— By CHRISTIN COYNE
A busload of Azle area residents who traveled to Austin early Tuesday morning begged regulators to shut down area injection wells that they believe may be triggering dozens of recent small earthquakes in the area.
Texas Railroad Commission staff provided the audience with more information than was given a frustrated crowd during recent town hall meeting in Azle Jan. 2.
However, statements from the commission’s attorney and Chairman Barry Smitherman indicate the TRC may lack the authority under state law to address many residents’ concerns of area structural damage.
Nearly all of the dozens who spoke to the commission requested a moratorium on injections until experts could study the issue.
“While you are doing your studies, I would like to ask you to shut these wells down and not make us, the citizens of Azle and Reno, the guinea pigs for the study,” Reno Mayor Lynda Stokes said, expressing a belief that injection wells are causing the earthquakes and saying it “isn’t rocket science.”
“Our houses are not built to earthquake specs,” Stokes said. “We have no earthquake insurance. We are the ones who suffer the damage. So, please, please shut these down. For once make people more important than an industry.”
“We need to stop it now before we have a catastrophe,” said Robert Hobbs, who said he has a dam and spillway on either side of his house on the south end of Eagle Mountain Lake. “There are a lot of people around the lake who have suffered damage to their homes, damage to their business. Right now we need to look at this in a serious manner and put a stop to it.”
Darla Hobbs expressed concern that the earthquakes, which many residents have said cracked walls and driveways, could also crack casings of area wells, causing water contamination.
“This is not the first time it’s happened in Texas, so I don’t know why you haven’t already started studies,” Hobbs said, referencing earthquake swarms in the Cleburne area and other locations several years ago. “So now you would know and we wouldn’t have to go through this.”
Many concerned residents, including Darrell Hoffman, who played a rewritten version of Elvis’ “All Shook Up” on his guitar, spoke for about two hours.
Earthworks, the group calling for more regulation of the oil and gas industry that organized the bus trip, reported 50 residents were transported to the capital to talk to regulators and law makers.
“We’re in the process right now of looking for a seismologist and after we are able to get that expert on board, they are going to work with John [a geologist] and our other geologists and engineers who are familiar with the geology and the technology that is associated with the disposal wells and look at all the possible causes of the tremors in the given area,” Texas Railroad Commission Executive Milton Rister said. “As John mentioned, this is an area with a lot of karsts in it, which is an interesting geological formation. There are other things going on there. We’re been experiencing an extreme drought in the State of Texas. I don’t know whether that plays a part. I think that needs to be examined. The size of the lake has been greatly reduced. Lakes do have an impact on seismic activity. Groundwater, when you are in a drought you also pump a lot more water out of the ground. These are a lot of things that need to be examined in conjunction, obviously, with looking at the disposal wells.”
The seismologist job has been posted for more than 10 business days and the state has received 11 applications, including three that look interesting, according to Rister, who said they hope to start interviews shortly.
Staff provided commissioners reports on 11 of 13 disposal wells within 15 miles of the epicenter area Two, the two closest to the epicenter, are private wells operated by XTO and Enervest, according to commission staff. The other nine are commercial disposal wells that charge a fee to dispose of well fluid and are inspected quarterly.
One commercial disposal well, operated by Foxborough Energy Company, was plugged last summer. Another, operated by Finley Resources to the south of the area, did have a violation relating to a pressure issue, commissioners were told. It was shut in and was being worked on when inspectors followed up, and the company was reminded that they must perform a test on the well before they can resume injecting, according to railroad commission staff.
Injection well operators are required to submit yearly injection records, including pressure and volume injected.
Smitherman noted at one point that monthly injection volumes appeared to have gone down for the two wells nearest the epicenter since the wells began operating several years ago.
After hearing speculation from residents that earthquakes ceased for several weeks due to less injection at the sites during the holidays, Smitherman requested staff get information on injection volume during the holiday period.
“I suppose that’s plausible, but we’ll find out what kind of operations were going on over the holidays,” Rister said.
Ramon Fernandez, deputy director of the oil and gas division over field operations also went over responses to complaints that the railroad commission has responded to since the Jan. 2 town hall in Azle.
Melanie Williams, who told commissioners she believed issues with her water pipes had been caused by the earthquakes, indicated that the problems had occurred twice in the months before the earthquakes began. Based on the information they were provided, it appeared Williams’ pipe breaks were caused by extremely high water pressure from a public water supply system and they advised her that the issue was not under railroad commission jurisdiction, staff said.
Staff could not locate any evidence of an oily discharge during a Jan. 6 inspection resulting from a complaint from Albert Warren during the town hall.
Water samples were taken from another homeowner who complained of possible contaminated water and have been sent for testing, according to Fernandez. Another homeowner told staff that they had sent the water to Texas A&M for testing for a similar complaint and that complaint is still open.
Commission staff have been unable to contact two others who complained at the town hall of issues, staff said.
Last week, the Texas Railroad Commission received a formal complaint from a homeowner regarding structural damage to their home. The complainant was told that the commission does not have jurisdiction over structural damage and that no one would be sent to inspect or open a formal complaint, according to Fernandez.
Those who complained of sinkholes at the meeting were asked to leave their contact information so that the Texas Railroad Commission could investigate.
“As you all know the commission’s jurisdiction extends to matters related to the production and conservation of oil and gas and protection of the environment,” Lindil Fowler, general counsel for the Texas Railroad Commission, said. “As it relates to disposal wells, the commission is specifically tasked with ensuring that the permitting and operating of injection wells is in the public interest by requiring that they not endanger or injure any oil, gas or other mineral formation and that they are operated in a manner that protecst fresh water from pollution. And that’s precise statutory language .... It’s clear from these statutory provisions and established case law that the commission lacks remedial jurisdiction over such things as damages to residential or commercial structures such as cracks in walls or bridges, structural damage to roads or bridges, and the diminution of property value or noise and air pollution-related matters.”
Those issues are largely matters that would fall under the jurisdictional domain of district courts, according to Fowler.
“On the other hand, as Ramon has described, the commission will seek and has sought to determine the source of the alleged pollution of surface or subsurface water and proscribe an appropriate remedy where it is feasible,” Fowler said, reminding attendees that even when a operator is found to have polluted water or violated conditions of their permit, the commission is required to give the operator due process, including providing a notice and requesting a hearing.
Smitherman asked staff to post information on the legal issues they can consider when approving disposal well applications to their website.
“We hear this every time we get one of these cases for a disposal permit and adjoining landowners want to express their concern about traffic and noise and dust,” Smitherman said. “And if we’re to take those into consideration, the law’s going to have to change. So perhaps people need to take a look at that and, if they feel like we should have a broader portfolio of things to look at, the Legislature meets again next January. A legislative subcommittee has been formed and these would be good ideas to take to them.”
Smitherman ended the meeting by expressing some skepticism that the disposal wells may be related to the recent earthquakes and referenced a 2012 National Academy of Sciences report.
“There are some interesting statements in here, one of which is that the author reports that the NAS committee found very few of them felt of induced seismic events as either caused by or related to disposal wells,” Smitherman said. “I want to dive into this report at some length and I urge people to take a look at it.”
“I’ve been collecting and reading a lot of academic reports over the last several weeks and I’m not a seismologist and for that reason, rather than reference those reports, at this point, I thought we might wait until we have somebody who can translate the reports,” Rister said. “I will say there’s a lot of academic information out there, all over the board, from earthquakes continuing after the DFW well was shut in, to reports linking seismic activity to disposal wells. So I just think we need somebody who can read those with the expertise needed to advise us on what we need to do in the future.”