June 23, 2020

Alleged produced water dumping highlights difficulties in holding oil and gas accountable

Permian Basin (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by bloomgal

A pumpjack in the Permian Basin.

A recent incident involving the alleged dumping of produced water on state lands has highlighted the difficulties state regulators face in holding oil producers accountable to illegal dumping. 

“If we don’t have proof of it happening, it’s very hard to move forward with a violation,” Adrienne Sandoval, director of the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s Oil Conservation Division, told NM Political Report

A rancher alerted the OCD in early March of an incident in which the rancher believed produced water was being dumped on state trust lands and a road in Lea County. 

“Luckily it was caught by someone locally,” Sandoval said, adding that the individual “took recordings of it while it was occurring.” 

A month later, the OCD issued administrative civil penalties to two companies involved in the incident: the oil producer Advanced Energy Partners Hat Mesa, LLC and a New Mexico-based trucking company named Windmill Trucking. AEP Hat Mesa has a contract with Windmill Trucking for hauling fresh water and produced water to and from oil rigs. 

“The trucking company is required to have authorization from us and permits in order to haul this water. It is the operator’s responsibility to ensure the people they are contracting with have the appropriate credentials. That’s why they’re both receiving violations,” Sandoval said. 

The OCD fined AEP $7,600 and fined Windmill Trucking $8,700 — the first fines OCD has issued since it regained its ability to collect fines earlier this year.  

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“Those are just initial numbers,” Sandoval said. “After we issue the initial notice of violation, they have the option of either having a settlement conference or going to a hearing. At that point, they’re able to present their case, whatever evidence they have to the contrary, and the fine could change.”

Windmill Trucking has disputed the findings of the OCD investigation, which found produced water present in soil samples collected in the area. A representative from Windmill Trucking told the Carlsbad Current-Argus that the truck that was allegedly involved in the dumping incident was actually hauling freshwater, not produced water, and called the complaint a “misunderstanding.” 

A request for comment from Windmill Trucking was not immediately returned.. 

Sandoval did not say whether either of the two companies had decided to formally dispute the charges. 

But she did say that these types of incidents are not uncommon.

“We hear anecdotal stories from the southeast in particular that this happens quite often,” Sandoval said. “The problem is, unless someone catches it happening, takes video or pictures, captures the truck’s license plate, all those kinds of things, then we don’t have enough evidence to move forward. There’s a lot of remote areas in the southeast portion of New Mexico. There are a lot of places this can happen where no one is around.”

Sandoval said the division is considering using available technologies to help track illegal dumping in the future. 

“We are looking to modernize the division and use more technology in what we do, such as using satellite imagery, so that maybe that type of data could substitute for an actual person witnessing it,” Sandoval said. 

But for now, the OCD relies on members of the public to record and report dumping when they see it.

“We would really encourage any member of the public who sees this to take as much documentation as they can. If we don’t have that proof, we can’t move forward,” she said. 

Information about possible incidents of dumping, including the location, date, time, name and license plate of transporter, as well as photographs and videos, can be sent to ocd.enviro@state.nm.us.