Oil Industry Suspected in Contamination of Midland, Texas, Water Wells

July 13, 2009

Beverly Crouch spent hundreds of dollars on chemicals last fall to try to get the green tinge out of her backyard pool in Midland, Texas.

All for naught.

It wasn’t until two months ago that she learned why the chemicals she put into her 13,000-gallon, above-ground pool wouldn’t clear the water. The green color came from well water contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a known human carcinogen.

Crouch, 44, isn’t alone. Some of her neighbors’ wells gushed water the color of urine.

Texas environmental officials are still trying to determine the extent of the contamination. Later this month, they will ask the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to consider the site for federal Superfund status.

After that, efforts will begin to find who dumped the dangerous chemical, which appears to have been in the area for years, according to one environmental investigator.

Residents have enlisted the help of Erin Brockovich, the environmental crusader who helped Hinkley, Calif., residents after their groundwater was found to be contaminated by the same chemical.

“Nobody should be taking the situation lightly,” said Brockovich, who came to Midland in June to meet with Cotton Flats residents. “We can’t take back the damage that’s been done.”

Industrial workers who breathe airborne hexavalent chromium may get lung cancer, and it can irritate or damage the nose, throat and lungs if inhaled at high levels. It can also damage eyes or skin.

People and animals exposed to hexavalent chromium in drinking water face an increased risk of stomach tumors.

As of June 30, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality has found contamination in about one-third of the 125 wells tested in Cotton Flats, a community south of Interstate 20 on the fringe of Midland.

Most of the Cotton Flats homes are in Midland County and are not connected to the city’s water supply.

The highest reading was 5,250 parts of chromium per billion – or more than 50 times the maximum allowed by the EPA.

Hexavalent chromium compounds, a toxic form of the element chromium, are man-made and used as an anticorrosive and rust inhibitor; in chrome plating; in pressure treating of wood; in dyes and pigments; and in leather tanning.

The state environmental agency continues to test wells; so far the commission has spent more than $1 million on testing and dealing with the contamination. Texas law allows the agency to seek reimbursement from polluters for costs associated with dealing with the contamination. Such costs would include filtration systems the commission has installed at homes where levels of hexavalent chromium exceed the EPA maximum.

The filtration systems provide water that is safe for all household uses, agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said.

The well tests began in early April, but it not known how long the chemical has been in the groundwater, Morrow said.

Some think the agency isn’t moving quickly enough.

“When there an emergency like this it can be perceived that no one is moving fast enough,” said Bob Bowcock, an environmental engineer investigating the Midland County contamination with Brockovich.

The concentrations of hexavalent chromium are the highest he’s ever seen in groundwater, and he believes the chemical has been in the groundwater for up to five years.

The culprit is definitely oilfield activity, Bowcock said, saying that’s the only industry in the area.

Fourteen-year-old Ashlee Elder experienced the effects in her grandmother’s pool while swimming with friends.

“It burns your eyes and your skin hurts afterward,” she said. “I didn’t want to get back into it afterward. No one did.”

Elder’s grandmother, Kay Sathre, is the unofficial point person for the community. Her 9-year-old granddaughter had a skin rash for months from swimming regularly in her pool.

“This is what we get for living in the middle of the oilfields,” Sathre said.

Bowcock and some Cotton Flats residents believe Schlumberger, an oilfield services company, is responsible. In an e-mailed statement, company spokesman Stephen T. Harris denied Schlumberger is to blame.

“Schlumberger fully appreciates the concern of the public and continues to cooperate with the TCEQ to help identify sources of chromium in the area,” Harris wrote. “Independent groundwater tests, however, indicate that the source of the contamination is likely an adjacent site unrelated to our facility.”

Brockovich, who won more than $300 million for plaintiffs in the California case involving Pacific Gas and Electric, did not rule out a lawsuit in the Midland case, should a culprit be found.

Sheldon Johnson, who has lived in Cotton Flats for 17 years and works for the city of Midland, said he doubts whoever is responsible will step forward.

Johnson and others frequently check and change the filters inside the system to ensure they are working properly. The potential heath threat is never far from their thoughts.

“We go to bed with it on our minds, we wake up with it on our minds,” he said. “All of us worry, ‘Is our filtration system working?”‘

On the Net: Texas Commission on Environmental Quality status page: www.tceq.state.tx.us/remediation/sites/cr112.html

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