Senator Rodríguez Demands Answers on Flood-Related Oil Spills

Oil spill on the lower Trinity River
Civil Air Patrol
An oil spill on the lower Trinity River

In a letter sent to three state agencies on Wednesday, El Paso State Senator José Rodríguez demanded an explanation for the “apparent lack of response” to oil and chemical spills in Texas rivers during floods.

The three-page letter to the Railroad Commission, Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and Department of Public Safety was prompted by reporting from the El Paso Times; the newspaper published photos of oil plumes, chemical spills and flooded wastewater ponds at fracking sites as part of a recent series of articles.

“Alarming as these images are, more alarming is the Railroad Commission’s and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) apparent lack of response to the spills,” Rodríguez’s letter stated. “I’m further deeply troubled by what might appear as a concerted effort by the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) to keep photographic evidence of spills … from the public.”

In response to the photos, the Railroad Commission told the publication that it had ordered cleanup in one case of contamination of a well site near the Lower Trinity River. The newspaper reported that the agency did not provide evidence of enforcement action against oil and gas operators in any of the cases.

In a follow-up, the El Paso Times reported that between May 18 and June 1, the Railroad Commission began at least 27 investigations into flood-related oil and chemical spills in Texas. In response to queries about those spills, the Railroad Commission told the publication it acted with urgency in response to any spill, but did not provide evidence of cleanup work.

The photos used with the El Paso Times coverage were shot by the Civil Air Patrol, a nonprofit that serves the U.S. Air Force, and posted on a University of Texas at Austin website. The images showed plumes of oil and chemicals in the Sabine, Trinity, Red and Colorado rivers.

Shortly after the El Paso Times stories were published, the Department of Public Safety (DPS), citing privacy concerns, ordered the photos be taken down from the website.

In the letter sent Wednesday, Rodríguez asked the Railroad Commission and TCEQ to reveal how many spills the agencies have documented since 2014, what had been done in response to the spills, and whether enforcement actions were taken against oil and gas producers whose facilities leaked during flooding. The El Paso Times reported that it had asked similar questions but received no reply.

Rodriguez also asked the DPS to list the state and local entities it notified when it became aware of an oil spill.

At a Senate hearing on water planning earlier in the week, Rodríguez asked a TCEQ official whether the oil spills have contaminated water supplies.

“The concern is that … you have the spilling of oil, crude and chemicals that go with fracking into our waterways,” he told the TCEQ staff person. “We’re talking about a serious issue of … water availability.”

The TCEQ official said she wasn’t aware of any oil spills and that she would pass on questions to others in the agency.

A spokesperson for the TCEQ said she wasn’t aware of the letter and that she would check with staff members.

[ Clarification:The Observer did not clearly distinguish between two responses from the Railroad Commission to El Paso Times’ reporting on flood-related oil and chemical spills. The Railroad Commission’s explanation that it had cleaned up one spill in the Lower Trinity River was a response to the El Paso Times publication of photos of spills. ]

Naveena Sadasivam is a staff writer covering energy and the environment at the Observer. She has a degree in chemical engineering and a master’s in environmental and science reporting from New York University.

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Published at 12:37 pm CST