January 7, 2021

WPX settles with family over produced water spill

Penny Aucoin

A pipe that transports produced water from an oil pad to a saltwater disposal well burst on Jan 21, 2020. This photo, taken by Penny Aucoin, shows the wastewater spewing into the air.

Penny Aucoin and her husband Carl George reached a settlement with the oil company WPX Energy over a pipe burst in early 2020 that drenched the family’s yard, pets and livestock with produced water. 

In January 2020, Aucoin and George were awoken early one morning by the sound of a loud pop and gushing water. When the pair went outside to investigate, they discovered that a pipeline across the street that transports produced water from an oil pad to a saltwater disposal well had burst, spewing the toxic fluid into the sky and across the street where the family’s home is located. 

RELATED: ‘It was raining on us’: Family awoken by produced water pipe burst near Carlsbad

Aucoin, who lives just outside of Carlsband, previously told NM Political Report the wastewater poured from the pipe for an hour before the operator was able to shut it off. The fluid drenched her pets and livestock and saturated the soil of the yard. In the aftermath, Aucoin said she was forced to euthanize 18 chickens and one dog, and give up her remaining goat. She said a county official told her she couldn’t eat her chicken eggs, couldn’t eat their meat, and said she probably shouldn’t eat anything grown on her property, either.

Aucoin has been a vocal advocate for families living near oil and gas development who she says are exposed to elevated levels of methane. Aucoin traveled to Dallas, Texas, in 2019 to speak at a public hearing held by the U.S. EPA on its proposal to roll back methane regulations from oil and gas activity.

Mariel Nanasi, the attorney representing Aucoin and George in litigation against WPX, said the group reached a settlement agreement with the company earlier this week. Nanasi is also the executive director of the Santa Fe-based clean energy advocacy non-profit New Energy Economy. 

WPX spokesperson Kelly Swan told NM Political Report the company was “happy to amicably resolve the family’s claims.”

“We care about doing the right thing and being a reputable company in the community,” Swan said.

Aucoin said she was pleased with the outcome, though she refused to share any of the details of the settlement. But, she said, the experience only affirmed to her that regulators need to do a better job of monitoring oil and gas activities and holding companies accountable to spills. 

Under New Mexico law, companies do not face any penalties for produced water spills if they are “unintentional.”

RELATED: ‘Dereliction of duty’: 1.6 million gallons of produced water spilled so far in 2020

“The dispute has been resolved amicably, but what scares me now is that people are blissfully unaware of the dangers that come with fracking, including the enormous amount of flow back waste produced during the fracking process,” Aucoin said during a press conference Wednesday, referring to produced water.

“If Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Environment Department doesn’t begin to actually regulate the oil and gas industry and the extreme pollution that is all around us, then injury is likely to happen. I just pray and ask for our government to wake up and see how harmful this is to New Mexico, and its citizens,” she said. “I’m asking that they take a stand. A first step is to make the discharge of produced water illegal.”

Produced water typically contains formation water — water that has been trapped in underground geologic formations for millions of years — with naturally occurring minerals and radionuclides, heavy metals and rare earth elements, as well as drilling constituents and hydrocarbons, but the exact chemical composition in produced water varies from operator to operator. Researchers are now attempting to devise methods for determining the constituents and toxicity of produced water, which will help state regulators better understand how to treat the wastewater. 

RELATED: Groups critical of OCD’s ‘bare bones’ proposed rule for produced water

New Mexico has been grappling with how to handle the large volumes of produced water that is generated through oil extraction activities in the state’s two energy producing regions. After the New Mexico Environment Department floated the idea of reusing treated produced water outside the oilfield, environmental groups began raising alarms about the toxic fluid. 

The pipe burst incident effectively threw gasoline on the on-going and fiery debate among the state regulators and concerned citizens about what to do with produced water. State Sen. Antoinette Sedillo Lopez, D-Albuquerque, is planning to introduce legislation this year to address the issue. 

Aucoin said she will be moving out of the area later this month. 

“I live in a fracking war zone,” she said, adding that it is “really sad that people have to leave their homes, their places that they love, because of living in this insanity.”