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Texas fracking critics tour the Eagle Ford as complaints of contamination surface

Photo: Micahel Barajas, License: N/A

Micahel Barajas

Toby Frederick, who lives outside Cuero, stands next a well on his property pumping water that reeks of diesel fuel.

Photo: Michael Barajas, License: N/A

Michael Barajas

A natural gas compressor station outside Cuero, one piece of the Eagle Ford buzzing with oil and gas exploration.

Because of staffing levels and a spotty track record of enforcement, critics worry the RRC is poorly positioned to respond to the concerns that arise with increased fracking in the Eagle Ford — including the disposal of toxic fracking mud and ensuring proper well casing to prevent blowouts.

The state’s Sunset Review this session slammed the commission, saying it fails to stem industry abuses because it rarely fines or even cites violators, and both Tillman and Wilson claimed unaddressed problems in the Barnett Shale have proven the commission lacks the teeth to properly regulate the industry. “I don’t want you guys thinking the Railroad Commission will be your savior,” Tillman told the Laredo crowd. “They’re not going to come down here and protect you from this happening.”

The RRC oversees 48 employees out of its San Antonio and Corpus Christi field offices, which respond to the Eagle Ford region. In total, only 16 field inspectors cover the whole of South Texas, according to RRC records — a paltry number, Wilson said, given the expected spike in production in the coming years.

“About 10 years ago the RRC had about 730 oil and gas employees. Now we have about 320 … and the volume of activity has only increased,” said Gil Bujano, deputy director of the RRC’s oil and gas division. Acknowledging the RRC’s understaffing, Bujano said, “If we’ve got elected officials who come in and say they want to downsize government and cut our employees, well there are repercussions there.”

Toby Frederick, who lives outside Cuero in DeWitt County, another piece of the Eagle Ford buzzing with oil and gas exploration, claimed the RRC fumbled his case when his well water began to reek of diesel fuel last summer.

Frederick quickly contacted the commission for testing soon after his water took on a noxious odor. After the commission tested the water in September, 2010, found nothing wrong, and insisted a toxicologist had deemed the water safe, Frederick and his family continued cooking and bathing with water from the well. “That smell never went away,” Frederick said. “I eventually paid for a private test. … I guess I wasn’t shocked we found all this stuff in it. That smell will make you dizzy.”

Independent testing found half a dozen benzene compounds in Frederick’s water above EPA contamination levels, he said, and an RRC inspector’s report Frederick later obtained dating back to September shows benzene contamination was suspected all along. Frederick didn’t stop using the water until April, 2011.

Frederick has since spent $6,000 drilling another shallower well to supply water for his house but still can’t pinpoint what caused the initial contamination.

The well sits 60 feet away from a capped, decades-old natural gas well, which Frederick suspects could have corroded and breached. He also points to a natural gas compression station down the road, the breach of a nearby open air pit for containing used drilling fluids, and two nearby fracking wells that blew their casings in recent years. “I don’t blame gas drilling. ... I don’t know what caused it,” he said. “But I do want the Railroad Commission to figure out what happened,” he said, fearing other nearby wells could face contamination if the problem continues unabated.

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