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Mess in Texas: Holding Big Oil Accountable in the Lone Star State

In unincorporated West Texas, where oil derricks dominate the landscape, locals aren't sure about "drill, baby, drill" anymore.

As I approach Midland, Texas from the southeast the rolling hills give way to large, engine-revving trucks, their menacing grills reflecting the setting sun into my rearview mirror. The asphalt beneath my white Toyota Corolla seems to be melting into the petroleum-laden ground from which it had emerged: Not even the road was prepared for the heavy vehicles that showed up with the recent oil and gas boom.


My plan for the summer is to report on the important energy and environmental issues in the Southwest where I’ve spent most of my life. With frugality in mind, I’d arranged to spend my first nights on the road in the town of Odessa in the spare bedroom of a middle-aged couple I’d found on Couchsurfer.org. My hosts informed me that the nearby suburb of Gardendale was a flashpoint for oil drilling gone wild. A few quick searches and there it was: The Gardendale Accountability Project, a community effort of about 30 members to document the actions of oil and gas companies in Gardendale. Their website, GARDAP.org, provides an outlet for distressed citizens to share their experiences dealing with the oil industry. I filled out the website’s contact form and moved onto another investigation: my host’s pantry. Before I even finished my Honey Bunches of Oats, I’d heard back. We made plans to meet for dinner two miles down the road.

"We used to be all 'Drill baby, drill' until it came into our neighborhood," says Paul Wood between bites of greasy Thai food. Wood, a small business owner and influential member of GARDAP, is easygoing and eager but with a bit of a wandering mind, like a cartoon hero's sidekick. His mustache, oversized sunglasses, Hawaiian shirt, loose jeans, and boots give the impression of a modern-day cowboy whose parents let him watch too much Magnum P.I.

After Berry Petroleum Company drilled a well on his property, Wood wanted to know what remained in the drilling pit, the area in which flowback from the fracking process is left out to dry before being buried.

"They were about to cover up that nasty sludge and I said, 'Guys I want to know what's in that pit,'" the lifetime West Texan recalls. "Because I live on the land. I've drunk well water for 29 years. They said, 'Oh it's nothing, just drilling mud and cuttings.' Lie number one."

Wood had a sample tested by a third party, Xenco Laboratories, the results of which showed more than just mud and cuttings. Benzene, a known carcinogen, was present at 206 parts per billion. The EPA's maximum contaminant level for benzene in drinking water is five ppb. Other possible carcinogens, an EPA classification of carcinogenicity beneath known carginogens, included xylene isomers and naphthalene.

"In Texas, cities have the right to regulate oil and gas development," says Wood. "We aren't a city, we're an unincorporated portion of the county."

Because of this Gardendale has no ordinances dealing with where drilling can or cannot take place. Nearby Odessa has an ordinance that prohibits drilling within 150 feet of a residence while Midland prohibits drilling within 500 feet. To give me a better image of the impact this has, Wood offers to take me up in his two-person plane for an aerial view the next day. From the ground Gardendale is made up of low, hardscrabble vegetation holding fast to sandy soil. Occasionally a tree or minor structure impedes the flat expanse. The people living there like to feel as if they are still out on the range, and most lots are counted in tens of acres.

The next morning Wood gently pulls the single prop plane out of the garage and onto one of the three runways he's worn into his property. The plane's interior is compact, and after struggling to get in I struggle further to find a place to put my bag. Any similarities to commercial flying ended there; the flight was more reminiscent of a jenky amusement park ride.

From the air, I see derricks within 100 feet of homes, moats of mud discharge and drilling mix surrounding a massive drilling rig and rows of caliche patches pockmarking areas of past mineral excavation. One of the most unsettling views is a pit full of water to be used for fracking. West Texas is already suffering serious water shortages and these immense reservoirs of clean water go not to people or agriculture, but to freeing fossil fuels thousands of feet underground.

"I don't like to see the land being destroyed," Wood tells me during a reflective moment after we land. "When you talk to the guy doing the mineral thing he says he's not destroying anything; he's actually creating stuff. I don't see it that way. Pulling minerals out by injecting high-pressure toxic chemicals into the ground that might someday migrate into the water I drink and that my grandkids will drink. That's not a bar I’m willing to jump over."

GARDAP is not set on taking on the oil industry. In fact, the industry is the longtime employer of many of its members. For them, the industry's conduct is a concentrated community issue. Wood gets visibly distressed and starts energetically gesticulating when recounting how he's been lambasted as being anti-drilling—because he's not. He's against drilling happening in neighborhoods like Gardendale when it doesn’t have to.

A memory from when workers were on his property distracts him. "I got a bucket of human waste on my land."

This is the first of four pieces exploring energy and the environment in the American Southwest.

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