Illegal dumping is an issue that has affected the Permian Basin for years. Now, counties in West Texas are cracking down. Some companies have an expertise in producing oil and gas but they're not taking the necessary steps to dispose of the waste that comes with it. But, it's not just the oil and gas companies that pose the issue, it is everyday people dumping their trash.
Paul Weatherby, General Manager with the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District (MPGCD), said, "There are some individuals and some companies as in any business, that take advantage of a situation. Save money, cut corners, whatever it takes to get rid of this oilfield waste."
Sheriff Gary Painter of the Midland County Sheriff's Office agrees and has also noticed an increase in illegal dumping in Midland County. He believes it's attributed to small and mid-sized companies trying to cut costs.
"Because it costs money and time to do it properly, they don't want to do that. They would just rather go out and dump it, because if you go out to the city dump to dump mattresses or anything like that, you have to pay them to go ahead and do it," said Painter.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), illegal waste dumping can be abandoned cars, scrap tires, furniture, yard waste, household trash, medical waste and oil and gas waste that is disposed of in an un-permitted area. Officials say a lot of illegal dumping is done on or near pump jack sites where items are easily hidden.
Ricky George of the Ector County Environmental Enforcement Unit, said, "If you look around your town in West Texas, especially in West Odessa where we see a lot of our problems, it's just a norm to live and just to dump your trash. Just dump it on the side of the road, dump the oil on the side of the road, don't pay disposal costs. And the reason why, is that nobody has ever enforced these laws."
"These people have no conscience about any ones property, or how unsightly it is, or how dangerous it is or what it can bring to other people's property or what damage it can do to their property. They don't care about that, they just do it and those are the kind of people we want to put in jail," said Painter.
Illegal dumping can also pose many health risks. Rodents, insects and vermin are attracted to these dump sites and sites with scrap tires are an ideal breeding ground for disease carrying mosquitoes.
Even more worrisome is the runoff that comes from illegal dumping that can potentially contaminate our wells and our groundwater. That is where the MPGCD comes in.
"If it shows that there's an imminent danger of the oil and gas waste penetrating into our groundwater, aquifer supplies, than we get actively involved," said Weatherby.
Rod Ponton, the 83rd District Attorney for Pecos, Brewster, Presidio, and Jeff Davis counties, said, "We're looking at ways we can enforce water code laws in Texas to make sure that the groundwater in Pecos County doesn't get polluted by oil and gas activities and that the responsible parties pay for that."
District Attorneys, the Water District, the Environmental Task Uni, and the Railroad Commission are working together to try and prosecute those individuals and companies doing the dumping. If caught, you could face a hefty fine or even jail time.
"Fines on the federal side can be up to $10,000 a day until they get it cleaned up. If they research it and they drill down, and can find a core sample to find out how deep it is, the penalty can be very, very severe. The clean up can cost much more than just paying for the original dumping if they would have done it in the first place," said Painter
On top of fines, illegal dumpers can receive lawsuits and be prosecuted.
"Prosecuting those persons, if needed, prosecuting them criminally, but I also have jurisdiction to file civil lawsuits to clean things up," said Ponton.
The Ector County Environmental Enforcement Unit started in 2011 and is the first and only of its kind that combats illegal dumping in West Texas. They have reached out to Midland and Pecos counties hoping to put together a task force to fight the issue.
"We're extremely excited about other counties, one of our main goals is to create a task force, an environmental task force. You always hear of drug task force or other task force but environmental task force is one of our goals. Where we can come into a county such as Pecos County, and assist them with investigating and getting them trained on what to do so five years down the road, they're at where we are now," said George.
"I would like to have a group kind of like they do in Ector County, where they have four or five people that are dedicated to finding the illegal dumping and doing something about it. Getting fines and bringing some money into the county, but getting it cleaned up, that's the biggest thing," said Painter.