Local residents met recently for a third time to share information about an ongoing concern - fracking in Lake Houston. In July, the Texas Railroad Commission (RRC) issued a permit for directional exploratory drilling to Tri-C Resources LLC, a privately owned, Houston-based oil and gas company. The drilling site is in Huffman, with the surface hole located near East Lake Houston Parkway and Smith Road near the Lakewood Heights subdivision. Because of its proximity to Lake Houston, Tri-C was required to obtain an additional drilling permit from the City of Houston. That permit was issued in October and Tri-C began drilling later that same month.
Community meetings were held in August and September, and a third meeting was held Thursday, Nov. 3, at Copeland Elementary School in Huffman. More than 50 residents attended and voiced two main concerns. First, the drill site is only 3,700 feet from the northeast shore of Lake Houston, the major source of Houston’s drinking water. Residents are concerned about water and air pollution and health consequences. The site is also close to two Huffman elementary schools, Copeland and Ben Bowen eElementaries.
The second major concern was voiced by frustrated residents regarding the noise and traffic at the drilling site. Homeowners report that the noise goes on 24 hours a day, and is so loud that many can hear it from inside their houses.
Tri-C was supposed to complete the drilling operations by Nov. 1, and fed up homeowners reported that drilling is still happening 24 hours a day. Lynn Sibley called Tri-C immediately after drilling started and complained about the noise. The company suggested she wear ear plugs and use a fan to drown out the noise. Tri-C has promised residents that they are nearly complete with drilling, and they will disassemble and cap the well soon.
The City’s Role
Many residents have called the City 311 hotline to complain about the noise, and some have even called the police, like resident Velissa Pena, who lives directly across the street behind the drilling site. “I have young children, and at nights about 10 or 11 p.m., the noise is very loud. I called the police on two consecutive nights when drilling first started. They said they would send officers and call me back, but I never heard from them.”
Gary Norman of the City of Houston’s Public Works and Engineering Department explained that after issuing the initial permit, the city has no further role in monitoring of the drill site operations; instead, that is the responsibility of the Texas Railroad Commission.
Houston City Councilman Dave Martin also has explained the city’s limited role, instructing concerned citizens to contact the RRC. Martin declined to add Lake Houston drilling to his town hall agenda in October for the same reason. Indeed, residents feel the “brush off” and are frustrated that the city appears to be passing the buck to the state, but the city does have a limited role.
One thing the city does monitor is water quality near the drilling site. There are two water wells very near the site, and while the city monitors bacteria content very frequently, they only monitor chemicals like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and heavy metals—substances prominent in drilling and fracking operations—once per year. Residents say it is not nearly frequent enough when you have drilling this close to the water supply. Resident Sharon Moore requested the 2016 test results back in April, and as of Nov. 3, still had not received the results from the city, even after paying all their printing and shipping costs for the records. “They claim all their results are online, but I only found records from 2003. What concerns me is that the amount of chromium detected in these tests doubled from 2001 to 2003, then we have no data. So what is the chromium level now?” asked Moore.
The State’s Role
Residents are angered that RRC does not properly communicate with or advocate for the communities that must endure the drilling.
Worse are failures of the RRC to demonstrate any concern or obligation to inform residents of local communities. In June 2016, there was an oil spill in Lake Houston during the Memorial Day weekend flooding. The spill was caused by a tank leak and discovered in aerial photos used to survey damage, yet RRC never followed up to identify and penalize the company that owned the leaking tanks. Furthermore, RRC did nothing to assess downstream impacts of the spill. Indeed, the RRC never made Lake Houston residents aware—there was oil literally right outside their doors, and they didn’t even know it. If they had, The Tribune would have published it; instead, we found this story in the El Paso Times because their state senator, José Rodríguez, had been questioning regulators’ responses to spills photographed during these floods. Photos reviewed by The Times indicated that many spills had occurred over the past two years due to floodwaters rushing into fracking sites, pump jacks and tank batteries; they cited spills into the Trinity, Red, Sabine, Brazos and San Jacinto rivers.
In summary, now that drilling is underway at one site, residents are concerned about a possible onslaught of other companies wanting to drill new wells or to reopen the many old wells that have been plugged and are lying dormant—at least for now. Tri-C owns two more pad sites in the area, and there have also been rumors in the neighborhood that drilling companies have their eyes on drilling sites near Blue Tail Road and Fir Ridge.
The original group of concerned citizens continues to grow and continues to monitor the drilling activities near the shores of Lake Houston and push for city and state changes and accountability. The group is on Facebook (www.facebook.com/ProtectLakeHouston/).