 THE TEXAS OBSERVER MAY 19, 2006