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Injunction ordered in Skull Creek lawsuit

Hope this helps.

Three months after the waters of Skull Creek first turned black, a Travis County state district judge issued a temporary injunction Tuesday against Inland Environmental and Remediation and David Polston, its president, requiring the company to stop accepting waste and halt any further polluting of the creek.

The injunction prevents Polston from storing or processing any waste at the company’s site near Altair, just south of Columbus, in a manner that “causes, suffers, or allows discharge into or adjacent to waters” in the state. The agreement – reached between the Texas attorney general’s office, the Lower Colorado River Authority and Polston’s lawyers – also requires the defendants to “abate and contain all spills and discharges at the site” and start removing and properly disposing of waste.

Inland processes oil and gas drilling waste and turns it manufactured products like road base, according to its website. Its site is adjacent to Skull Creek, which flows for more than 10 miles before emptying into the Colorado River, which ultimately flows into Matagorda Bay, a popular fishing and boating spot on Texas’ Gulf Coast.

Under the injunction, every Monday Polston is required to submit progress reports to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the LCRA and the attorney general’s office detailing the actions Inland has taken to comply with the injunction’s stipulations. They include assessing the extent of the contamination, removing road base material along the creek and creating a detailed inventory and a map of all waste at the site.

“I hope I have not left any doubt in your mind as to how serious I am taking this – the court is taking it,” Judge Dustin Howell told lawyers on Tuesday. “Certainly, having heard the day of evidence that I heard yesterday, it’s obvious that there is something that needs to be addressed here.”

See here for the background. This is just an injunction pending the outcome of the lawsuit, for which the court set a January 2020 date to proceed. Be sure to check out the Colorado County Citizen for ongoing coverage of this issue.

What’s going on in Skull Creek?

Here’s a story from a couple of weeks ago that you may have missed. I know I missed it until it was pointed out to me.

For more than two months, the waters of Skull Creek have flowed black, its surface covered in an iridescent sheen. Yellowed fish skeletons line the pebbled banks of the Colorado River tributary, and a dizzying chemical odor hangs in the air.

The odor is so strong that Julie Schmidt says she can smell it inside her house.

She and her husband bought 10 acres along the creek in December with visions of an idyllic country upbringing for their children, ages 10 and 2. Now, she isn’t sure they should play outside.

“Last summer, you could go into the creek behind the house and it was crystal clear. You could play in it, you could fish,” said Schmidt, who moved from nearby Garwood and has lived in Colorado County her entire life. “Now you don’t want to touch it. You pick up a rock, turn it upside down, and it’s completely black.”

Locals and elected officials in this small southeast Texas community near the intersection of Interstate 10 and Texas 71 say the source of the problem is obvious: an oil and gas waste recycling facility near the creek that is owned by Columbus-based Inland Environmental and Remediation. Although Inland has denied wrongdoing, the Texas attorney general sued the company Friday — 10 weeks after citizens first began complaining — alleging the company illegally discharged industrial waste into the creek and stored that waste without a permit.

On Friday, a state district court in Travis County granted a temporary restraining order against the company and its president, David Polston, saying he must “cease and prevent all discharges of waste” from the site into state waters.

The state’s lawsuit seeks monetary damages of up to $1 million.

The Texas Railroad Commission ordered the facility to stop storing oil and gas waste in 2017 as a result of a bankruptcy court reorganization. (The permit was held by Boundary Ventures, a company at the same location that lists Polston as its president and director.)

Records obtained by The Texas Tribune show that the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality dispatched inspectors to the facility Feb. 10 — the same day that Colorado County Judge Ty Prause says he made a formal complaint — and hand delivered a letter two days later demanding that Polston take immediate action to halt the discharge of waste into the creek. The letter described conditions at the facility as an “imminent threat and substantial endangerment to human health and/or the environment.”

But Prause, the county’s chief executive, said the agency left him and other officials in the dark for weeks about the origins of the pungent substance and what guidance he should give to his constituents to protect themselves.

“It’s hard to imagine that the state agencies in charge of protecting our environment and natural resources in Texas would not act quicker to tell people that live on this creek whether there’s a threat to their health or their livestock,” said Prause, who oversees emergency response for the county.

I encourage you to read the rest. Most of the coverage of this story has come from the Colorado County Citizen, with reporting by my friend and former blogging colleague Vince Leibowitz, who was the one to alert me to all this. Their first story, about the appearance of the black water and dead fish, is here, datelined February 15. The litigation referred to in the Trib story is ongoing, and I hope it will help uncover the truth about what happened, and hold the parties responsible for it to account. As Leibowitz wrote in an editorial, the “alphabet soup” of state agencies that have authority here have not been doing a good job, with the exception for the most part of the Railroad Commission. I don’t know what it’s going to take to figure out and clean up a big toxic waste spill like this, but we sure need to get on it.

Who gets to use the water?

There’s a lot more demand for an increasingly limited supply.

Lake Austin

More than miles separate the rice farms of the Texas coast and the Highland Lakes, where the outward march of Austin is marked by each new house, strip mall and marina.

They are divided by how to share the water of the Colorado River, pitting agriculture against recreation in a state that values both.

Growers have turned on a new plan that would guide allocations in the lower Colorado basin for the next few decades, grousing loudly about water cutbacks to help preserve playgrounds. Meanwhile, those who live and work around Lakes Buchanan and Travis want guarantees of boater-friendly levels at the reservoirs.

The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality will consider the plan by April. How the three-member panel rules could influence management of Lake Conroe and other popular reservoirs across the state.

The water fight reflects changes in Texas since farmers began drawing from the Colorado in 1885. The Lower Colorado River Authority built the lakes to generate power and tame floods in the 1930s, and the state’s population has surged since then, with more and more people moving into communities that barely existed, if at all, when the dams were constructed.

The state projects the population of the lower Colorado basin to double to 2.8 million people by 2060, and it is clear that there is not enough water to meet everyone’s needs.

“The issue is, Texas is a different place than when this system was set up,” said Andrew Sansom, executive director of the River Systems Institute at Texas State University. “We have to find a way to equitably allocate these shortages in a future that is nothing like the time of its origin.”

Growing population + drought + old rules = conflict. Obviously, agriculture is important, but I’m willing to bet that the revenue derived from tourism, recreation, and property taxes on lakefront real estate add up to a pretty penny, and will likely be more valuable on the whole than agriculture soon if it isn’t already. We know what we need to do – conservation, desalinization, not using treated water for irrigation, etc etc etc – and we know it will cost money and cause heartburn. We still have to do it.

You may be wondering if all that recent rain has helped these lakes recover. Sadly, not much.

Despite this already being the 11th-wettest July on record in Central Texas, officials said the unusually large amount of rain has not been enough to make a significant impact on lake levels in the area.

Bob Rose, chief meteorologist for the Lower Colorado River Authority, said Austin has received 5.82 inches of rain this month at Camp Mabry — a far cry from July 2011, when the city received 0.05 inches of rain.

[…]

LCRA spokeswoman Clara Tuma said Lake Austin received so much rain so quickly Sunday that officials were forced to open two floodgates to let out some of the water. The last time they did that was during Tropical Storm Hermine in September 2010, Tuma said.

However, because June was such a dry month and because the heaviest rains were not in the watershed, the storms did not make an appreciable impact on lake levels, she said. Lake Travis remains 28 feet below its historical July average.

Long way to go still. I’d be happy to send them some of our rain if I could, but then we might need it.

It’s hard to get beyond coal

The city of Austin is trying, but there are many obstacles along the way.

Fayette County coal plant at dusk

In Austin politics, it’s almost an article of faith that the city must aggressively curb its contribution to global climate change, regardless of what transpires across the rest of the country. That philosophy has led environmentalists to target the Fayette Power Project, a coal-burning plant 83 miles east of downtown Austin.

The plant’s fate is sure to be among the city’s most hotly debated political topics this year. A major rate increase for Austin Energy customers is coming regardless of what the utility does with Fayette, and Republican legislators already skeptical of Austin-style environmentalism have indicated they would not look kindly on additional increases.

But after failing to persuade Congress to enact coal restrictions in recent years, the Sierra Club has focused its lobbying efforts on local decision-makers — a change that includes targeting Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell.

Leffingwell won environmental plaudits when he pledged to move Austin off coal during his re-election campaign kickoff in November. Other council members have also committed to the idea in the abstract. But their statements are carefully parsed, and they have avoided committing to a time frame, particularly the 2016 date sought by the Sierra Club.

Many details — most notably the cost to the average customer — will probably remain murky until Austin Energy finishes a comprehensive study next fall.

But ahead of the heated debate that is sure to come, another question has emerged: How environmentally ambitious should Austin be?

Should activists push Austin Energy to shut Fayette down? Should they push for the city to sell? Should the city stick with a plan already in place to begin weaning Austin off coal over the next decade?

All of those plans have advantages — and significant drawbacks.

That picture is of the Fayette Power Project, which you’ve seen if you’ve driven along Highway 71. Part of the problem is that the Lower Colorado River Authority, which jointly owns the FPP along with Austin Energy, plans to continue to use it even if Austin Energy pulls out, meaning that just getting Austin weaned off coal won’t actually reduce coal consumption. It’s cheap energy, so someone will buy it if Austin won’t, and Austin will need to figure out how to pay for energy sources that are more expensive, at least for the foreseeable future. There are legal issues as well, not to mention the possibility of legislative meddling. It’s a noble and worthwhile goal, one at which I hope they succeed, but the path forward is long and unclear.