The Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District leveled a $130,000 fine against a small oil company accused of illegally dumping toxic waste water in a stretch of rural pasture near Imperial.
The waste, known as produced water, emerges from an oil well after completion and contains potentially harmful organic and inorganic chemicals.
Six of the 11 groundwater district members that attended a regular meeting on Tuesday voted unanimously to fine the company, Imperial-based Bugington Energy.
The fine followed what district officials described as the oil company’s refusal to conduct a study of potential pollution to the underlying aquifer. Groundwater district members voted May 19 to order Bugington Energy to commission an independent study to examine potential groundwater damage and report back in 45 days.
“Bugington has never responded to anything that we want,” said Paul Weatherby, general manager of the groundwater district.
An Austin-based attorney for Bugington Energy, Tim George, did not respond to requests for comment on Wednesday. Previously, George described the produced water release as a leak.
George also previously said Bugington disputes the groundwater district’s authority over the matter but that the company will share results with the district of a separate study required by the Texas Railroad Commission.
Ty Edwards, an assistant manager at the groundwater district, discovered the polluted pasture on Feb. 3 when he deviated from his normal route to inspect a water monitoring well in the area, mostly unpopulated and sparsely trafficked.
The Pecos County property, marked by sludge, dead mesquite and a salty smell, is the W.T. Shearer lease about 2.5 miles south of Imperial. Many of the oil wells in the area are years old, known as “stripper wells.”
Ever since Edwards’ discovery, the groundwater district has sought to understand the fallout from the produced water release. Bugington halted the water release and performed some surface rein mediation, but groundwater district officials have questioned whether those efforts did enough to repair the damage.
Groundwater district officials estimated, using satellite data, a dumping operation that lasted some two years on two nearby fields and likely contaminated the groundwater.
“If it has breached the groundwater then we have got a problem,” Weatherby said. “We have been trying since February to get them to properly test that stuff, and they won’t do it. They are saying we don’t have jurisdiction.”
Weatherby said the groundwater district’s chief concern is not drinking water, although polluted groundwater could affect some livestock in the rural area. Instead, they worry about contamination of the Pecos River water system because the river is about five miles from the pollution site.
Weatherby said the groundwater district might turn to a judge to seek enforcement of the fine.
Meanwhile, 83rd District Attorney Rod Ponton and Texas Rangers launched a criminal investigation into the pollution case. That investigation is ongoing, Ponton said Wednesday.
“There hasn’t been any decision on how we’re going to go with the case yet, whether it’s going to be criminal or civil or nothing,” Ponton said.
The groundwater district board gave Bugington 30 days to pay $30,000 of that fine and report back after “expeditiously” studying the potential effect of the produced water release.
Board members of the district also agreed to waive all or most of the remaining amount if Bugington complies with orders to test the groundwater and perform any necessary remediation.
The Railroad Commission is also weighing penalties against Bugington Energy after the Midland District Office referred the matter to Austin for “Immediate Penalty Action,” following a field inspector’s visit to the pollution site in March.
Bugington submitted a plan to the commission on June 22 to study effects of the pollution. Ramona Nye, the regulator’s spokeswoman, said in an email that the agency’s staff are nearly finished with a review of the work plan but has not responded.
“Additionally, once the Commission responds to and approves of the work plan, our staff will be encouraging the operator to implement this assessment as quickly as possible,” Nye said.
Previously, Nye said the commission’s enforcement arm would weigh the results of the study in determining any penalty action. Bugington’s proposed work plan states that Midlandbased Sport Environmental Services will conduct the environmental study, which will involve soil sampling.
On Wednesday, Weatherby said he worried the Railroad Commission is allowing too much time to complete a review of the W.T. Shearer site, potentially allowing any subsurface pollution to spread.
“You don’t know until you drill down there and look,” Weatherby said.
This article was written by Corey Paul from Odessa American, Texas and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.