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Oil seepage threatens Monahans Draw

Leaking oil from a lease atop the Monahans Draw raises worry of contamination of the waterway, and more than a year into the state-ordered cleanup effort the extent of the damage remains unclear.

Oil was discovered seeping through soggy earth on July 16, 2014, at the oil lease in the 3200 block of Second Street, the western fringes of Odessa city limits. There is little activity apparent on the land, a tract home to litter such as deteriorating tires and adjacent to a yard of scrap truck parts.

Today, the excavation site includes a pit roughly 12-feet deep that is caked with what appears to be black crude on the walls and floor and with an oily sheen on rainwater or runoff that pooled at the bottom. Just east of the pit, the Monahans Draw becomes more visible with vegetation growing alongside the waterway.

The Texas Railroad Commission, the regulator overseeing the cleanup, estimated 270 barrels were spilled from a flow line connected to a more than 40-year-old well owned by Austin-based Viejo Energy, according to agency documents (Representatives of the Railroad Commission did not respond to telephone and email requests for comment).

The initial leak stemmed from a flow line running from a well just north of the site to a tank battery just to the south. And there is no official explanation for what caused it.

But officials with the City of Odessa and the oil company say there could be a separate source for the oil leak, which could be worse.

“They found the source of the surface leak,” said Jason Farnsworth, the city’s Storm Water Program manager. He learned of the spill during a routine inspection. “As they kept going, they kept finding more and more and more. And that’s what this is, they are finding more and more and more. They haven’t identified the source of what was on the surface, but they haven’t identified the source of what is causing this to still leak.”

The spill was Farnsworth’s second such discovery near city property since city administrators ramped up the program about a year and half ago. The other discovery came earlier in the summer, when Farnsworth found thousands of abandoned oil drums on Marco Avenue, where an Environmental Protection Agency crew is continuing a multi-million dollar cleanup.

Related: Abandoned oil waste pit eroding into river near Medora

Viejo Energy President Dick Schmidt said the oil company’s employees discovered the spill at about the time of Farnsworth’s visit as they tended to a nearby pumpjack.

“We are trying to get this all cleaned up and move on,” Schmidt said. “This doesn’t help anybody.”

Viejo Energy bought the well that leaked, the Lyda Mae No. 2, in 2009 when the company acquired Momentum Energy Corporation, records show (The company still operated under the name Momentum Energy Corporation in West Texas today). The well, one of about 40 Viejo energy owns in West Texas, still pumps about 30 barrels per day, Schmidt said.

Schmidt said the line leaked for “a couple weeks” after it was severed on a weekend. He said a pumper, which is an oilfield worker whose duties include monitoring surface gathering equipment, “should have discovered” the leak sooner.

But Schmidt said the company believes someone on the surface severed the flow line with a back hoe or other heavy equipment, after visiting with other people in the area and examining the line. The company’s workers since replaced the flow line with an above-ground line.

“It was clearly snapped,” Schmidt said. “It wasn’t like there was some kind of corrosion or something like that. It was just snapped. It took a tremendous force. It wasn’t like there was just someone out there doing something. It would take a mechanical force to have severed it the way it was severed.”

The state-mandated clean-up has cost more than $1 million, Schmidt said, and he said the company or its insurance company could end up trying to force whoever severed the line to help pay.

“But we are trying to take care of the oil that was leaked, because it’s our oil,” Schmidt said. “So we are the responsible party. That’s what we are doing.”

The clean-up crew tied to remove the oil with catawater, microbes that essentially eat oil, but stopped because it did not work as well as they hoped, Schmidt said.

Today, a berm surrounds the clean-up site that workers installed to prevent storm runoff from escaping, but the reach of the oil spill remains unclear. Other pipelines and wells surround the area.

City officials said initial tests at the spill site stopped at a layer of caliche about a dozen feet below the surface. As clean-up crews kept digging to remove oil, they found crude below the rock layer that is still visible today.

City workers also tested parts of the Monahans Draw, but Farnsworth said those tests also stopped at the “layer of resistance,” or rock layer, like the initial tests by the oil company’s cleanup crew at the spill site.

So far, there is no evidence of a public health hazard or any contamination of drinking water. The Monahans Draw is not a source of city drinking water, even though it moves through the town and some Odessans fish from it.

But the City of Odessa’s employees have found “trace amounts” of harmful pollutants in a pond of the Monahans Draw about a half mile from the site on the other side of Interstate 20, Farnsworth said.

Those pollutants, known as “BTEX,” an acronym for chemicals found naturally in petroleum — benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes — that in high enough concentrations carry risks such as cancer and damage to the nervous system. But the source of those chemicals is unclear, and finding out is complicated by most of the city pouring into the draw, said Vanessa Shrauner, the city’s development coordinator.

“There are potentially thousands of sources, so to sit here and say it’s from that is not fair,” said Shrauner, adding that identifying the boundaries of the spill will represent “a huge step forward” in both cleaning it up and determining the level of damage caused.

The Monahans Draw rises five miles north of Penwell in central Ector County. From there, it runs east for 53 miles to its mouth north of Interstate 20 in northeast Midland County.

During wet periods, such as the recent rains, the draw is a freshwater marsh with oak growing along its banks.

“We want to make sure when these types of thing are found, they are cleaned up as soon as possible to avoid any potential damage,” City Manager Richard Morton said. “You can’t necessarily say this has caused damage, but it shouldn’t be happening.”

This article was written by Corey Paul from Odessa American, Texas and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.