GALVESTON, Texas — In 1978, an oil company called Aminoil drilled a 7,500-foot-deep well in the heart of a 207-acre tract of coastal prairie in Galveston, tucked between Stewart Road and the West Bay.
The Houston Chronicle reports after the well proved to be a dry hole, the company plugged it and abandoned the drilling site, leaving behind a berm and pit designed to hold drilling fluids. The well was mostly forgotten for nearly 40 years until a group of conservationists launched an effort to create a nature preserve and protect Galveston Island's dwindling coastal prairies.
Today, with the help of the Railroad Commission's Brownfield Response Program, the old well site has been deemed safe, allowing the conservation group, Artist Boat, to move ahead with restoring the coastal prairie, planting native grasses. Indian blankets, horse mint and other wildflowers now thrive there.
"There's less than 1% of coastal prairie left in the United States," said Mary Warwick, manager of Artist Boat's habitat and stewardship program. "We don't have a lot we can lose."
The Brownfield Response Program, funded with nearly $2.5 million in federal grants, has helped convert nearly three dozen oil and natural drilling sites into more than 6,400 acres of parks and public spaces over the past 10 years, according to the Railroad Commission, which regulates the state's oil and gas industry.
Under the program, cities, counties, schools and nonprofit groups with land that includes former oil and gas sites are eligible for free site assessments by the Railroad Commission and can qualify for free cleanup services, said Leslie Bruce, who oversees the program.
"Almost every small town has a brownfield site," Bruce said, "But they don't know that they have this money to do these assessments and help revitalize their communities."
Artist Boat came across the drilling site in 2016, as it began identifying and putting together parcels for a nature preserve to extend from the far western end of Galveston Bay to the Gulf of Mexico; a records check revealed an old oil well on the property.
Warwick set out to find it. There was no sign of the plugged well, but the berm and drilling fluids pit across retained some of their original shape. Crews contracted by the brownfields program took soil and water samples throughout the property, tested them and found the property was safe.
"We could not have taken possession of that land if they hadn't done what they did," Warwick said. "It's a very important program. It'd be hard for a nonprofit organization to do all that on their own."
Founded in 2003, Artist Boat has big plans for the property, which was once slated for development until Hurricane Ike and global financial crisis of 2008 stopped the projects. So far, the group has brought nearly 700 acres of coastal prairie under protection.
The goal is to double that amount of land and have to span the 2-mile-wide section of the island. Once land purchases and habitat restoration are complete, the group hopes to reintroduce species that were once common on the island, but have since vanished such as the horned lizard, bobwhite quail and prairie chicken.
"Our priority is to get from the bay to the beach," Warwick said. "We want it to be contiguous habitat, otherwise it's worthless."
Students with Odyssey Academy, a public charter school on Galveston, are among the volunteers in the restoration efforts. In addition to planting native grasses and wildflowers, students and others go out in kayaks to test the temperature, salinity, turbidity, pH, dissolved oxygen and nitrates in the coastal waters that surround the preserve. The test results are used to determine the environmental health of the bay.
Ecology and art teachers Mara Braun and Karissa Laffey regularly lead students and other visitors on kayak trips where participants paint what they see. Using non-toxic watercolors, participants clean their brushes in the water as kayakers paint blue skies and green coastal marshes.
"Art and science go well together," Braun said. "The early biologists traveled with canvasses and paints. We get to expose them to that."