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Residents Concerned over Industrial Pollutants in Midland County Groundwater

Lauren Silverman, Director of Operations Support for Baker Hughes (center), at a booth set up for people affected by contaminants found in their water supplies. (KRTS / Lana Straub)

People living in a neighborhood just south of the city of Midland are worried about their well water. Industrial chemicals were found in levels that are unacceptable by federal standards. Now, county officials are working with state regulators and local industry to address the problem.

A crowd is gathering outside Solid Rock Fellowship Church – just south of Interstate 20 in Midland. But they’re not all here for worship. Some are here for water, like Amanda and her son.

"We came up here yesterday. I came up here to get some ice and the kids wanted a snow cone." It’s all being given away for free.

"The snow cones, the barbeque, the water, the ice, all the five-gallon jugs, the ice, everything."

The church parking lot is now a 24-hour relief station run by Baker-Hughes, the oil-services company. People sign up to get bottled water and ice. And on this night, there’s free food.

"No, I just found out last night and just thought we’d come over here and check it out," said Tia Porro.

Like most, she just wants to find out: What’s wrong with my well water?

In late August, some in this neighborhood received a letter at home. It said routine sampling of their groundwater showed that chlorinated solvents were above the drinking water standards.

The letter was from an environmental consulting firm, working with Baker Hughes and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the TCEQ. It was asking for permission to collect samples from the people’s wells and from their houses.

Toxicologist Kelly Stribner has studied some of those samples.

"The preliminary results we’ve seen – and we’ve only gotten a few in so far – there were a couple of detections above the drinking water standards." And the chemicals she found? "Trichloroethylene and Tetrachloroethylene and then Dichloroethylene."

About 25 years ago, similar solvents were found in spill traced to the Baker Hughes facility. And in the decades since, the company has been monitoring the groundwater.

"My understanding it was a spill that was back in the 1990s. It’s not too far from here." That’s County Commissioner Luis Sanchez.

He’s here answering questions from locals.

"Alright, I’ll give you my phone number. Again, I do want to talk to those residents. It happened in that facility, somewhere on there on Market Street, on their property. Where exactly, I don’t know. Again, that would be a good Baker-Hughes question."

Baker Hughes has been delivering flyers door to door. For drinking and cooking – the flyer says – "Use bottled water until you receive sample results."

David Suture is a longtime resident. "Yeah we lived out here before any of these trailers were out here. We’ve come to depend on bottled water. We just buy gallons and gallons of water. That’s what we drink from. We just use the water from the well for showers and stuff."

But the flyers from Baker Hughes recommend that residents don’t bathe in it, either. The company is providing filters for showerheads. Dee Waina received a flyer. "I was like oh my gosh. I’ve been bathing? And I didn’t know anything about this? It’s kind of scary."

But Eddy Elliot is less concerned. "You know we had the little paperwork here a while back about the water testing and so forth. About how they were coming to the front lines to protect the neighborhoods and check on it."

He praises the company. His church, the Solid Rock Fellowship is the staging area for their relief efforts. "And these Baker Hughes guys are just charging in to help them out, in whatever ways they can. So, it’s been good. Real, real good."

Lauren Silverman works for Baker Hughes as Director of Operations Support. She stands in front of a map, outlining the areas of concern. “There’s an area that’s south of I-20 and east of Pease Trail, north of…” She says that within the month, the company will send results of the water samples to residents and to the TCEQ .

Tommy and Patty Flood came here to see if their house is on that map. "I don’t know about how far it is." After the Baker-Hughes spill in the '90s, though, they haven’t trusted their well water since. "We haven’t drank that water in 20 years. I’ve been out here 30-some years, in one spot. We drank the water when we first come out here. After 10 years, we quit drinking it."

But Baker Hughes isn’t waiting for test results. They’re planning for long-term remediation. Their drilling rigs are out on the streets, and taking the next step: installing six permanent groundwater monitoring wells, within the neighborhoods.

Lana Straub is a freelance journalist living in the middle of West Texas, She is a native West Texan, growing up in Midland/Odessa and currently lives in Stanton with her husband and son. Get to know Lana at http://about.me/lana.straub