By MATTHEW WATKINS
Crews spent Thursday cleaning up more than 175 barrels of oil spilled after heavy rains at a West Brazos County oil well.
Most of the oil was contained, workers on the scene said, but an unknown amount spread into the nearby Thompson Creek.
"We were tracking oil all the way past Leonard Road," said Joe Ondrasek, chief of the Precinct 4 Brazos County Volunteer Fire Department and one of the first people to respond to the scene. Leonard Road is less than a mile away from where the creek runs into the Brazos River.
Ondrasek said he was called to an oil lease on Texas 21 near the Thompson Creek bridge in the Smetana community after multiple calls from nearby residents who saw oil in the creek.
"There was just gobs of the stuff going down," he said.
Firefighters put out a boom to catch what oil they could before it reached the creek. They also cleaned it from trees and plants, Ondrasek said. He said some of the oil escaped their efforts and will likely affect local wildlife.
The incident is being investigated by the Texas Railroad Commission, which identified two separate spills on the oil lease operated by Lyons-based Holley Oil Co.
About 175 barrels overflowed from a steel storage tank near the oil well, but it was contained by a firewall that kept all the spillage on the property. The cause of that spill is uncertain, investigators said.
A reserve pit on another part of the lease was also overtaken by flood waters, investigators said. That pit contained an unknown amount of "oily wastewater" that spread into Thompson Creek, the Railroad Commission said.
The pit was essentially a hole in the ground that stores wastewater until it can be properly disposed, said Craig Constant, a partner at Holley Oil Co. He estimated that about four barrels of oil, or 168 gallons, washed away, but said he couldn't be sure.
"We are comfortable that we didn't lose a lot," Constant said. "I feel like we have contained it."
The Bryan-College Station area received more than four inches of rain on Wednesday, and flash floods occurred all across Brazos County. Constant said that the flooding of the reserve pit happened around 6 p.m., after the rains had ceased but as runoff water was still accumulating in flood zones.
"The water came up so fast," he said.
The environmental impact of the spill is unclear. Workers from the Texas Commission on Environmental Equality and the Environmental Protection Agency responded to the scene, but officials said the impact analysis falls under the jurisdiction of the Railroad Commission.
A spokeswoman for the commission said that the operator of the oil lease is required to clean up the spill and test soils in the area.
"Depending on the results of these tests, the operator may have to conduct further remediation," said Ramona Nye, a spokeswoman for the commission.
Constant said he didn't know on Thursday how much the cleanup would cost. He said that the oil well on the site hadn't leaked at all and was still operating on Thursday.
Nye said that an oil spill that contaminates water could result in a fine of up to $10,000 per day for the operator of the well, but that such a fine was unlikely.
"In most cases where a spill is accidental and where the operator cleans up the spill, the commission will not issue fines once an operator comes into compliance with commission rules," she said.
Alton Rogers, assistant director of the city of Bryan Public Works Department, described Thompson Creek as a major drainage basin for western Brazos County.
"Most of the basin is undeveloped and is not generally used for contact recreational uses," Rogers said. But the creek is used for fishing in some areas, he said.
Holley hired the Conroe-based Anderson Pollution Control Inc. to clean up the mess, and a small crew of workers spent most of Thursday placing white booms into standing water to collect the oil. By late afternoon, the company had nearly wrapped up the work. The scene was muddy, and large puddles of water still had booms in them, but no spilled oil was visible from Texas 21.