Hector Zertuche’s first environmental crime occurred around 2009 when he discovered a truckload of oilfield drilling muds dumped on the banks of the Nueces River outside Sandia, Tex. “We matched the tracks to a nearby resident,” the Jim Wells County Sheriff’s Deputy told me recently. “But we messed up. We cited him for illegal dumping.”
While the abatement officer was well-versed in handling illegal trash pits and pitched tires, the laws regarding petroleum waste were unfamiliar territory. It was hardly his fault. Although police and sheriff’s deputies are tasked with enforcing them, Texas environmental laws are typically not taught by police academies in the state.
Zertuche promised himself he wouldn’t make the same mistake again and sought out training just as the Eagle Ford shale play began ushering in an explosion of oil and gas activity across South Texas. Soon streams of trucks were arriving in Jim Wells County to dump their oily sludge into one of a handful of nearby waste pits. Zertuche was ready with a working knowledge of Chapter 29 of the Texas Water Code, otherwise known as the Oil and Gas Waste Haulers Act.
“I’d just follow these open-topped trailers until they spilled,” he said. “Then the company would have two things to worry about: their ticket and getting my car washed.”
For a while, Zertuche says he was citing up to 10 trucks per day for a variety of water-code violations. “The first five trucks we stopped were leaking. We had spills all over the highways. Big spills.”
When waste haulers began diverting their loads to a string of commercial underground injection wells opening in nearby Frio County, they found officers there just as ignorant as Zertuche had been four years earlier. That changed last month when Zertuche trained many of those deputies, who issued several citations right off the bat. He’s held similar trainings in La Salle and McMullen counties.
While federal and state regulators are tasked with administrative oversight of oil and gas companies and assessing civil penalties, criminal prosecution usually falls to local law enforcement. Too bad they’re almost never trained to handle it.
“We’ve had pretty good laws on the books now for 20 or 30 years to take care of water and air and land, but when we put a guy through the police academy, we just don’t train him,” said John Ockels, the man who taught Zertuche about enforcing the Texas Water Code. “We don’t train the attorneys and we don’t train the city managers, either.”
A former environmental coordinator for the Texoma Council of Governments, Ockels leads the Texas Illegal Dumping Resource Center, training law enforcement officers, city officials and oilfield operators at workshops across the state.
Of course, not everyone spends their days considering how toxic dumping on one side of a fence will inevitably find the other side and even reach into the air and down into the groundwater. For these officers and officials, Zertuche and Ockels simply offer a pragmatic way to nab more crooks through Texas’ often-ignored environmental laws.
After observing the Frio County deputies learn how to cite trucks for dripping oilfield waste on the roads or hauling without permits or proper marking on their trailers, I listened to them recount recent exploits involving drugs, guns and stolen cars over lunch. While some arrests were tinted by an appreciated dark humor, the crimes leading to the arrests were less important to these officers than the arrests themselves.
As Ockels said: “You can not give a damn about the water but just be all cranked up about dealing with a felon.”
Though rare, local officials still sometimes rise to defend the right of a landowner to dump on their own property. However, they almost always back off when informed of the criminal nature of dumping and water pollution.
“‘I’m for crime’ is a bad platform, once you get down to it,” Ockels said.
Texas Illegal Dumping Resource Center trainings are being held this month in Killeen, Cuero, San Antonio, Waco and Nacogdoches. See tidrc.com for details.
Greg Harman is a San Antonio-based writer. He publishes his column, Lone Star Green, every other week.