ORANGE GROVE, Texas — Allen Green leaned on a two-rail fence, staring past his 20 cows toward the sound of rumbling truck motors a quarter-mile west. The wind had shifted. The air was finally "breathable." An hour earlier, it reeked of putrid oil and gas waste, maybe sewer gas. He had no way of knowing. The smell had been so sickening that Green even put his dogs inside.
"They'll deny it, but it's like the rancher who has all Black Angus. And all of a sudden white calves start poppin' up. Well, there's only one guy around who's runnin' Charolais. So, it ain't hard to figure out where the white calves came from," said Green who once bred bulls for the professional bull riders circuit (PBR).
Green and several others who live outside of Orange Grove in Jim Wells County, are plaintiffs in a lawsuit against Blackhorn Environmental Services, a Corpus Christi-based company which operates a non-toxic waste disposal facility near their homes. Blackhorn was granted a permit by the Railroad Commission of Texas (RRC) to operate it on 232 acres in 2015 after many months of hearings and delays dating back to 2013. After many more delays, the site opened for business in 2019.
The suit makes dozens of allegations, including that emissions from the plant have caused health problems and exacerbation of pre-existing health problems for many residents. The plaintiffs are asking for damages in excess of $1-million.
State Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa (D-District 20) told KRIS-6 News that he "stood with my constituents" in originally opposing the waste disposal facility.
"I was powerless to stop it once they satisfied all the criteria set forth by the Railroad Commission," he said.
Former Jim Wells County Commissioner Carlos "Coach" Gonzalez (D-Precinct 3) says he tried his best as well.
"It just seemed like as soon as everything went to Austin, we got lost in the shuffle and no one listened to us," said Gonzalez, who lost his re-election bid to Republican Renee Chapa in November.
Gonzalez can see the glaring lights of the Blackhorn facility off County Road 308 from a plateau on his ranch some nine miles away.
"I can't raise my kids around this," said Meaghan Green, Allen Green's daughter. Last fall, her teenager, Jailey Lane, was treated by paramedics after the smell from Blackhorn made her sick.
"I got pretty dizzy and almost fell over," said the Orange Grove High School student. "I went to a doctor and he gave me an inhaler."
Blackhorn officials point to a record of inspections by the RRC showing total compliance with all regulations. In addition, monitoring by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) has resulted in no reports of excessive emissions.
"We are the most technically advanced and thoroughly inspected railroad facility in the state of Texas," said Blackhorn Vice President and Compliance Manager Cody Bates.
However, on the same day that Jailey Lane fell ill from breathing foul air while tending to her rabbits, a TCEQ inspector near that location was also adversely affected by the odors emanating from the Blackhorn facility, he became nauseous and he "immediately left the area," according to TCEQ documents obtained by KRIS-6 News.
During an investigation of this, and other complaints, according to a letter sent to Bates by the TCEQ, "Formal enforcement action has been initiated, and additional violations may be cited upon further review."
That letter was dated November 20, 2020. According to documents provided to KRIS 6 News, TCEQ recommended that Blackhorn submit "a written plan and/or documentation necessary to address the outstanding alleged violation to prevent recurrence of a same or similar violation."
Blackhorn attorney Pamela Bell told KRIS-6 News that the matter had been discussed and handled, and that "no written plan of action was ever required by the TCEQ."
Renee Chapa declined our request for an interview regarding the Blackhorn permit renewal. She did say by phone that she stands with local residents in opposing it.
Allen Green says there's no doubt that some of the residents will be moving if Blackhorn stays open. The problem, he says, is "who would buy their property, knowing what the air smells like when the wind blows their way?"
On February 3, an RRC inspector paid a visit to the Blackhorn facility. It came following nine complaints of foul odors over the previous 48 hours, according to the TCEQ. When KRIS-6 News traveled to Orange Grove to ask why the inspector was there, Operations Manager Richard Harrison said, "It's just our annual inspection."
The RRC confirmed that statement to KRIS-6 News in an email. It read in part, "The RRC's visit to Blackhorn...was to conduct an annual inspection of the collecting/drying pit."
Blackhorn's permit to operate has been recommended for renewal by RRC staff after considering evidence presented in September 2020 hearings. According to a report obtained by KRIS-6 News, RRC commissioners will formally vote on the renewal during an open meeting, most likely March 9, unless a delay is caused by late filings from attorneys.