Oil and Gas come at a Heavy Price to South Texas

By Chase Vasut – 

The landscape around the South Texas town of Big Wells has remained the same for many years-cactus, Mesquite, and the occasional rattlesnake. Look around today however and you will notice that the calm atmosphere has now turned into an iron rodeo of oilrigs, semi- trucks, and thousands of oilfield workers.

The Eagle Ford Shale is an extremely large deposit of oil and natural gas discovered in South Texas. In fact, in just two years, the number of oilrigs in production has dramatically increased. According to the Texas Railroad Commission, since 2009, 1,135 rigs have been put into work all over the deposit.

But the reservoir of oil and gas that has drawn hundreds of roughnecks to the area is also the reason that so many people who live in this sparsely populated area of Texas are having to change the way they live.

What is happening in South Texas should be familiar to residents in the Cross Timbers region, who experienced similar changes when Barnett Shale exploration was hot. It’s a story that has been repeated over the course of Texas history, as the epicenter of this modern day oil rush is Dimmit and Zavala counties.  The largest town in the area is Carrizo Springs, population 7,602.

In the last two years, people who live and work in the area say minor crimes are up, roads are deteriorating, and businesses are struggling to meet the demands of workers pouring into the region.

Dimmit County Sheriff Deputy Mario Vargas says while minor crimes are up, the county has thus far avoided a spike in serious crimes. “For the most part, there hasn’t been as much crime as we thought. There have been some guys doing stupid stuff, but we currently have no crimes such as sexual assaults, rapes, stabbings or murders.” Vargas also said that there has been an increase in traffic citations issued due to the overweight loads and unsafe driving of the oil field workers.

Eliseo Talamentes, who owns Big Wells only grocery store, says the influx of workers has been good for his business if not for the community. “Some of the workers are rowdy, there have been so many coming in here that it is hard to keep up with the flow,” he said. “They work hard all day and they get home late…  We see most of our business after dark, which is something we aren’t used to.”

Not only are small businesses struggling to provide for the boom of customers. Road crews are having trouble keeping pace with needed repair. “We cannot keep up with the road damages, our funding has been cut a lot and we just can’t repair the damages as fast as they are happening,” says David Salazar, the Texas Department of Transportation Area Engineer for Dimmit County.

Travelers through this area of Texas are dealing with hazardous potholes, and debris in the road and it is a challenge to navigate them, especially at twilight hours and at night. Drivers must either take their time or be very familiar with the roads to stay safe.

Salazar attributes the damages to oversize loads that are not properly permitted and late night travel on roads that are not familiar to the drivers. In the past three months, Salazar mentioned that there has been five semi rollovers, luckily there have not been any major injuries or oil spills reported. TXDOT, while behind, still maintains the roads on a priority basis.

The recent boom is also impacting local landowners and lease owners. Glen Screws, a lease owner in Big Wells said, “ It wasn’t that bad during deer season, and I think they were waiting to really start all the work because hunting down here is a huge source of income for the communities, but they are in full swing now.” Hunters complain that the once serene morning hunts are now married by horns and doors slamming on neighboring properties.

With the eyes of oil companies bulging and their pockets itching for a dollar, they have overlooked the conduct of their companies and their employees, causing road damages, increase in crime rates, and the lack of product for local businesses. The search and desire for “Black Gold” will eventually run down these small towns and communities if action of aid and funding is not immediately looked into and taken into consideration.

This story was written by a student journalist at Tarleton State University in Stephenville, Texas, for the Texan News Service.

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