Lessons From A Toxic Waste Dump

Texas is home to half the oil and gas exploration and production in the United States. Looking out west is the Permian Basin. To the north is the Barnett. Out east is the Haynesville and due south is the Eagle Ford. Oil and gas is a vibrant industry in Texas. Historically it’s been the lifeblood of the state’s economy.  But, as with any industrial development, it comes with its own set of serious risks to the environment. Impacts on our land, air, water and climate that if not managed correctly can have lasting consequences.

As an engineer working on water quality issues and related environmental issues for over 30 years, I’ve seen firsthand the effects of unregulated industrial activity. In 1980, the federal government passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, better known as Superfund. Superfund legislation gave the Environmental Protection Agency broad authority to compel the cleanup of abandoned hazardous waste sites in our country, suing those responsible, and even establishing a trust fund to address toxic sites with no known responsible party. In Texas, these sites were the result of decades of industrial development caused by, for example, old lead production plants dating back to the early 1900s, World War II era defense manufacturing and the rise of the petrochemical industry.

The Highlands Acid Pit site just outside of Houston was the first Superfund site I encountered. Located near the bank of the San Jacinto River, the site had been used in the early 1950’s as a dump for industrial sludge believed to be from the oil and gas refining process. As my introduction to environmental engineering work, I was brought here to conduct soil and water sampling to determine the scale of the environmental impacts and cleanup options. I vividly remember walking into an area with absolutely no vegetation or wildlife – a stark contrast to the native trees and brush in the surrounding area. I’ve since visited a number of Superfund sites, each a lasting reminder of the importance of strong regulation and potential ramifications when this does not exist.

Since those early days, I’ve worked on a myriad of challenging environmental projects, and have had the opportunity to interface with policy experts in a variety of capacities on state, federal and local levels.  Through this first-hand experience I have gained a deep appreciation for protecting our land and water resources and properly managing environmental risks associated with industrial activities.

I now serve as Director of Natural Gas Exploration and Production at EDF – a title that maybe does not best describe my role, but I’m the natural gas team’s resident expert on water quality and waste management issues.  My years of onsite experience with the environmental risks of oil and gas drilling operations now play a valuable role in helping EDF craft smart policy solutions to minimize the water and soil impacts of natural gas operations and respond comprehensively and effectively when impacts do occur.

The Highland Acid Pit took ten years to clean up. The process was slow and costly and included extensive excavation of surface soils, backfilling the excavated area and covering it with grass.  To this day – six decades after first being used as a toxic waste dump – the site is fenced off from the public and still subject to frequent monitoring. This picture of a world without regulation is a reminder that when it comes to our natural gas work here at EDF, there is no substitute for getting the rules right and no excuse for not learning from past mistakes. Water is a precious resource, vital to the ecosystems it supports and with competing demands from nature, domestic needs, food production, and industrial activities. We can’t afford a do-over.

This is one of a group of posts about why industry experts work at EDF.

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