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EPA finds harmful pollutants at Ector Drum site

Environmental Protection Agency officials cleaning up thousands of abandoned oil drums at a defunct business just east of Odessa report a clearer understanding of some of the toxic materials left at the property.

About 40 percent of the 15,550 barrels found on the site contained some sort of liquid, often in containers labeled incorrectly or not at all, according to the two on-scene coordinators with the EPA who oversee the cleanup.

Some of the acidic and corrosive material in those barrels remains unidentified, but most of the liquids, about 70 percent, appear to be “BTEX.” “BTEX” is acronym for a hazardous cocktail of materials naturally found in petroleum — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes.

Risks associated with exposure to the compounds include cancer and damage to the nervous system. Furthermore, the liquids present risks of fire and groundwater contamination.

But, so far, state and federal investigators say it appears any damage caused by the abandoned waste was contained to the 4.5-acre site at the intersection of Market Street and Marco Avenue, where a survey by City of Odessa storm water managers last year led to the discovery. City inspectors were surveying the area surrounding the Old Course Estates retail development north of the site for potential runoff sources.

“It’s still something we can’t leave out there,” said Mike McAteer, on of the EPA’s on-scene coordinators. “If it did, it would be a risk to the environment if this stuff was released, and of course some of it was released.”

The site belonged to Ector Drum, which also operated under the name Lone Star Drum, at 2525 and 2604 North Marco Ave. The business specialized in drum recycling operations for the oilfield, until going out of business in 2010 or 2011, according to the EPA.

Former owner Randy Beard has declined to Odessa American requests for comment. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which declined to make an official available for interview and instead responded to questions by email, is weighing enforcement action against Beard.

The EPA coordinators have yet to determine how much BTEX was left at the Ector Drum property, but three storage tanks and an open cement container appear to contain at least 20,000 gallons of the harmful compounds, said William Rhotenberry, McAteer’s counterpart who was supervising clean-up work at the site on Tuesday.

“When we eliminate that we eliminate a big part of the threat out here, so that goes first,” Rhotenberry said.

Added McAteer: “You don’t want this stuff flowing off a ditch into any kind of waterway. And it’s obviously flammable too, so there is risk there. We want to get rid of all this material.”

In related news, EPA working on ‘time critical emergency’ pollution site.

The EPA began cleaning up the site about a month ago, after TCEQ officials requested help in May. The TCEQ began investigating the site in July 2014, after the complaint that began with the City of Odessa inspection.

A TCEQ contractor “performed an emergency” response the following month “to stabilize the site and remove waste,” according to a previous statement from the agency.

The TCEQ repeated a statement released last month that tests of surrounding water wells in April “did not indicate any levels above health-based standards.” The agency also notified nearby businesses of 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.

The TCEQ further sampled groundwater in the area to study as the investigation continues, according to the Tuesday email from the agency.

It remains unclear how the abandoned drums at Ector Drum, under TCEQ’s regulatory oversight, remained undetected for so long. In an email, agency spokeswoman Andrea Morrow said four inspections by the agency before the complaint last year — in April 2011, August 2009, March 2008 and January 2007 — uncovered no violations.

An Odessa American request for TCEQ documents under state open records law is pending.

In the meantime, the EPA coordinators estimate cleanup of the Ector Drum site will continue into November and cost about $2 million. Some of that cost the federal agency will seek to offset by selling materials to recyclers and seeking reimbursement from Beard or oilfield businesses that sent the liquids to Ector Drum.

Later this month, the EPA team cleaning up the site will shred the oil drums, which are already grouped together by properties of the materials inside, the on-scene coordinators said. From there, the team will begin digging up contaminated soil.

To date, news of the polluted industrial site has yet to deter buyers at Old Course Estates, said Bryce Pool, the developer of Old Course with Fort Worth-based the Morrison Group. About half of the 254 units under development have been sold, Pool said.

Pool said he is relieved the Ector Drum site is being cleaned up (“even though I’m paying for it” as a taxpayer). Industrial properties lie between the Old Course development, but the potential for harm still made Pool uneasy, he said, even though he believed there was no impact from site on the development.

“That’s scary, with the floods that we’ve had,” Pool said. “We’ve been underwater, almost the whole development, twice.”

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.

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