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

Penny Aucoin’s chickens are all dead.   A produced water pipe located across the street from her Carlsbad-area home burst in mid-January, drenching her house and yard with the toxic water for an hour before it was shut off. In the aftermath, Aucoin was forced to euthanize 18 chickens and one dog, and give up her […]

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

Penny Aucoin’s chickens are all dead.  

A produced water pipe located across the street from her Carlsbad-area home burst in mid-January, drenching her house and yard with the toxic water for an hour before it was shut off.

In the aftermath, Aucoin was forced to euthanize 18 chickens and one dog, and give up her remaining goat. 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. 

The operator responsible for the spill, WPX, attributed the incident to equipment failure. The company removed 25 cubic yards of topsoil from the property, and paid for a third-party contractor to treat the remaining soil. 

Aucoin’s life has changed dramatically since the incident. What’s left of her yard is basically useless. The family doesn’t spend any time outside their house anymore, for fear of lingering contaminants. Independent analysis of the remaining soil provided to NM Political Report indicated there were still unhealthy levels of contaminants such as benzene, chloride and “total petroleum hydrocarbons” present. 

“They would move if they could,” Mariel Nanasi, who is representing the family as an attorney, told NM Political Report

But there is no more help coming. As far as the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department’s Oil Conservation Division (OCD) is concerned, the spill cleanup has been completed, and the case was officially closed August 4.

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

Produced water spills are very common in New Mexico, particularly in the southeastern region of the state in the Permian Basin. There have been over 218 major produced water spills so far in 2020, and another 202 minor produced water spills. In the vast majority of cases, no penalties were assessed against the operator. 

Nanasi, who also serves as executive director of the clean energy advocacy organization New Energy Economy, said that the state’s failure to impose any penalties on operators who spill produced water, crude oil, and other contaminants is a “dereliction of duty.”

“There’s no tickets, there’s no penalties, there’s no violations, there’s no revocation of permits, there is no regulation in any meaningful way,” she said. “There’s just an anything goes, wild west situation with oil and gas — and they know that. They do whatever they want, and they’re sloppy.”  

1.6 million gallons of produced water spilled

New Mexico has seen over 1,500 produced water spills between 2016 and 2019, including 846 spills released in 2019 alone, amounting to nearly 4.4 million gallons of wastewater. A total of 1.7 million gallons of that was permanently lost, while the rest was recovered. In 2020, some 1.6 million gallons of wastewater has spilled so far, with nearly 600,00 gallons of that produced water lost. Seventy-nine percent of those releases were in Eddy and Lea County and 50 percent were labeled as “major” spills, according to OCD’s online spill database. 

Data compiled from the Oil Conservation Division’s online permitting database.

The OCD does not generally fine oil and gas operators for unintentional spills, according to OCD director Adrienne Sandoval. 

“It’s not a violation just to spill it,” Sandoval told NM Political Report. “What is a violation is if you do not follow our rules and requirements to report it to us and to properly remediate it. That’s where the violation comes in. It’s not an automatic violation if it’s an unintentional release onto the ground, but it’s how you manage it.”

Intentional releases are treated differently and can result in penalties. 

“That’s in a whole different category,” Sandoval said. The OCD recently assessed fines for an alleged incident of illegal dumping of produced water earlier this year.

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

When an unintentional spill does occur, the operator must notify OCD and present a remediation plan. 

“The operators are required to characterize the spill and submit a remediation plan to us. In the remediation plan, they basically are going to lay out the problem, it’s this big, it’s this deep, so we’re proposing to do measures X,Y and Z,” Sandoval said. 

The OCD reviews the remediation plan and determines whether it is sufficient before approving it. 

“Along the way, they may have to submit interim reports to us, or they submit a closure plan. In order for the spill to be closed out, they have to prove to us that the spill is truly remediated and that there aren’t any issues still left on the site,” she said. 

Many of the top oil and gas operators in the state have had numerous spills, according to the OCD database. WPX, for example, has had 254 produced water spills since 2007, accounting for a total of over 527,000 gallons of produced water released. Nearly 40 percent of that occurred since 2016. XTO has had 573 produced water spills, 60 percent having occurred since 2016. 

Sandoval said the agency will work with operators that have had multiple spills to address the underlying issues at play. 

“If we have an operator who’s had repeated releases, particularly at the same facility, we do direct them to take actions, to fix whatever that issue is. If it’s some problem that’s occurring over and over again, we can trend that data and make sure we work with the operator to try and get that fixed,” Sandoval said. 

And Sandoval also said the agency has the authority to include spill history when it’s reviewing permit applications or renewals. 

The OCD’s spill rule “gives us pretty broad flexibility to take into consideration any action against the operator in any type of permit renewal,” Sandoval said. But she added that she didn’t know of any operators losing their permit due to repeated unintentional spilling incidents. 

As far as Nanasi is concerned, the OCD’s handling of spills is a regulatory failure. She pointed to WPX, which had another spill — this one attributed to human error — just one month after the equipment failure that caused the spill on Aucoin’s land. 

“WPX was caught illegally dumping wastewater into the earth, and they are still allowed to operate. And nothing has been done about it,” Nanasi said. “Who is harmed by that? New Mexicans.”

‘How is this acceptable?’

The OCD’s handling of produced water spills in the oilfield drew criticism from several individuals who presented technical testimony during a recent hearing on a proposed produced water rule amendment. 

Norm Gaume, a retired engineer and a member of the state’s Produced Water Research Consortium’s technical steering committee, pointed to a number of problems he saw in both the data the state collects about spills and how it handles unintentional releases. 

Gaume, who served as a technical expert for the Sierra Club during the hearing, said in his testimony that “the produced water regulatory status quo is unacceptable,” and that “more protective produced water regulations are needed to prevent releases.”

“I think there is a huge problem in preventing produced water releases within the oil field,” Gaume said. “And I was very disappointed when I first read this rule to see that it takes no steps to fulfill the writ of the Oil Conservation Division, which is to regulate produced water in a manner that protects public health, environment and freshwater resources.” 

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

Gaume pointed to data about spills between 2016 and 2019 that’s publicly available on the OCD website. Of the 1,588 major produced water spills listed in the database, most were preventable, Gaume said. He pointed to nearly 200 spills that were attributed to corrosion. 

“Well, produced water is incredibly corrosive. In order to contain produced water, one has to use materials that won’t corrode,” he said. 

The majority of those incidents, representing 900 spills, were attributed to equipment failure.

“I know equipment fails because it’s neglected, it’s not maintained. And I know that when equipment reaches near the end of its life, that it’s common practice to replace it before it spills,” he said. “The fact that there were a little under 900 major produced water spills due to equipment failure over that four year period indicates to me that those were preventable and there’s likely a fair amount of neglect occurring.”

Gaume made similar conclusions about spills attributed to human error and “normal operations.”

“Human error is certainly a preventable cause. More than a couple of spills were due to normal operations. How can that possibly be acceptable? Overflows of tanks or pits caused 130 spills — that certainly is preventable and negligent,” he said.

In a phone interview with NM Political Report that occurred after the hearing, Sandoval agreed that many spills are preventable. 

“In general, a lot of spills, unfortunately, are preventable. But most operators operate in a prudent manner, and take efforts to minimize their spills,” she said. “Unfortunately, sometimes things happen anyway. And when they do, it’s the division’s job to see that they are properly addressed such that public health and the environment are protected. Our role here is to make sure that releases, regardless of the volume, or the intent, are cleaned up.”

Gaume, who formerly served as director of the Interstate Stream Commission, also criticized the state for how it collects and manages data related to produced water. One proposed change to the produced water rule would require operators to submit data on how much freshwater and recycled produced water operators use during hydraulic fracturing. 

Gaume emphasized a need for “reliable public information pertaining to produced water.”

“We’ve talked about the need for data, and I think we do have a great need for much better data, particularly with regard to the contaminants in produced water, their concentrations, their toxicity, all the aspects of the quality of produced water,” he said.

We're ad free

That means that we rely on support from readers like you. Help us keep reporting on the most important New Mexico Stories by donating today.

Related

Effort to challenge six laws enacted last year comes to an end

Effort to challenge six laws enacted last year comes to an end

Earlier this month, the New Mexico Supreme Court denied and dismissed the effort to challenge six laws enacted in 2023. The New Mexico Supreme…
Governor to call special session for public safety legislation this summer

Governor to call special session for public safety legislation this summer

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that she will call the Legislature into a special session this summer to address public safety legislation that did…
Emily’s List endorses seven candidates for Legislature

Emily’s List endorses seven candidates for Legislature

Emily’s List, a nonprofit that supports women candidates and reproductive rights, endorsed seven incumbents facing general election opponents in New Mexico legislative elections. All…
NM receives $156M to boost access to solar

NM receives $156M to boost access to solar

New Mexico will receive millions in federal money to increase access to solar power. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced recipients of the $7…
Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a final rule Friday to designate two types of PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances. Those two chemicals are perfluorooctanoic…
BLM finalizes controversial public lands rule

BLM finalizes controversial public lands rule

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management finalized its controversial public lands rule on Thursday. This rule is controversial because it allows for conservation leasing…
Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

Amid new graduation requirements, what do high schoolers want to learn?

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican The main things that bring Brayan Chavez to school every day: Seeing, talking to and engaging with…
Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

Special ed teachers hope lawmakers OK pay raises, admin changes

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican Brittany Behenna Griffith has a laundry list of adjectives to describe the ideal special education teacher:…
Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

Lawmakers must find consensus on competing education spending plans

By Margaret O’Hara, The Santa Fe New Mexican A challenging task awaits New Mexico lawmakers in the next 30 days: Reconciling three very different…
Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Health workers fear it’s profits before protection as CDC revisits airborne transmission

Amy Maxmen, KFF Health News Four years after hospitals in New York City overflowed with covid-19 patients, emergency physician Sonya Stokes remains shaken by…
Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Lujan Grisham, Biden admin announce $10 million in federal funds for tribes, pueblos

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham announced Friday $10 million in funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act was awarded to six tribal nations and…
Proposal to curb executive powers moves to House Judiciary

Proposal to curb executive powers moves to House Judiciary

The House Government, Elections and Indian Affairs Committee discussed a potential constitutional amendment that seeks to limit the governor’s executive powers. The committee approved…
Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

An abortion fund provider unveiled a rebrand and offered an open house in Las Cruces to celebrate the organization’s new name, mission and values. …
Stansbury introduces judicial ethics bill on U.S. Supreme Court steps

Stansbury introduces judicial ethics bill on U.S. Supreme Court steps

U.S. Rep. Melanie Stansbury announced a bill on Thursday that would, if enacted, establish judicial ethics to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Judicial Ethics…
Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

At the national level, abortion is still a high-stakes issue with both major presidential candidates talking about it in their campaigns, but it may…
Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

Abortion fund provider rebrands and holds open house

An abortion fund provider unveiled a rebrand and offered an open house in Las Cruces to celebrate the organization’s new name, mission and values. …
Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

Politics and abortion, how much will it matter?

At the national level, abortion is still a high-stakes issue with both major presidential candidates talking about it in their campaigns, but it may…
How the AZ Supreme Court decision on abortion impacts New Mexico

How the AZ Supreme Court decision on abortion impacts New Mexico

The Arizona Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that an 1864 abortion ban is enforceable, throwing another state bordering New Mexico into the situation of…
Progressives going after incumbents in hot Democratic primaries

Progressives going after incumbents in hot Democratic primaries

By Justin Horwath, NM In Depth It’s a safe bet Democrats will barrel into 2025 with their supremacy intact at the New Mexico Legislature.…
Effort to challenge six laws enacted last year comes to an end

Effort to challenge six laws enacted last year comes to an end

Earlier this month, the New Mexico Supreme Court denied and dismissed the effort to challenge six laws enacted in 2023. The New Mexico Supreme…
Vasquez calls out Republicans for ‘inaction’ on border policy

Vasquez calls out Republicans for ‘inaction’ on border policy

U.S. Rep. Gabriel “Gabe” Vasquez, a Democrat who represents the state’s 2nd Congressional District along the U.S.-Mexico border, cosponsored a resolution on Monday calling…
Progressives going after incumbents in hot Democratic primaries

Progressives going after incumbents in hot Democratic primaries

By Justin Horwath, NM In Depth It’s a safe bet Democrats will barrel into 2025 with their supremacy intact at the New Mexico Legislature.…
NM receives $156M to boost access to solar

NM receives $156M to boost access to solar

New Mexico will receive millions in federal money to increase access to solar power. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced recipients of the $7…
Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

Two PFAS chemicals designated hazardous substances under Superfund law

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a final rule Friday to designate two types of PFAS chemicals as hazardous substances. Those two chemicals are perfluorooctanoic…

GET INVOLVED

© 2023 New Mexico Political Report