“Please?” Oil companies wield extreme control over Texas agencies.

by Miguel Escoto


Regulatory commissioners vote to approve a dangerous oil industry wastewater disposal pit next to a children’s summer camp and Baptist conference center, but then ask the owner to “be a good neighbor” to the summer camp.


June 2nd, 2024, Sharon and I visited the Circle 6 Baptist Camp, a facility which hosts conferences and retreats. Hundreds of children visit the center for camp–especially in the summer. It is located in Lenorah, TX – north of Midland and in the middle of the Permian Basin oilfields. From the campgrounds you can see pumpjacks, drilling rigs and wind turbines in the distance. The group moved to this location in 1959 when there was substantially less oil and gas extraction in the area. This was before fracking, before the crude oil export ban was lifted, before George W. Bush was Governor of Texas. 

Directly adjacent to the Circle 6 is a construction site. It’s so close to the camp that at first you’d think the site is part of the Christian campground itself. It’s odd because these rural desert oilfields are expansive, seemingly infinite. We drive into the compound. The facility has a driveway surrounded with trees and few buildings–some look like warehouses and some like homes. We knock on the front door of the center’s office. “Come in!” someone says. The office is air conditioned (thankfully – it’s around 102 degrees) and overflowing with boxes of snacks and t-shirts for camp goers. The receptionist welcomes us kindly with a smile. Sharon and I introduce ourselves. I say we’re here to find out more about the produced water waste pit–that construction site that is directly adjacent to the facility. The receptionist’s smile fades. She scrunches her nose and looks stressed.


The Oil Industry’s Wastewater Crisis

A massive portion of the oil and gas industry deals with water. For every barrel of oil, the industry creates 6-10 barrels of toxic, radioactive wastewater. The industry has assigned this material the Orwellian name “produced water.” Proper management of these billions of gallons of toxic and radioactive waste water is largely unregulated thanks to regulatory loopholes. For example, in 1980, Congress amended the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) to exempt oil and gas exploration and production waste from federal hazardous waste regulations. In fact the extreme levels of current oil and gas extraction (six million barrels of oil per day in the Permian alone) is only made possible by the government’s decision to allow oil companies to dispose of their waste in a way that harms the environment and health of local residents.


An aerial view of the Permian Basin will show hundreds of rectangular ponds where this toxic “produced water” is stored. These water storage, disposal and treatment pits pose the risk of contaminating the groundwater below it and emitting cancerous pollutants that off-gas from the toxic water. In their infinite wisdom, a waste disposal company called Martin Water decided to construct one of these produced water waste pits next to the Circle 6 conference center where 250-300 children visit for Baptist Camp. The company has 11,080 acres of land to play with according to Martin County Precinct 4 County Commissioner. This Martin Water site, the Richards Recycling Facility, would store, treat, and recycle this toxic wastewater.  

The Inside Climate News/Texas Tribune article by Martha Pskowski “Railroad Commission approves oilfield waste ponds next to Baptist camp in Permian Basin”  is an excellent summary of the case. The article describes the health and environmental concerns relating to this waste pit. Circle 6–as well as thousands of Texans–rely on the Ogallala Aquifer (the nation’s largest aquifer) directly below this Martin Water waste pit. Former EPA geoscientist Dominic DiGiulio warns “I would be very alarmed if I was working at that Baptist Center.” Pskowski also describes Circle 6’s resistance to Martin Water’s application. The Baptist Camp is represented by lawyers who protested the site application before the Texas Railroad Commission (which regulates oil and gas). From the article:

‘Circle 6 lawyers called West Texas A&M University environmental scientist and oil and gas remediation expert William Rogers as a witness.

“In my 40-some years, this is probably the worst siting that I’ve ever seen, as far as being close proximity to a camp, proximity to the groundwater, the potential risk and the unknowns,” Rogers testified. “I, quite frankly, was shocked at seeing the proximity of the camp to the facility.”

“I have heard testimony that there will be absolutely no hydrogen sulfide. That’s virtually impossible,” Rogers said.’

A Parade of Government Rot and Weakness

Despite the overwhelming and compelling evidence demonstrating the project’s environmental and health harm, Texas Railroad Commissioners Christi Craddick (Chairman), Wayne Christian and Jim Wright approved Martin Water’s permit. This did not surprise me. Oil companies have dumped millions of dollars into the campaigns of these elected officials. 

However something from Pskowski’s article struck me as bizarre:

‘Before the vote, Commissioner Jim Wright, an oil and gas waste disposal businessman himself, added what he called “a public request” that Martin Water move the proposed pits as far as possible from the camp, “in the interest of being a good neighbor.” Commissioner Wayne Christian echoed that request.’

This was shocking. It is the responsibility of the Commissioners to regulate the oil and gas industry. Jim Wright has legal authority to either deny or approve Martin Water’s application. Advocacy organizations like Oilfield Witness do not have legal authority to deny or approve pollution permits (we would deny permits quicker than the speed of light). It is our role to issue “public requests” to corporations like Martin Water. I went back to the video recording of this January 30th RRC meeting. Jim Wright at around min 18:00 of the webcast

“Although I will be making a motion to approve this application, I will make a public request to the operator. Please consider in the interest of being a good neighbor, moving the proposed pits and equipment as far as possible away from the camp.” 

“Request to the operator”? “Please”? Commissioner Wayne Christian chimed in: “Joining the commissioner Wright in requesting that they move the facility as far away as possible.. I second the motion.”

This is not how government is supposed to work. The RRC maintains authority over Martin Water to deny their permit and force them to relocate. Yet, the Commissioners employed an attitude of “Do whatever you want! I have some suggestions but feel free to ignore them.” In my four years conducting fieldwork and studying the Permian Basin, listening to this exchange was one of the scariest, most harrowing experiences I have had. I made eye contact once again with the beast. These comments by Wright and Christian demonstrate the omnipotent, extreme, unmitigated, raw, profound control that the oil and gas industry holds over the Texas State government. 

At the hearing, Martin County Precinct 4 Commissioner Koy Blocker was allowed three minutes to speak. After a preface of appreciation for the oil industry in the county, he expressed concerns about how the wastewater pit would affect the children visiting the Baptist Camp. He highlighted how Martin County began construction of the waste pit three months before submitting an application. This is common. He said in his testimony: “This is a concern to me since in our Commissioner’s Court, we’ve had oil companies that have started doing pipelines, started laying the lines before getting permits. The companies know that it is harder for you (RRC) to turn them down once they have capital outlay that cannot be recouped.” 

Here’s a question that should haunt us: Why does this Texas State government agency feel an obligation to protect oil company profits?


Visualizing the Cancer of Wastewater Pits 

At the offices of Circle 6, I pull out my phone to show the receptionist a video on the Oilfield Witness Youtube channel. Wastewater Treatment Facility (March 18, 2024)

On March 18, 2024 while driving through Martin County, Sharon and I smell something horrible. We pullover and document a produced water treatment facility – the same type of operation which will soon be operating next  to Baptist Camp. The first 45 seconds of the video demonstrate water, pipelines, oil and equipment haphazardly littering the surface. It is impossible to guarantee some of this waste does not make contact with the ground directly. The remainder of the video demonstrates the culprit of the foul smell emitting from the site onto the highway. Optical Gas Imaging (OGI) visualizes the volatile organic compounds off-gassing from the storage tank. These emissions include benzene–a carcinogen unsafe at any level. This type of pollution is exactly what Circle 6 lawyers argued would emit from the wastewater site. 

As we leave the Baptist Camp front office, I hear something absolutely terrifying: children’s laughter. 

About 50 yards from me is a playground. I had not noticed this when I first arrived. The recent construction of the waste pit is less than a football field away from the laughter. Kids are playing loudly, happily and unaware of how the Texas Railroad Commission failed them.

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