BETHANY, Texas — Clean drinking water is finally on its way to residents of a small east Texas community.
It's news that's a long time coming and puts sighs of relief to a more than four-year journey that's been fraught with a mountain of paperwork and a bureaucratic battle through every level of government. Leading the charge for himself and his neighbors has been the Rev. David Hudson, who refused to take no for an answer.
His dogged determination to bring a reliable water source to the community that's been plagued by contamination from an abandoned saltwater well injection disposal site was noted Thursday as officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 6 gathered with Hudson, his neighbors and other concerned citizens in Church of the Living God near Bethany to announce the EPA will pay to have a main water line installed.
EPA officials confirmed the groundwater in the area is indeed contaminated and unsafe to drink.
"I'm elated," Hudson said after the EPA's announcement."It's been a long tedious process but we did find someone with in a federal agency, particularly the EPA, that is compassionate and concerned about this community without clean drinking water for years.
"It gives me confidence that the system does work if political interference is not present such as the outside interference from lobbyist for these oil and gas waste disposal companies. This demonstrates that perseverance on the part of citizens yields positive results, and we're grateful to the EPA Super Fund division for their assistance and help."
The seven families living on County Road 329 that juts just off of the Texas-Louisiana line between Bethany and DeBerry, Texas, will get immediate relief from the water line.
About 30 households on neighboring County Road 330 also are interested in tying into the line, Hudson said.
The residents will have to bear the cost of linking their homes to the water main. Hudson has secured a $10,000 grant from the Sabine River Authority of Texas to help with that expense. And Harold Hunter, development management specialist with the Community Resource Group, a rural community assistance program with offices nationwide, said he is standing by to help locate other revenue sources.
But it's the residents of County Road 329 who've been waging most of the war on their own. Frank Roberson has letters detailing complaints on the well site dating to 1996.
It wasn't until 2003 that the EPA deemed groundwater along the road unsafe to drink after high levels of hazardous chemicals such as barium, mercury, arsenic, showed up in various samplings. The EPA started providing bottled water at no charge in August 2005, and will continue to do so until clean water is flowing.
Hudson and his neighbors filed a civil lawsuit against Basic Energy Services, the last user of the disposal site known as the former R.B. Mitchell lease that was shut down in early 2005. The lawsuit was settled out of court in June 2006.
In November, Hudson filed an assessment petition with the EPA, requesting the agency conduct a preliminary assessment of the groundwater contamination. He also sought a source of clean drinking water and wants EPA to go after the responsible party.
A multitude of water samples taken by a number of agencies over the years from the private water wells, natural springs and the host of monitoring wells spread across the neighborhood resulted in a laundry list of contaminants being detected. But Jon Rinehart, EPA Region 6 site assessment manager, said Thursday that the varying tests results could be impacted by the time of the year and weather conditions under which the tests were performed.
In February, the EPA did what Rinehart described as the most comprehensive testing to date. Samples were studied by labs across the country without bias.
The findings determined that the private water wells only tested positive for fecal coliform; however, the natural springs and monitoring wells are contaminated with metals and radionuclides that exceed levels considered safe for drinking water. The radionuclides include materials such as barium, cadmium and beryllium, which are by-products of oil and gas production.
"I feel the contamination is probably from surface water spills," Rinehart said. "It appears the surface water carried the contaminates from the site."
As a result, the EPA has been authorized to pay for the water line, said Richard Franklin, EPA Region 6 on-scene coordinator.
He anticipates putting the project out to bids, with a hope that the work could be done by late summer or early fall. Franklin pledged to work with the Panola-Bethany Water System, which was represented by a few board members in the audience.
The news caught those unidentified men by surprise, and after a few quick questions to Franklin, the men left the church.
That reaction is what still keeps Roberson somewhat hesitant to get too excited about the proposed water line. Intermittent talks over the past two years with the Panola-Bethany Water System about bring water service to the affected community failed to get results.
"I just hope it really happens this time," Roberson said. "We've been through so much and we've been told we're going to get this and that. But it sounds really good this time. I really hope it happens."
Adding support to the County Road 329 residents were Texas residents Lionel Milberger, of Robertson County, and Bill Gordon, of Erath County.
Milberger and his wife can relate to what the residents of Bethany are going through this week. They, too, have been driven from their homes by gas well blowouts.
"I think the testing is not fully indicative of what these people have been drinking," Milberger said in urging the EPA to expand its testing. "The Railroad Commission (of Texas) will tell you it is saltwater. I will tell you it is that and much more."
Gordon said problems in Erath County have not risen to Panola County's level, but he is concerned the Railroad Commission, which has the authority to regulate the oil and gas industry in Texas, is not following its own regulations.
"We don't want Erath County to become a Panola County. "» We have sympathy for these people," Gordon said. "Someone needs to be overseeing the Railroad Commission."
Others such as Longview, Texas, attorney Greg Love had even more questions about the injection well site and possible casing leaks and the impact of that on the water supply. Love is representing the Ervin family, original owners of the land on which the saltwater injection disposal well was located, who have relocated from County Road 329 to Shreveport. Several family members have cancer and Love is investigating a possible connection to the contamination.
Hudson and Roberson have maintained that run-off from waste spills and leaching from corrosive pipes seeped into the ground and contaminated the water supply which the County Road 329 families ingested for years prior to any testing.
Hudson still wants someone held responsible. He's filed a federal lawsuit claiming the railroad commission violated the community's civil rights by denying clean drinking water while having full knowledge of the violations. Hudson likens the actions to environmental racism.
Read New York Times July 6, 2006 article
Read Texas Observer May 19, 2006 Article: What Lies Beneath - The threat from oilfield waste injection wells by Rusty Middleton