When a group of Helena neighbors banded together to try to stop a saltwater disposal well from setting up shop within a stone’s throw of their homes, they knew it wouldn’t be easy – they knew it would be a real “David and Goliath” kind of story.
After all, when a company applies for one of these permits from the railroad commission for the purpose of disposing saltwater used in the production of oil and gas from wells drilled by various energy companies working in the area, 78 percent of all these permit applications are approved.
The odds are on the side of the big guys.
And so last week when Helena resident Mary Lozano saw a copy of a letter from Pyote Water Systems to the railroad commission withdrawing their application for a permit to drill the well in her neighborhood, she and most of her Helena neighbors had reason to celebrate.
“It definitely was good news,” Lozano said.
This time, it seems, David had indeed beat Goliath.
Pyote, apparently, decided to put the well somewhere else.
It all started back in March when a large group of local residents gathered to discuss the company’s plans. Virtually everyone in the community, with the exception of the property owner who had leased land to Pyote, was opposed to having such a facility so close to a residential area just 200 feet southwest of the main intersection in Helena where State Highway 80 meets Farm to Market Road 81.
An estimated 100 to 150 trucks per day were expected to offload their saltwater loads, and residents expressed concerns about safety, with such a large increase in truck traffic at an intersection already heavily traveled by Eagle Ford Shale trucks. Other concerns expressed were the possible impact in terms of noise, and potential damage to the water and air quality for people who live in Helena.
Residents have a 15 day window to file a “one sentence” protest with the Texas Railroad Commission stating that they are opposed to a permit being issued for the purpose of a disposal well. Many of the residents at the meeting signed a protest which was sent to the railroad commission within the 15-day timeframe.
After the railroad commission received the protest, a public hearing was set for both sides to make their cases for or against the permit being issued.
The June 29 hearing before the railroad commission lasted all day, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. while attorneys and engineers on both sides made their cases, and at the end of the day, neither side was sure about the outcome, and anticipated the process may take many months to play out.
Lozano gives much of the credit’s success to her neighbor, Cletus Bianchi, who hired an attorney to represent the group at the hearing in Austin. She said the attorney and an expert witness brought up technical issues that bolstered their case for not allowing the well to locate in Helena.
“I’ve never been involved in anything like this,” Lozano said, describing the hearing. “It was really interesting. You get to hear a lot of technical information about how these companies go about selecting the sites and what they don’t consider.”
Lozano had the opportunity to question the owners of Pyote and she was surprised to find out that the question of how their site will impact the people of the community in which they are locating, is not even on their list of items to consider when making the choice.
“We’re looking at the traffic situation, we are looking at the environmental... I am about a hundred feet from your fence line, what consideration have you given me?” Lozano asked.
Lozano said it was interesting to find out Pyote indicated they wanted to revise the permit application when they arrived at the hearing.
Pyote cited an “index” well for a comparison, which was located five miles from Helena. The expert witness, Lozano said, identified three wells that were closer to the Helena location than the index well and this raised questions about the application. The expert witness, Lozano explained, also showed information that there are currently 12 disposal wells located withing a 10 mile radius of Helena, with more than enough capacity to meet the current demand.
Lozano said the Helena representatives used these and other facts to show that there really was no urgent need to locate the well at that location at this time and there were real concerns about the impact it might have on the people who lived nearby.
Derick Thomson, a representative of Pyote Water Systems, when contacted after the hearing said he expected the parties would not hear from the commission regarding the matter for several months.
“It was a long day and both sides presented their exhibits and opinions on the proposed disposal well and now we are waiting for the railroad commission examiners to review the case and make their Proposal for Decision,” Thomson said about a week after the hearing.
The Karnes Countywide tried to reach a Pyote spokesman Monday for comment about the company’s decision to withdraw their permit application, but messages sent to a company spoesperson were not immediately returned.
Lozano said when she left the hearing, she felt there were “red flags” that might give the commission reason for concern, but still she was unsure of what would eventually happen with the decision regarding the permit.
“The sad part about it,” Lozano said, ‘if you are just a typical person living out here in the community that doesn’t have a lot of money and can’t afford the kind of legal support with the ability to get the technical information, that is how these companies can come in and do whatever they want.”
“We were definitely happy,” Lozano said, regarding the outcome of the effort put forth by herself and her fellow Helena neighbors. “We are not against disposal wells,” Lozano said. “But the location of it is really critical when you have a community of people living nearby.”