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Skull Creek raises more concerns about Clean Harbors

April 09, 2019 - 13:51
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ALTAIR—The bureaucratic malaise of the ongoing Skull Creek investigation is raising concern among local officials involved in another environmental issue centered around the small community of Altair: the ongoing battle over the permit application for a hazardous waste dump at Clean Harbors’ Altair Disposal Services facility. 

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ALTAIR—The bureaucratic malaise of the ongoing Skull Creek investigation is raising concern among local officials involved in another environmental issue centered around the small community of Altair: the ongoing battle over the permit application for a hazardous waste dump at Clean Harbors’ Altair Disposal Services facility. 

Colorado County, the Colorado County Groundwater Conservation District, and Rice Consolidated Independent School Districts, have been challenging the company’s permit applications for the better part of the last two years. 

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the same agency that has been heavily involved in the Skull Creek contamination investigation, would ultimately regulate the hazardous waste dump, if it were to be built. 

The matter, which culminated with a contested case hearing before a pair of administrative law judges in Austin in December, is in limbo as the local parties, called “aligned protestants” in the parlance of state administrative law, await a decision from the judges. 

If the aligned protestants lose, barring the county taking the matter to state district court in Travis County, the same agency county officials say won’t provide information on whether or not the oily substance discovered in Skull Creek Feb. 7 would be responsible for handling any spills, leakage, or other environmental from the hazardous waste dump. 

Attorneys for the county, in briefs and evidentiary filings running in to the thousands of pages, have repeatedly sounded alarms about everything from the depth of the water table at the proposed site to the type of thin, plastic or vinyl liner the company plans to use to line the pits in which they will dump bricks of oil and gas waste. 

The agency, in its briefs and filings on the matter, denounce every single one of the county’s claims, and claim the proposed dump site would have no risk for ground or surface water. 

The protracted battle has already cost the county, Rice Consolidated ISD, and the Colorado County Groundwater Conservation district around $800,000.

“It concretes and solidifies prior decisions that, if we don't, as citizens of Colorado County, do everything in our power to prevent that from ever occuring, we would be gravely mistaken, because it is evident that we have to protect ourselves, and we cannot rely on an agency from Austin,” said Colorado County Judge Ty Prause. 

Rice Consolidated Independent School District has a well not far from the site of the proposed hazardous waste dump. If contaminant leached from the dump site and in to the water table, contaminating the district’s well serving Rice Junior High and Rice High Schools, the results would be disastrous for the district. 

Around 650 students and 100 employees of the district’s Altair campuses are served by the district’s well daily. The well’s failure would have catastrophic consequences for the district, said Rice CISD Superintendent Bill Hefner, IV. 

“As Superintendent, I am, of course, concerned with any activity in our area that poses a risk to the health and safety of our District’s students and staff,” said Hefner.  

“The fact that there are already businesses in our area with a long history of repeated regulatory violations who have been nonetheless allowed to remain in business, undermines the District’s faith in the level of oversight and enforcement by the state agencies charged with our public and environmental health,” Hefner said. 

Jim Brasher, Executive Director of the Colorado County Groundwater Conservation District, who holds both bachelors and masters degrees in geology from Texas A&M University, has many concerns about the ongoing Skull Creek investigation. He notes that nearby monitoring wells maintained by the district show the ground is made of highly permeable material in the area. 

“For most of the time, the Texas Railroad Commission has been the agency overseeing compliance to regulations of the facility at Inland Environmental which is adjacent to Skull Creek. I am uncertain how long that TCEQ has been involved in monitoring Inland Environmental, but they certainly would seem to be responsible in part for determining the reasons for the Skull Creek contamination,” Brasher said.

“They tell us that there is an ongoing investigation regarding the situation and the District understands that they are limited with what they can divulge during the investigation. Nevertheless, it would seem paramount to know whether the contamination in the creek is in fact harmful to the public. No agency or entity has as yet revealed that to date,” he said. 

“My level of anxiety with TCEQ was most affected by the fact that the TCEQ staff and Executive Director gave a draft approval of the hazardous waste disposal permit and then vigorously defended that approval during the contested case hearing, more so than what I’ve observed their actions to be so far in the Skull Creek investigation. That could change however if little to no progress is made on this investigation over the course of the next few weeks,” he said. 

“We do not--and will not--know the exact composition of the material being stored and what would be in that leaked material. Having said that, it’s designated ‘hazardous waste’ for a reason. Nearby District monitor wells clearly show that the area from the Colorado River out for at least two miles or more is composed of highly permeable material,” Brasher continued. 

“There is a direct correlation of water level rise in these shallow monitor wells to rises in the river. I personally am very dubious of this supposed ten-foot low-permeability clay that would underly the facility and how well it would act as a natural barrier to infiltration should a leak occur,” he said.

“If leaked material makes it into the high-permeability strata (where sand and gravel has been mined), it could potentially be catastrophic to nearby wells and an ongoing concern to those in outlying area or those screened in deeper sections of the aquifer,” he continued. 

“The CCGCD is concerned with the episodes of apparent contamination in Skull Creek and continues to monitor the situation. To date, we have tested two wells along Highway 71 near Skull Creek. Neither showed evidence of contamination. However, these two wells were screened in a bit deeper level. We are looking to potentially test one or more additional wells along Skull Creek that are shallower and may be more readily susceptible to potential contamination. If someone in the immediate vicinity of Skull Creek would like to volunteer their well for testing, we will strongly consider it,” Brasher said.