October 19, 2007 – New Mexico citizens' groups, ranching groups and landowners are urging state officials to prohibit pits on most oil and gas drilling sites and to require operators to dispose of contaminated pit waste at permitted waste facilities, rather than burying the waste on-site.
“It's time that the oil and gas industry takes responsibility to prevent pit pollution and dispose of their waste properly like everyone else,” said Bruce Baizel, staff attorney for the Oil & Gas Accountability Project and Pit Rule Task Force member – a stakeholder group charged with developing a proposal for new oil and gas pit regulations.
The proposed rule was released September 21st by the Oil Conservation Division and can be accessed on the State's website. Opening statements will be taken by the Oil Conservation Commission on the new pit rule Monday, October 22nd at 9:00 am in Santa Fe in Porter Hall at 1220 S. St. Francis Drive. The hearing will then be recessed and reconvene on November 5, 2007.
Unlined or poorly lined oil and gas pits, and buried pit waste, have threatened New Mexico's water, soil, and residents for years. Between the mid-1980s and 2003, the New Mexico Environmental Bureau recorded nearly 7,000 cases of pits causing soil and water contamination. In 2005, the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division released data showing that close to 400 incidents of groundwater contamination had been documented from oil and gas pits. Most recently, as part of the Pit Rule Task Force process, the OCD released pit-sampling data that showed carcinogens present in all the samples and heavy metals in two-thirds of the pit samples. Citizen groups, ranchers and landowners from throughout New Mexico are concerned about water quality, community exposure to toxic chemicals, stock and wildlife deaths, and a broad range of issues facing those that live nearby to these oil and gas sites.
Chris Velasquez, a rancher from Blanco, has struggled with open pits that threaten livestock, grazing operations and wildlife. In 2001, Velasquez had twenty cattle walk into an unfenced pit. “I've seen a lot of cattle die or abort from drinking out of these pits, and deer, too.” Velasquez said. “Not only am I losing cattle, but the operators bury these pits once they're done. The contaminants sterilize the soil and move around with the rains. I definitely worry about the water and the wildlife.”
“The proposed rule brings environmental, public health and taxpayer benefit to all New Mexicans by requiring closed loops systems rather than pits in some areas, banning unlined pits, and requiring surface owner consent before waste can be buried onsite,” emphasized Baizel. “We need this stronger rule to prevent contamination and ensure that waste is disposed of properly. If the industry is allowed to leave hundreds of “mini-waste dumps” all over the state, it puts a burden on taxpayers to monitor them forever. No other industry gets to leave their waste for others to take care of and this rule prevents that.”
Pit contamination has been a problem for the City of Lovington. Lovington's City Manager, Pat Wise, inherited a historical pit lying over the City's water supply on City property in 2002. Though the bond for the site was released by the State in 1992, the pit was leaking and threatening the City's municipal water wells. “I got the OCD out here and eventually the State hauled the contamination away but it was at taxpayer expense,” Wise said. “The City doesn't allow pits in our water field any more,” he added, “It's simpler and in the big picture less expensive to protect our water by simply requiring closed loops.” In 2003, the City of Lovington passed a local ordinance requiring closed loop systems on City property.
Despite record profits, New Mexico's oil and gas industry continues to resist the State and citizen's efforts to put rules in place that adequately protect people and water from oil and gas pollution. On-site burial of pit waste is expected to be among the most contentious issues at the official pit hearing on November 5th.
“The State has taken a leadership position in proposing best management technologies and practices such as closed loop system and surface owner consent before allowing on-site disposal of pit waste. However, there is a tremendous amount of pressure to continue to allow unrestricted on-site burial by industry,” said Baizel. “The industry has already buried tens of thousands of pits across this state and there are nearly 50,000 active wells out there today. It's time to put a rule in place that works for everybody, not just the industry's pocketbook. ”