Groundwater: Protecting East Texas' water supply from contamination

Robert Sheffield, Tyler County Farmer
Robert Sheffield, Tyler County Farmer

By Morgan Thomas - bio | email

LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) – Although, naturally protected from surface pollutants, there is a threat to East Texas' supply of groundwater.

Tyler County farmer, Robert Sheffield's land and groundwater has, and is, being contaminated by chemicals dumped by Ergon Oil Company.

"I don't know where it came from or how it got here..." said Sheffield.

Sheffield's farm has been in the family for nine decades, but not the mineral rights.

"They have the right to drill a well," said Sheffield.

Back in 2006, Ergon Oil took over part of his property, started construction of an oil well.  Part of that process was a large pit.

"That's where they put their drilling mud that they use, their shavings, and stuff like that they're take out of the ground as they are drilling oil wells," said Sheffield.

With the well completed, Ergon employees started trucking out the pit's waste.

"After they just about got everything out of the pit, my wife and I were working in the field late that evening when it was time for them to quit - they backed two trucks up here and unloaded some stuff into the pits," said Sheffield.

Sheffield checked it out.  What he saw and smelled was hard to comprehend.  He took pictures, documenting everything.

"All this black goo and everything and smelled it. It smelled like oil. It looked terrible, and they immediately started closing it up," said Sheffield.

They covered the goo inside over with dirt. He called Tyler County's groundwater conservation district for help. They advised getting an environmental company out there to conduct tests.  That confirmed a dangerous cocktail of chemicals: benzene, mercury, lead, and arsenic in the soil.

Once the soil tested positive for chemicals, the environmental company placed six monitoring wells around the pit. That would test the ground water 20 feet below the surface.  That chemical cocktail had reached the groundwater.  Sheffield's lawyer, Terry Wood, realized a big fight was on their hands.

"When the results came back, particularly with benzene I was surprised," said Terry Woods, Attorney.

"Benzene is one of the most hideous of all chemicals we have here it causes blood cancer I believe," said Sheffield.

The crusade to get his land and groundwater cleaned up has lasted years. During the jury trial last fall, they found a picture is worth a thousand words .

"I had the camera. I took pictures of everything that they did. I would certainly say document what you see and ask questions try to find out about it," said Sheffield.

The jury awarded a three million and one dollar settlement to the Sheffield's, but haven't seen a dime of it since Ergon plans to appeal.

Sheffield's attorney believes this isn't an isolated incident of groundwater contamination by oil and gas companies.  This time, however, the landowner was out here farming, watching, and documenting.

"If this had been somebody's property that wasn't there every day, they very well may not have noticed or known what happened," said Wood.

Groundwater conservation districts try to keep all potential contaminants away from the water supply. Pineywoods district general manager, David Alford, says that's why getting every well registered is a priority.

"We want them constructed right where they're not a contamination source for the aquifer - too close to somebody's septic system or chicken house," said David Alford.

That way, the districts can contact property owners if some type of contamination occurs.

"Most of the oil companies that do drilling around here - I think they're above board. I think they do a good job. You don't have to do what happened here," said Sheffield.

Bottom line: it's everyone's job to watch and protect our water.

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