masksThree solid waste disposal pits are being dug less than a mile from Nordheim School, a K-12 in southeast Texas.

Each pit will hold 720,000 cubic yards of waste. The company building them, Pyote Reclamation Systems LLC, also wants to build a larger facility less than four miles away that would hold 10 million barrels of solid and liquid waste and include two open evaporation ponds for wastewater.

Pyote can do this, essentially, because most oil and gas waste in the United States is exempted from federal hazardous waste regulations.

For the past 18 months, the Center for Public Integrity and InsideClimate News (produced in partnership with Inside Energy and public radio affiliates) have been investigating oil and gas air emissions in Texas. It is a story that goes back to the mid-1980s, when the fossil fuel industry successfully lobbied to get their waste classified as non-hazardous.

This was despite the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency found 23 percent of samples collected from oil and gas waste sites to contain toxic compounds 100 times higher than health safety limits. In 1987, the EPA estimated that 10 to 70 percent of fossil fuel waste could be considered hazardous to human health.

But if that’s so, why isn’t it considered hazardous today? The agency decided that treating oil and gas waste as such would result in $700 million to $4.5 billion in additional costs – costs that would be carried over to consumers. Disposing of it all would slow U.S. oil and gas production and, besides, there weren’t enough hazardous waste facilities to contain it all. So the EPA granted the industry an exemption.

That exemption means that the waste can be stored in open-air pits whose monitoring regulations are decided on a state-by-state basis – as opposed to hazardous waste, which must be transmitted through pipes, cannot be stored in open air pits and must submit to EPA monitoring.

That’s why open air pits can be used to store toxic waste less than a mile from a school.

“Until the law is changed, people might be exposed to what ordinarily might be considered hazardous waste,” says Patricia Robertson, the Travis County Assistant District Attorney.

As for the students of Nordheim? “Many of these students live outside of where they could be exposed,” says superintendent Kevin Wilson. “But we are busing them to the school, putting them in the direct path of something that could be harmful to them. It makes you think: Are we doing what’s best for the students?”

For James Langhorne, chief operating officer of a disposal facility south of Houston, he and others in his industry are only doing what the law tells them they can do.

“We follow the standards set by the people elected to set those standards,” he told the investigatory team.

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