Elections 2022EnergySan Augustine Oil and Gas Waste Disposal Site Sparks Local Fight at the Railroad Commission

The Railroad Commission hosted a three-week-long hearing on the prospective site's permit as the two sides submitted thousands of pieces of evidence.
February 28, 2022
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The five-man commissioners court in the sleepy East Texas county of San Augustine breezed through their agenda, free of the grandstanding so common in the governing bodies of Texas’ largest cities.

A stone’s throw from Louisiana, the county’s mid-February agenda featured an increase of compensation to a funeral home for cremation services of local paupers; a report by the sheriff about an uptick in burglaries synopsized as “We’re all being hit and every one of ‘em is on meth”; and a resolution restricting where an oil and gas disposal site may be located.

That final item is part of a larger fight the county has been waging for years — and it now bleeds into a campaign fight featuring one of the area’s most notable sons, Railroad Commissioner Wayne Christian.

The Site

The resolution — a mostly toothless declaration of preference by the county that could be brought up in legal proceedings — limits the location that an oil and gas treatment, disposal, and recycling facility or transfer station may be constructed.

The Texan Tumbler

The prospective disposal site at which this resolution is aimed began development in 2019 when PA Prospect — a company of Pennsylvania origin, headquartered in Montana — bought the land and then applied for a permit with the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC), the agency tasked with regulating the state’s oil and gas industry.

Per state law, PA Prospect issued a public notice of the application in the local newspaper, advising residents that protests must be submitted by the 15th day after final publication.

Bisected by Highway 103, a frequently trafficked high-speed road, the prospective facility would dispose of fracking byproduct.

The 265-acre plot of land will take a tub-like shape — much like a landfill — of earth with the edges formed by the red clay of East Texas. Within that tub will lie smaller, elongated divots where the dried cuttings will be packed. Each divot, or “cell” as the industry calls them, will be tarped with a plastic liner on top of which the cuttings will be placed.

Leachate collection systems would also be installed, a series of piping that redirects any seepage to sumps that allow the liquid to be collected without flowing into the surrounding environment.

The final safeguard against underground leaks is the very clay where the waste is buried. Above ground, there will be berms surrounding the perimeter — earthen shelves meant to contain any water.

When a cell fills up, it will be capped by another liner — and when all cells are capped, the whole tub will be covered in soil and seeded like municipal landfills. When capped, the site would be one of the highest points in the county. But where the waste in municipal landfills is miscellaneous garbage, here it is the dried and compact well cuttings.

Fracking waste takes two forms: 1) liquid waste, generally the mixture of water, brine, and other chemicals used to widen underground cracks necessary to extract the crude fuel, and 2) solid waste, the dirt, rocks, and other solid materials that are byproducts of drilling hundreds and thousands of feet into the ground.

Liquid waste is disposed of in injection wells — two of which are already permitted next to the prospective site.

Jay Stewart, an attorney with Hance Scarborough, LLP representing PA Prospect, told The Texan the site was chosen for two reasons: 1) the area is without such a disposal site despite having a prolific oil and gas presence with the Haynesville Shale region and 2) the natural clay formation in the ground.

There is another site in development nearby going through the same permitting process as this one in Panola County that is less than two miles from Toledo Bend Reservoir — a source of drinking water for the area’s residents.

But developers see the area as conducive to these projects because of the natural clay. Landfills without the clay already on-site must ship it in, and waste transportation costs for oil and gas companies rise exponentially along with the distance of transport. Closer proximity means lower costs.

Depending on how quickly waste-for-disposal comes in, Stewart estimated the site would take 10 to 20 years to be filled and capped.

Across Highway 103 is another property owned by PA Prospect that will be used for intake of the waste shipments.

The prospective landfill is less than 1,200 yards uphill from Chinquapin Creek, which feeds into the Ayish Bayou that flows into the Sam Rayburn Reservoir — a fishing and tourist hub. Stewart says the most updated engineering plans account for a 1,000-year storm, twice the rainfall brought in by Hurricane Harvey.

A three week-long hearing over Zoom, with thousands of pieces of evidence submitted, was held last year with an administrative judge at the RRC. The company’s application was revised as issues arose, something those in opposition have criticized but is not unusual in permitting proceedings.

One of the initial application errors was a software misstep within the groundwater mapping assessment done by the company’s geoscientist Tracey O’Shay. The mapping showed the groundwater flowing inward when it should’ve flown outward.

The mistake was caught by Ellen and Geoff Reeder, both of whom were geoscientists before their retirement, who live in San Augustine County but do not live close enough to join the official protest against the permit. In an interview with The Texan, the Reeders pointed to various other faults in O’Shay’s work ranging from grammatical errors to alleged liberties taken in her groundwater depth analysis and failure to acknowledge the existence of certain water wells surrounding the property.

Sam Rayburn Lake (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

A complaint against O’Shay is currently under consideration with the Texas Board of Professional Geoscientists (TBPG). Rene Truan, executive director of the TBPG, told The Texan that the organization is still in discussions with O’Shay and her counsel over a settlement. If nothing is agreed to, then an administrative hearing would be triggered.

The scope of the errors under investigation by the TBPG could not be disclosed by Truan, but punishment could range from a fine to license suspension or revocation.

Stewart defended O’Shay, calling her a skilled professional, and since the error was corrected, said, “It had no impact on this application.”

The Community Opposition

Sitting in his modest office, Jeff Boyd, the San Augustine County judge, admits he’s been late to the issue as coronavirus seized his focus when it came roaring onto the scene.

San Augustine County Judge Jeff Boyd oversees a commissioners court meeting. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

Being one of the poorest counties in the state, Boyd said his community isn’t eager to turn away jobs. But the prospective operation, he said, is only projected to support “one or two handfuls” of jobs, most of which would be truckers bringing in the waste from elsewhere for disposal.

Stewart says the facility would employ about 30 people not including the trucking jobs, along with 300 non-permanent construction jobs.

“I took office in January 2019, and it was March or April when I was first alerted to [the project], and it was something I’d never heard of to begin with,” Boyd said. “It was like this company kinda slipped in, bought this land on the sly, and started doing stuff — and if some of the people who live next door hadn’t started asking questions, we still wouldn’t have known.”

Those neighbors are, among numerous others, Ann and Alvin Bridges whose property is adjacent to and downhill from the prospective dump. The Bridges get their water supply from a shallow well on their property — 103 feet from the PA Prospect lot’s perimeter.

Being parties to the protest, the Bridges could not provide comment for this story. There are multiple other homesteads within spitting distance of the site, all of which rely on wells for their water supply.

But the opposition amounts to more than just those living next to the site.

RD Griffin (front left) and Kyle Stewart (front right) behind the Griffin Feed Company counter. Griffin’s employees Lucas (back left) and Marshall (back right) also featured. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

Stacks of paper clutter the tiny corner office in R.D. Griffin’s feed store, Griffin Feed & Farm Supply off U.S. Highway 96 in San Augustine County. Despite the mess, Griffin pulled out a couple dozen papers related to the dump site — testimonials from residents against the proposal, maps of the site, etc.

Griffin has spoken out profusely, decrying the proposal in opinion editorials and letters to the editor at local papers.

“You cannot put a liquor store within 1,000 feet of a church, but you can put one of these things right next door,” Griffin told The Texan. “Once one of these sites is completed, it’s there until Gabriel blows his horn.”

Kyle Stewart, a math teacher at San Augustine ISD and former football coach for 32 years, grew up in the county and moved back to the area five years ago after some time spent elsewhere.

Through his property runs Chinquapin Creek, which makes him eligible for protest, but he decided not to join the official protest so he could speak out more about the proposal.

His concerns are generally fourfold:

  • Leaks that go undetected and unremedied that contaminate the surrounding water wells and the reservoir
  • A large rainstorm resulting in the facility flooding out
  • Out-of-state waste being brought to Texas
  • Neglect by the dump owners if PA Prospect sells the facility to another company

Jay Stewart said that he is not sure if PA Prospect will sell off the site to a managing company, but that has happened before. For example, a similar site in College Station was permitted and constructed by PA Prospect and then sold to Republic Services, which still operates the facility.

“There are two types of landfills: those that are leaking and those that will,” Reeder said of such sites.

The two representatives for San Augustine County, Sen. Robert Nichols (R-Jacksonville) and Rep. Trent Ashby (R-Lufkin), are also opposed to the site.

While nobody wants to see a dump in their backyard — and it is practically in the Bridges’ backyard — oil and gas waste is a byproduct of the prosperity that industry has provided Texas.

“If you do not have waste management, you cannot drill wells,” Jay Stewart said. “I empathize with the community’s concerns, but this is a function of having oil and gas.”

Jay Stewart rejected the suggestion that Louisiana waste will be brought to Texas. “This is about storing Texas waste in Texas.”

Chinquapin Creek running through Kyle Stewart’s property. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

Despite opposing positions on the issue, the dueling Stewarts, unrelated, have maintained cordiality with each other — with Kyle joking to Jay after a public forum that “You’re no longer invited to the family Thanksgiving.”

The case’s evidentiary period closed a few weeks ago, and from that point the administrative judge who oversaw the hearing has 60 days to issue her recommendation to the commissioners. With that, the commissioners will make their decision on the permit’s final approval or rejection.

The Political Implications

Christian has maintained public neutrality on the site, to avoid compromising his ability to consider the permit application impartially. Like the Judicial Code of Conduct that forbids statements or actions that “[suggest] to a reasonable person the judge’s probable decision on any particular case,” the RRC operates with the same approach to disputes before them.

But for those residents whose homes abut the proposed dump, such a trifle is ripe for dismissal.

“I never had any occasion to pay attention to the Railroad Commission but after watching all this, I’m convinced there are some common-sense changes that need to be made,” Griffin said.

Griffin added that he has always supported Christian in the past, save for his 2004 run against Congressman Louie Gohmert (R-TX-01) in the GOP primary. Now Christian faces a primary of his own in the statewide race, and San Augustine County is exactly the kind of rural area that spurred now-Railroad Commissioner Jim Wright’s routing upset over Ryan Sitton in the 2020 primary.

However, the circumstances are substantially different. For instance, Christian has not publicly decried former President Donald Trump like Sitton did in 2015. In fact, he’s done quite the opposite.

San Augustine County is deeply red, rated R+20% by The Texan’s Texas Partisan Index. So, if the voters of San Augustine County are up for grabs, it’s the primary to watch and not the general.

RRC candidate Tom Slocum, whose yard sign stands on the property of Griffin’s store, has used the permit as a campaign issue and been forthright about his opposition to the site.

Griffin Feed Company on U.S. Route 96. (The Texan/Brad Johnson)

“Texans want fair, common sense judgment when it comes to the permit approval process. They don’t want a tainted system where pay-to-play leads the way,” he told The Texan.

Asked if he was in Christian’s chair, whether he would take the same position of public impartiality, Slocum said, “True Texas common sense must always be exercised when taking any position, and all Texans know it’s common sense to not place a permanent oilfield landfill in a high-risk area where surface water contamination is more likely to happen than not.” 

“There are great areas in Texas to install terrific oilfield landfills where no environmental issues will arise, and then there are high-risk areas that invite criticism and lawsuits from Republican landowners, creating terrible optics for Texas and the Republican Party.”

Travis McCormick, a spokesman for the Christian campaign, told The Texan, “Setting aside that this case will likely be decided before a new Commissioner could even take office, it is unethical for a candidate to promise how they would vote in a contested case.”

“Commissioners are supposed to remain impartial and make decisions based solely on the information provided to them by the Administrative Law Judge.”

Slocum, along with the residents in opposition to the site, criticized Christian’s campaign contributions from Hance Scarborough, the firm representing PA Prospect. Hance Scarborough-affiliated donations totaled $36,500 to Christian between 2016 and 2021 through the firm’s PAC. An additional $3,500 came from Jay Stewart before PA Prospect applied for the permit.

Christian faces four primary opponents, including Slocum — one of whom, Sarge Summers, tragically passed away earlier this month in a car accident.

The latest public poll on the March 1 primary, by the University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs, showed Christian at 9 percent, each of his opponents between 3 percent and 5 percent with three-quarters of those surveyed undecided.

But for the residents of San Augustine County and for PA Prospect’s operational hopes, the election is a secondary concern.

“I know [the RRC] has a lot to worry about,” Kyle Stewart told The Texan during a tour of the area, “ but to us, this is everything.”

Tuesday’s primary results will come before the administrative judge’s recommendation is released and the permit’s final ruling will come at least a few weeks after that. But if a challenger pushes Christian into a runoff, and the RRC’s final ruling comes before that election, its use as campaign fodder will be as sure a bet as an East Texas rainstorm.

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Brad Johnson

Brad Johnson is an Ohio native who graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2017. He is an avid sports fan who most enjoys watching his favorite teams continue their title drought throughout his cognizant lifetime. In his free time, you may find Brad quoting Monty Python productions and trying to calculate the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow.