Healthy Gulf attended a hearing in Jones County Circuit Court back in 2014 on the issue of groundwater pollution due to spills at an active oilfield waste injection well in a neighborhood on the outskirts of Laurel, Mississippi. Mrs. Deidra Baucum lives next door to the injection well and suffers from a kind of cancer that can be caused by the kinds of toxic pollutants found in the waste drilling fluids that have been injected into the well next door to her home. Her lawsuit seeks to link her health damage to Petro Harvester’s waste water well 36-13 No. 1.
It’s taken several years for her suit for damages to advance, partly because the company that runs the well has tried to keep her case in front of the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board instead of letting it be heard by Circuit Court in Jones County. Deidra is still fighting the cancer, and is still fighting in court. Over the last few months some new pieces of the lawsuit puzzle fell into place: a ruling by the Mississippi Supreme Court, and the results of groundwater testing done for Ms. Baucum on her property, by Allen Engineering, a consultant with offices in Ridgeland and Meridian. A recent news story from WDAM-TV in Hattiesburg covered Mrs. Baucum’s suit.
The water from the sampling well drilled on her land by Allen Engineering revealed that at a depth of 30 feet and at a distance of only 100 feet from the Petro Harvester well, radium, benzene, mercury, beryllium, and barium were detected at levels well above the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) maximum concentration levels (MCL) for drinking water. Chlorides (salts) were also elevated and the pH was 4.06 (very acidic) in the sampled water. It is fairly clear from historic photographs of the well site that spillage occurred onto the ground. Oilfield drilling fluids often contain salt, metals, and hydrocarbons and are sometimes radioactive. It’s pretty clear where the pollution on Mrs. Baucum’s property originated. The oilfield waste injection zones are several thousand feet below the surface, but a test well 100 feet away that captured these toxic substances at 30 feet below ground seems to indicate spillage at the injection wellhead. The Mississippi Oil and Gas Board and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality together regulate the disposal of used drilling fluids from oil and gas operations. Clearly, these agencies were not watching what was going on in this Laurel neighborhood at Petro Harvester well 36-13 No.1.
The Mississippi Supreme Court ruled in September that Mrs. Baucum did not have to present her damage claims to the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board, but could proceed in Jones County Circuit Court. Despite this, Petro Harvester, through its attorneys, maintains that Mrs. Baucum’s damage issues should be handled by the state board. Ignoring the Supreme Court is a bold delaying tactic.
The current operator has not injected waste into the well since 2016. However when waste operations were active from 1996 to 2015, operators frequently injected the maximum fracture pressure, (the maximum pressure above which the well’s confining strata could be fractured) or recorded no injection pressure at all.
Amazingly, Petro Harvester, the company that manages the injection well next to Mrs. Baucum’s property has applied for a permit with the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board to increase the fluid pressures for the well, from 682 pounds per square inch (psi) to 857 psi. For a well with a history of operation problems, the Board shouldn’t take actions to make things worse.
State agency boards like the Oil and Gas Board and the MDEQ Permit Board are set up by Legislative statutes and are part of the executive branch of government. Their members either serve the Governor as state agency employees or are selected by him from the private sector and placed in board seats. In Mississippi, agency boards invariably find a way to protect the industries they’re meant to regulate and have a consistent record of not being accountable to people who must live with the results of pollution from the regulated industries. These boards deal with complex information (engineering, geology and chemistry) in permitting matters that affect people’s health and property value and should protect residents who live near regulated industries – but that’s not how they function. Their decisions can lack compassion, fail to create remedies to difficult problems, and often reveal a sense of denial that they live in the same world as everyone else. In the Laurel case, for instance, the board members aren’t trying to imagine what it’s like to live next door to one of the injection wells they’ve permitted and are supposed to control.
Andrew Whitehurst is Healthy Gulf’s water program director