An Environmental Protection Agency team is cleaning up thousands of leaky oil drums left for years in industrial east Odessa that investigators say threatened groundwater, risked dangerous runoff to a nearby neighborhood and created a fire hazard after a local businessman abandoned them when his company failed.
The site, about 4.5 acres at the intersection Market Street and Marco Avenue, contained about 15,000 oil drums in various states of disrepair, said William Rhotenberry, a federal on-scene coordinator with the EPA overseeing cleanup efforts on Tuesday.
There are also open container pits, tanks containing unidentified material, stained soil from barrels that apparently leaked and a water well that Rhotenberry said has more than a foot of oily sludge on top of the water column in the well.
The business was Ector Drum, which also operated under the name Lone Star Drum, at 2525 and 2604 North Marco Ave., just outside the Odessa city limits. It specialized in drum recycling operations for the oilfield.
Ector Drum existed until 2012, at least on paper filed with Texas Secretary of State. But Rhotenberry said it appears to have gone out of business in 2010 or 2011.
Records and EPA investigators identified the owner of Ector Drum as Randy Beard of Odessa.
Reached by phone, Beard twice hung up saying only “I have no comment.”
EPA officials said Beard has been cooperative with their cleanup and investigation.
To date, there is no evidence the pollution harmed anyone or of an immediate and ongoing public danger, according to EPA and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which is investigating any contamination to the groundwater.
“It’s all basically based on potential, said Mike McAteer, Rhotenberry’s counterpart with the EPA who splits time with him overseeing the site. “You certainly wouldn’t want kids breaking into this area, messing around with chemicals. You don’t want it going down the ditches and storm drains during weather events.”
And, the EPA doesn’t want any of the thousands of barrels to catch fire, whether ignited by lightning or another source.
“In terms of threat, No. 1 would be the water well situation,” Rhotenberry said. “And the second is fire. If this thing were left just another two years untouched, chances are it would catch fire one way or another.”
The clean-up, which began about a month ago, could take until November and cost nearly $2 million in federal tax dollars, the EPA officials said. A crew of about a dozen men on Tuesday took samples from barrels, which Rhotenberry said will eventually go through a lab.
“It was a mess,” Rhotenberry said. “And there’s all this new residential development north of the site.”
The TCEQ began investigating the site on July 25, 2014, after a complaint, spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said by email. The complaint stemmed from the discovery of the site by City of Odessa employees.
A TCEQ contractor “performed an emergency response” that August to “stabilize the site and remove waste,” Morrow wrote. The state agency did not ask for the EPA to help with cleanup until May 2015.
It was not clear Tuesday how the abandoned oil drums, at a business Morrow said was registered as “a conditionally exempt small quantity generator” by the TCEQ, remained undiscovered for so long.
The agency’s administrative rules allowed the business to “accumulate waste streams” but prohibited the company from managing waste “in a manner to cause the discharge or imminent threat of discharge of industrial waste into or adjacent to the waters in the state, cause a nuisance or endanger public health and welfare,” according to codes cited by Morrow.
For now, EPA investigators do not even know for certain what the barrels contain. They sorted them by property — such as acidic, basic or neutral — in hopes of making disposal easier.
“This guy wasn’t supposed to have that kind of material on this site,” McAteer said. “There are a lot of drums out there, and some of them are full.”
Most of the fluids on site appear to be “the standard sort of chemicals” used in the oilfield, Rhotenberry said. But assessing exactly what lies in each barrel is difficult because the barrels, in some cases unlabeled and in others marked with writing like “No good,” were emptied and refilled.
“We can’t assume anything,” Rhotenberry said.”
Across the street, Chris Byrne, co-owner of the sign manufacturing business Vital Signs described a longtime nuisance.
“We hadn’t complained to anybody, but for sure we are glad the property is being cleaned up,” Byrne said. “It’s atrocious.”
Byrne described a “chemical smell” when the wind blew in the direction of his business from the site while it was in operation, and after the business appeared to close, a “toxic mosquito haven” that the rains left.
The TCEQ tested surrounding water wells in April “and the results did not indicate any levels above health-based standards,” according to a statement from the agency.
But a letter from the TCEQ to a nearby business also reported findings of “arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, nickel, zinc, benzene, and aliphatic hydrocarbons” after sampling a well at 2504 N. Marco Ave., east of the Ector Drum site.
Any contamination surrounding the site would not threaten the water supply that most Odessans rely on, because that comes from sources further east under the city contract with the Colorado River Municipal Water District, said City Manager Richard Morton.
But Morton, who described the cleanup as “major,” said the discovery of the site last year by city employees still caused alarm.
“For drinking water purposes, the city is not concerned about it,” Morton said. “But for those individuals in the city and the county who do get groundwater from the aquifer underneath the city, sure there is always a concern. And that’s why the TCEQ and EPA are actively working the site. . .”
But the TCEQ is also weighing enforcement action, Morrow said. The Ector County Environmental Enforcement Office referred the case to the agency last year, after investigators determined the county lacked the resources to pursue the case.
“The business owner went bankrupt, locked the doors and went away,” said Rickey George, lead investigator with the county’s Environmental Enforcement office who will head the agency when it spins off from the Ector County Attorney’s Office next month. “The place deteriorated, causing a large amount of waste to spill on the ground.”
But George still questions how the polluted site could have gone so long undetected by TCEQ inspectors.
“If it’s been closed three years, to me there would have to be some questions asked that would have led to the discovery of this a lot sooner,” George said.
Byrne said his business moved into their building in 2007 but never met the owner of Ector Drum.
“You never really saw anybody of any importance over there,” Byrne said. “I don’t know if the owner was offsite because it looked like a pretty minimum wage type of deal where people would come and go.”
Byrne said he had already told employees not to drink the water from their private well or use it to clean utensils or cups by the time environmental investigators told him about the cleanup effort.
“It was more a confirmation, having seen the aerials and knowing what was going on over there,” Byrne said. “You know you didn’t want to have any part of it, as far as drinking the water.”
At the same time, he said, “Once the business shut down, it kind of left our minds as far as it being an ongoing problem.”
An employee at Vital Signs, Misty McGinnis, said “other than not being able to drink our water and all that good stuff, it’s not really hindered us, other than it’s really ugly.”
“It’s just a problem that’s been needing to be fixed for a long time,” McGinnis said.
As it happened, City of Odessa employees discovered the abandoned oil drums last year as they were surveying the area around the Old Course neighborhood, being developed northeast of the Ector Drum site.
The city employees were inspecting sites of potential storm water runoff sometime in May or June of 2014, said Jason Farnsworth, the city’s stormwater program manager.
“There was initially around 20,000 gallons of crude, or product I should say, sitting out on the ground for a discharge during a rain event,” Farnsworth said, adding that containers were not labeled.
It was a startling discovery, Farnsworth recalled.
“The challenge here was these guys were classified as a small-use operator,” Farnsworth said. “Because of that, they weren’t supposed to be keeping any fluid on site. Also because of that classification, it wasn’t on anybody’s radar. . . It’s just breaking the rules, that’s the way to say it.”
But the EPA investigators determined their concern about storm runoff was a valid one, even if its unclear whether stored chemicals washed at all into nearby areas.
“A lot of this stuff is unknown,” Rhotenberry said. “We haven’t sampled it yet. But it would be charged with a heavy rain.”
On Tuesday, crews at the site continued sorting and sampling the drums that Rhotenberry said had “scattered everywhere” amid vegetation they would have to remove.
In the coming months, the EPA’s cleanup crew will shred the oil drums, selling or recycling what they can in hopes of mitigating the seven-figure clean-up cost. The crews will also treat soil.
The cleanup crews that McAteer oversees with Rhotenberry handle cleanup of “Superfund sites,” a federal designation applied to uncontrolled areas of hazardous wastes.
But the Ector Drum site has not been classified as a Superfund.
McAteer described the pollution site cleanup as “more of a time critical emergency” than “a long-term cleanup where there is a lot more up front investigation,” common in Superfund cases.
“The idea was not to spend a whole bunch of time assessing it,” McAteer said. “We wanted to get out there and start removing this stuff.”
Contact Corey Paul on Twitter @OAcrude on Facebook at OA Corey Paul or call 432-333-7768.
This article was written by Corey Paul from Odessa American, Texas and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.