Priest advocates for parishioners suffering toxic effects in refinery town

Years of toxic leaks raise cancer risk in refinery town, Corbin Hiar, E&E News, https://www.eenews.net/stories/1062744005  April 2, 2020

Second in the “Toxic Zones” series, which explores life in the communities around America’s oil refineries. This story is a collaboration between E&E News and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. Read the first story here.

ARTESIA, N.M. — When the new pastor arrived at Our Lady of Grace Catholic Church a few years back, he was struck by the sight and smell of the towering refinery a block east of his chapel.

The Rev. A.L. Vijaya Raju had a question: Were fumes from the flares, pipes and tanks to blame for breathing problems afflicting some parishioners?

A deacon told Raju not to worry — but EPA data and documents show the pastor was right to be concerned.

State regulators for more than a decade had allowed HollyFrontier Corp.’s Navajo refinery in this desert town of 12,000 to delay fixing leaky equipment that was releasing toxic gases, including high levels of the carcinogen benzene. Those benzene emissions raised alarm bells at EPA last year and spurred an exhaustive investigation by federal inspectors.

In neighborhoods close to the refinery, where half of the residents live under the poverty line and whose population is mostly Latino, people were kept in the dark about the benzene problem until February. An analysis by a watchdog group showed the Artesia refinery had the nation’s second-highest annual average benzene emissions and skyrocketing emission spikes through last September (Energywire, Feb. 6).

Raju estimated that some 60% of his prayer list, or about 80 congregants, are battling various cancers.

“Cancer is really rampant, especially in this part of Artesia,” Raju, 50, said early last month. “My own deacon is suffering from it.”

Long-term exposure to even low levels of benzene is linked to an increase in cancers, especially leukemia. High short-term exposure to the chemical — a component of crude oil and refined gasoline — can interfere with the formation of red blood cells and harm people’s immune systems.

The refinery released enough benzene to cause acute harm to human health during at least 50 weeks since 2018 — more than any other U.S. refinery, according to EPA data. HollyFrontier, which is headquartered in Dallas, knew in early 2017 that its refinery was exceeding a federal benzene emissions limit.

America’s refinery towns already bear a disproportionate share of the nation’s air pollution. Health experts say that could put residents struck by the novel coronavirus at higher risk of severe outcomes as they battle the potentially deadly respiratory disease. And with the U.S. economy teetering on recession, oil industry analysts expect a sharp decline in fuel consumption. That could mean a cascade of job losses for refineries that operate on tight profit margins.

In urban centers such as Philadelphia and Houston, the new benzene emissions data has confirmed longtime concerns about the safety of refineries. In more remote areas — including Artesia, N.M., where the mayor is an oilman and a quarter of the City Council works at the refinery — the data has raised new questions about the dangers of an oil processing industry that remains the cornerstone of some rural economies.

Like most states, New Mexico doesn’t release detailed information on cancer rates in small towns like Artesia. The state’s top epidemiologist, who can only publicly share county-level data, said the refinery’s effect on Artesia’s cancer rate isn’t clear.

But other health experts have already seen enough to sound the alarm.

“It’s exposing people in the neighborhood to levels that are widely considered to be unacceptable for public health,” said Martyn Smith, a toxicologist at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health and an expert on the effects of benzene.

From water to oil

Originally named for its gushing water wells, Artesia began as an agricultural hamlet around the turn of the 20th century. But some of those wells began to produce hydrocarbons in addition to water, and soon the oil industry became the mainstay of the town’s economy.

Sitting on the northern edge of the Permian oil basin, in the sandy scrublands north of Carlsbad, N.M., the Navajo refinery was built in the 1930s and was purchased by a predecessor to HollyFrontier in 1969. It has no connection to the Navajo Nation, whose reservation is more than 400 miles northwest of Artesia.

Today the facility on East Main Street can process more than 100,000 barrels per day of crude into fuel and other products, which are mainly sold in the southwestern U.S. and northern Mexico. The largest refinery in the Land of Enchantment, it physically and financially looms over Artesia.

With its smokestacks visible from virtually anywhere in town, Navajo is Artesia’s largest employer and HollyFrontier is a major source of charitable support for the city. HollyFrontier sponsors the city’s championship-winning high school football team, is helping to bankroll science laboratories for its elementary schools, and in February co-hosted a “bowling adventure at Artesia Lanes” to support the local chapter of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America.

The broader influence of the oil industry in Artesia is hard to miss. Bronze statues venerate roughnecks and wildcatters, a brewpub downtown is named the Wellhead, and the walls of the local Chamber of Commerce are adorned with artistic photos of life in the oil fields.

The oil wealth that’s flowed into town, however, hasn’t been evenly shared. About one-quarter of the town falls under the poverty line, according to the most recent census estimate. Many of the homes closest to the refinery are run-down single-story stucco structures. Mayor Raye Miller, a 65-year-old oil executive who at one time led the top oil industry advocacy group in the state, lives on the other side of town near the Artesia Country Club. His 3,400-square-foot home has Tuscan columns and a three-car garage.

Closer to HollyFrontier’s Artesia refinery, nearly 57% of 3,300 people who lived within a mile of the facility fell below the poverty line in 2010, according to an EPA analysis of census data. Three-quarters of people living near the refinery were Latino.

The town’s demographic disparities aren’t unusual for refinery communities. In cities big and small, neighborhoods closest to U.S. oil refineries are in many cases sicker, less wealthy than the surrounding community and disproportionately African American or Latino, according to an analysis by the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a nonprofit newsroom based at American University.  But it’s rare to find an oil refinery with as many documented toxic chemical leaks as at HollyFrontier’s Artesia plant.

Noxious fumes of Tank 57

EPA finalized a rule in 2015 that would require refinery operators to set up air pollution monitors around the perimeter of each plant. They’d start collecting data in 2018. After a year, if annual average emissions exceeded the federal standard of 9 micrograms of benzene per cubic meter of air, the refinery then had to do a “root cause analysis” and write a plan for how to fix the problem.

HollyFrontier set up its monitors in March 2017 and within a month had data showing emissions around its refinery in Artesia were over the EPA limit.

Executives during this period had been warning investors of future costs associated with lowering benzene levels. And around this time, HollyFrontier was lobbying EPA on the implementation of the benzene rule, which would require the company to take swift action if emissions did not come down.

The job of controlling toxic emissions rising out of smokestacks and canisters at the worst-polluting facilities is shared by state and federal authorities — with powerful local air quality boards tasked with taking the lead in some parts of the West. In New Mexico, HollyFrontier had an uneven and often absent state air quality regulator as leaky equipment continued to be an issue at the Artesia refinery.

Previously unreported EPA documents show HollyFrontier has for years failed to properly operate or maintain key refinery components and systems. As a result, experts say workers and nearby residents were exposed to high levels of benzene and other dangerous chemicals.

High benzene readings around a refinery don’t necessarily translate to dangerous levels in the community. The relationship between exposure and disease isn’t simple. Still, former EPA officials and health experts said the high benzene concentrations around the Artesia facility, a major East Coast refinery located in inner-city Philadelphia and a cluster of Texas Gulf Coast refineries are at levels more often seen in China and India.

In September, HollyFrontier told state and federal regulators that by the end of the month it would remove liquids containing benzene from “Tank 57,” a 50,000-barrel containment vessel the company blamed for the facility’s high emissions.

A few days after HollyFrontier’s self-imposed deadline came and went, EPA and state inspectors swooped in for an unannounced three-day inspection. They found over a dozen other storage tanks that appeared to be emitting more dangerous chemicals than their permits allowed.

In 2018, the first year that EPA’s benzene standard took effect, emissions at the plant in Artesia exceeded the threshold for 23 out of 26 two-week sampling periods. That made the refinery one of the nation’s worst violators of EPA’s benzene limits, according to an analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group that advocated for fenceline monitoring of refinery pollution.

EPA’s October 2019 surprise visit to the refinery — a three-hour drive from the closest major airport — came after several quarters in which Artesia’s readings continued to consistently top the benzene limit. Many of the worst readings were recorded at fenceline monitors that sat closest to Our Lady of Grace, Roselawn Elementary School, two parks and dozens of homes.

‘That’s astonishing’

In a 1,900-page report, EPA spelled out 23 “areas of concern.” In addition to problems with the tanks, the agency found HollyFrontier had delayed repairs to a broken valve that had been spewing toxic fumes since at least May 2009. Refinery workers checked its emissions monthly and detected concentrations of volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, as high as 500,000 parts per million. That means fully half of the air around the busted valve was at times composed of benzene and other harmful smog- and cancer-forming chemicals.

“Five hundred thousand?” asked Eric Schaeffer, who led EPA’s enforcement office under the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations. “That’s astonishing.”

“You don’t want to go near that,” said Smith, the UC Berkeley toxicologist.

Breathing in VOCs can quickly cause dizziness and memory problems, studies show. Longer-term exposures are linked to cancers and damage to the central nervous system, kidneys and liver.

The valve was scheduled to be fixed by May 2014, according to a report that HollyFrontier compiled for regulators that included the leak rates workers had detected. The New Mexico Environment Department visited Artesia four times between the date HollyFrontier promised to fix the valve and last October, when EPA inspectors finally reviewed the report, EPA data shows.

A paper tag attached to a valve at the Navajo plant lists recent volatile organic compound readings. The highest reading is 21,300 parts per million. EPA found that the valve has been leaking toxic fumes for more than a decade. EPA

EPA’s review of monitoring data also found that the refinery’s flares and cooling towers had exceeded their VOC emissions permits by as much as 2,200% — violations HollyFrontier neglected to report to regulators.

Schaeffer and Smith both said the sky-high leak rates suggest some of the refined fuel was evaporating away instead of going to customers, a climate-polluting, money-losing scenario on top of the immediate health risks.

Other concerns EPA documented include HollyFrontier’s improperly operated wastewater treatment system. The company has “never changed carbon in canisters ever,” EPA noted in the report.

When replaced regularly, the carbon in each canister filters dangerous chemicals out of wastewater. “It absorbs the benzene,” explained Schaeffer, who’s now the executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project. “At some point — like a sponge that is full of water — it can’t take anymore.”

HollyFrontier employees told inspectors that they thought the canisters were working because VOC emissions dropped as the wastewater went through the carbon. But EPA found that the oily water was likely just flowing past the benzene-filled canisters. Instead, VOCs were escaping through a wastewater storage tank roof.

A spokeswoman for the New Mexico Environment Department said the agency agrees that the chemical releases endangered public health. She blamed the “ongoing, undiscovered issues of noncompliance” on the agency’s leadership under former Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican who ran the state from 2011 through 2018.

“There is no acceptable excuse for these levels of exposure, and HollyFrontier will be held responsible,” said NMED spokeswoman Maddy Hayden.

There’s been no enforcement action since joint federal and state inspections late last year. Hayden said the agency is reviewing the inspection report.

Protected health data

Roselawn Elementary School in Artesia is a short walk from industrial pollution monitors that in 2018 and 2019 registered dangerously high readings of the carcinogen benzene. Corbin Hiar/E&E News

Public health threats posed by industrial plants in rural areas can be hard to determine. Counties where resources and health-care workers are in short supply often struggle to support local hospitals and clinics. And state and federal funding for epidemiologists — the disease detectives who help find or verify cancer clusters — have faced years of budget cuts.

New Mexico has a federally supported registry that tracks every reported tumor, with data compiled from doctors, labs and other sources. But cancer data is “not available to the public because that’s considered protected health information,” said Srikanth Paladugu, an epidemiologist at the New Mexico Department of Health.

In Eddy County, which includes Artesia and Carlsbad, the rate of cancers like leukemia that are related to long-term benzene exposure is similar to the state average, according to Paladugu.

What can be attributed to the refinery, he said, “we don’t know that yet.” For the busy health department to look at the state tumor registry in more granular detail, it would need someone in the community to make the request, Paladugu said.

Besides the Artesia facility, HollyFrontier owns four petroleum refineries in Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma and Utah. Together, the U.S. operations process roughly 400,000 barrels of oil a day.

HollyFrontier has made healthy profits in recent quarters. But it has challenges similar to other U.S. refiners, facing rising maintenance costs at aging facilities. A lack of investment, some experts warn, could lead to future accidents.

As far back as February 2016, HollyFrontier investors knew the company was concerned about the benzene monitoring provisions of EPA’s refinery rule. The regulations “may necessitate additional expenditures in future years and result in increased costs on our operations,” the company said in its annual report for fiscal 2015.

HollyFrontier also had access to top policymakers and regulators. The company spent nearly $1.7 million over the past three years to lobby Congress and U.S. agencies, according to a review of federal lobbying disclosures.

And HollyFrontier made EPA officials aware of its benzene worries, according to detailed schedules obtained via the Freedom of Information Act. In May 2017, a company official planned to meet with several of the agency’s political leaders to discuss the refinery rule and other energy regulations.

EPA and HollyFrontier declined to confirm whether that specific meeting took place. But HollyFrontier spokeswoman Liberty Swift said the company routinely meets with regulators “to ask and answer questions, provide input, and encourage information sharing.”

HollyFrontier turned down requests to tour the Navajo refinery and to interview the plant manager.

“The health and safety of our employees and the surrounding community has always been a priority,” she said. “We have now implemented corrective actions that we anticipate will bring emissions below EPA’s action level on a permanent basis.”

The most recent EPA data from the refinery shows that hasn’t happened yet. In the fourth quarter of 2019, the refinery exceeded EPA’s benzene limit for two of the six sample periods, including the last two-week period in December. And one monitor last October recorded 22 micrograms per cubic meter of benzene, more than twice the action level.

Going forward, regulators and the public will have even less data on the impact of HollyFrontier’s corrective actions. Citing compliance challenges posed by the coronavirus, EPA late last month retroactively waived fenceline monitoring requirements for refineries as of March 13, when President Trump determined that the spread of the respiratory disease was a national crisis (E&E News PM, March 26).

Meanwhile, EPA declined to make Ken McQueen, the regional administrator responsible for overseeing New Mexico, available for an interview.

Enforcement personnel has “met with the company,” an EPA spokesperson said. “We can offer no further comment at this time.”

‘People are more important’

The general public, however, didn’t learn about Artesia’s benzene problems until earlier this year.

The Albuquerque Journal, Carlsbad Current-Argus and Artesia Daily Press, which is now only published weekly, ran stories in February about the findings that Navajo was one of the top benzene-emitting refineries.

But the refinery didn’t come up at the first school board meeting after the news broke. Trash blowing from an overfilled dumpster generated more debate at a City Council meeting the next evening.

And at a parent-teacher meeting at Roselawn Elementary the following afternoon, residents were reluctant to talk about the refinery’s benzene problem.

“I mean, I love Holly,” said Tina Perez, the school principal. She said her father worked for the company.

Roselawn is a short walk from pollution monitors that at times had been so inundated with benzene that HollyFrontier told EPA the readings “exceeded calibration range.” On two occasions, the monitor closest to the school hit 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter, which is over 30 times higher than the benzene level EPA considers safe for long-term exposure.

Dee Dee Luna, a Roselawn parent, said she used to work at the refinery. “I know that they have policies in hand, that they handle it the minute they know it’s happening,” she said.

“I think if we were in danger, we would be notified and action would be taken,” said Eva Cabezuela, who helps out at the school.

Miller, Artesia’s mayor, also downplayed the significance of the refinery’s benzene readings.

“Because we can measure something to the nth degree does not necessarily make it harmful, unless there’s an exposure level where we actually are,” he said, noting that the wind rarely blows due west.

“I mean, it’s great to say there’s a school within ‘X’ amount of distance. But do we know that there was ever any trace of any amount of this chemical at that location?” asked the mayor, who’s also president of Nestegg Energy Corp. and three other small oil exploration and production companies. “If the answer is no, we don’t have anything.”

Miller went on to dismiss cancer concerns raised by Raju, the Catholic priest, and others in town who asked not to be quoted. In Artesia, he added, word travels fast when people get sick.

Raju, who signed a 10-year contract to preach in Artesia with the Catholic Diocese of Las Cruces, N.M., said he still doesn’t understand why the refinery sits so close to his church and the largely Latino families who regularly attend Our Lady of Grace.

Raju added that he hopes lawmakers and regulators will finally force Navajo to clean up its act.

“The government needs to look into this very seriously,” he said. “Because people are more important than our money, our economy. Human life is to be given priority.”

**
REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

Regulators responding to the leak couldn’t find an owner to fix it. J.D. Carty Resources LLC had drilled the well near the Rowes’ home in 2006 – promising the family a 12.5% royalty and free natural gas, which they never got. But Carty went bust in 2008 and sold the site to a company that was later acquired by Blue Energy LLC. Lawyers for both companies deny any responsibility for the leak.

A year later, Kentucky’s Division of Oil and Gas declared the well an environmental emergency and hired Boots & Coots Inc – the Texas contractor that doused oil-well fires after the Gulf War – to plug it. During the 40-day operation, the Rowes retreated to a trailer on their property and lived with no running water to escape the gases and noise. Regulators determined the leak was a toxic blend of hydrogen sulfide, a common drilling byproduct, and the potent greenhouse gas methane.

“I wouldn’t go through this again for $1 million,” said Hanson Rowe, who with his wife is suing the energy companies for compensation.

The incident, while extreme, reflects a growing global problem: More than a century of oil and gas drilling has left behind millions of abandoned wells, many of which are leaching pollutants into the air and water. And drilling companies are likely to abandon many more wells due to bankruptcies, as oil prices struggle to recover from historic lows after the coronavirus pandemic crushed global fuel demand, according to bankruptcy lawyers, industry analysts and state regulators.

Leaks from abandoned wells have long been recognized as an environmental problem, a health hazard and a public nuisance. They have been linked to dozens of instances of groundwater contamination by research commissioned by the Groundwater Protection Council, whose members include state ground water agencies. Orphaned wells have been blamed for a slew of public safety incidents over the years, including a methane blowout at the construction site of a waterfront hotel in California last year.

They also pose a serious threat to the climate that researchers and world governments are only starting to understand, according to a Reuters review of government data and interviews with scientists, regulators, and United Nations officials. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year recommended that U.N. member countries start tracking and publishing the amount of methane leaching from their abandoned oil and gas wells after scientists started flagging it as a global warming risk. So far, the United States and Canada are the only nations to do so.

The U.S. figures are sobering: More than 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells together emitted 281 kilotons of methane in 2018, according to the data, which was included in the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s most recent report on April 14 to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. That’s the climate-damage equivalent of burning 16.2 million barrels of crude oil, according to an EPA calculation. That’s more than the United States, the world’s biggest oil consumer, uses in two days. (For a graphic on the rise in abandoned oil wells, click here )

Reuters Graphic

The actual amount could be as much as three times higher, the EPA says, because of incomplete data. The agency believes most of the methane comes from the more than 2 million abandoned wells it estimates were never properly plugged.

The problem is less severe in Canada, where the bulk of oil production comes from oil sands mining instead of traditional drilling. The government estimated that its 313,000 abandoned wells emitted 10.1 kt of methane in 2018, far less than in the United States.

The global impact is harder to measure. The governments of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and China – which round out the top five world oil-and-gas producers – did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment on their abandoned wells and have not published reports on the wells’ methane leakage.

Researchers say it’s impossible to accurately estimate global emissions from leaky abandoned wells without better data. But a rough Reuters calculation, based on the U.S. share of global crude oil and natural gas production, would place the number of abandoned wells around the world at more than 29 million, with emissions of 2.5 million tonnes of methane per year – the climate-damage equivalent of three weeks of U.S. oil consumption.

HIDDEN MENACE

In a forested area of western New York state in February, a group of state regulators, along with researchers from the State University of New York at Binghamton, trudged through the snow. They stopped at a rotting wooden structure encircling a rusted pipe.

Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) official Charlie Dietrich held a bright orange device over the heap. It emitted a high-pitched signal, and its screen showed a code indicating the presence of ignitable gas. A scent of petroleum wafted through the air.

“There’s some methane coming up out of there,” DEC Mineral Resources Specialist Nathan Graber said.

The abandoned well lies in the forests of Olean, New York, which was an oil boomtown at the turn of the 20th century. The site was one of 72 locations logged by geophysicists Tim de Smet and Alex Nikulin in December, researchers from Binghamton, using a drone equipped with a metal detector, part of a program launched in 2013 to help New York identify and plug abandoned wells.

New York’s DEC has records of 2,200 abandoned wells dating back to the late 1800s. But the state believes the actual number could be much higher, because of incomplete records.

“It’s a lot easier to find stuff when you know where to look,” Nikulin said.

The group is among an array of regulators, activists and federal agencies now seeking out abandoned wells from the U.S. Northeast to California. The heightened interest in the climate threat posed by the wells started with a 2014 study by Princeton graduate student Mary Kang, who was the first to measure methane emissions from old drilling sites in Pennsylvania. She concluded in 2016 that abandoned wells represent 5% to 8% of total human-caused methane emissions in the state.

“It’s not like they leak for one year, and then they stop,” said Kang, now a professor of civil engineering at McGill University in Montreal. “Some of these have been there maybe for 100 years. And they are going to be there for another 100 years.”

Although the Trump administration has downplayed global warming and its link to fossil fuels, the U.S. Energy Department has been financing efforts to improve data on emissions from abandoned wells. Researchers from DOE’s National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) recently took measurements from more than 200 wells in Kentucky and Oklahoma and are planning field work in Texas. They plan to publish their data by next spring.

NETL researcher Natalie Pekney said the work was crucial to better understanding the climate impact of abandoned wells. Many wells don’t leak much or at all, she said, while others have “huge” methane emissions.

NETL had previously used aerial surveys to locate old wells in Pennsylvania – home to the massive Marcellus gas deposit – so drillers could avoid pushing fluids and gases up through old abandoned well sites deep in the state’s forests. Its researchers found many old wells contained bubbling fluids, an indicator of methane leaks.

GROWING PROBLEM

Nationwide, the number of documented abandoned wells has jumped by more than 12% since 2008, around the start of the hydraulic fracturing boom, according to the EPA estimates.

Many experts believe the number will keep growing. Oil-and-gas firm bankruptcies in the United States and Canada rose 50% to 42 in 2019, and analysts say the rate is likely to accelerate as the pandemic-related slide in energy prices shakes out producers.

Research firm Rystad Energy estimates that about 73 U.S. drilling companies could go bankrupt this year, with an additional 170 succumbing in 2021, assuming an average oil price of $30 a barrel.

“When prices are this low, it becomes a very serious problem. It becomes a fight over who is going to ultimately have to pay” for cleaning up abandoned wells, said John Penn, a bankruptcy attorney with Perkins Coie LLP in Dallas. “It makes it really bad, and it’s going to get worse.”

A school district in Beverly Hills, California, was saddled with a bill of at least $11 million to plug 19 oil wells on the property of its high school, after a judge in 2017 absolved Venoco LLC – the bankrupt company that had been operating the wells – of any responsibility for clean-up because other creditors took priority. The city of Beverly Hills is contributing another $11 million to the job.

“This is an incredible amount of money” siphoned away from education, said Michael Bregy, superintendent of the Beverly Hills Unified School District.

State and federal regulations normally require drillers to pay an up-front bond to cover future cleanups if they go belly-up. But the rules are a patchwork, with wildly differing requirements, and they seldom leave governments adequately funded. In Pennsylvania, for example, it would take several thousand years to plug its estimated backlog of 200,000 abandoned oil wells at the current rate of spending, according to data from the state regulator.

Oil-industry lobbyists have been fighting state and federal efforts to increase the bonding, arguing it would hurt jobs and economic growth during an already tough time for the industry.

“States and the federal government have many sources of funding available to reclaim and plug abandoned wells,” said Reid Porter, a spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, the country’s largest oil and gas trade group.

The API spent $1.44 million in the first quarter of 2020 lobbying on Capitol Hill, with oil well bonding legislation one of the target issues, lobbying disclosures show.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office estimates that cleaning up and plugging an abandoned well runs from $20,000 to $145,000, putting the price tag for cleaning up all of America’s abandoned wells somewhere between $60 billion to $435 billion.

‘SHOOTING OUT OF THE EARTH’

The pollution threat goes beyond climate change. Leaks from abandoned wells have been found to contaminate groundwater and soil. In extreme cases, gas from abandoned wells has caused explosions.

In Ohio and Texas, state regulators have each found an average of around two groundwater contamination incidents per year related to orphaned wells, according to research by the Groundwater Protection Council published in 2011 and dating to the 1980s.

Slideshow (18 Images)

In April 2017, for example, neighbors of Ohio farmer Stan Brenneman alerted him to the smell of oil coming from a drainage ditch on his 111-acre corn and soybean farm near the town of Elida, Brenneman told Reuters. The ditch drains water from the farm and carries it into rivers, streams and eventually Lake Erie.

Ohio’s Division of Oil & Gas Resources Management excavated 800 feet of the farm’s drainage system to find a well casing – about 130 years old – releasing oil three feet underground. The plugging operation took two months to complete and cost the state $196,915, according to a spokeswoman for the state Department of Natural Resources.

More recently, in 2018, the U.S. EPA was alerted to the presence of nearly 50 abandoned oil and gas wells on Navajo Nation lands within the borders of Utah and New Mexico that were bubbling water at the surface. Tests showed the way from some of the wells contained potentially dangerous levels of arsenic, sulfate, benzene and chloride.

The Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency said plugging the wells would require “major funds” and that, in the meantime, the public had been warned not to drink the water.

In rare cases, gas from long-abandoned wells can cause dangerous accidents.

In January of last year, a 1930s-era well sent a geyser of gas and dirt 100 feet into the air at the construction site of a Marriott seaside hotel in Marina del Rey, California, an upscale community in the Los Angeles area, according to a state report. The hotel owners did not respond to a request for comment.

“It was horrifying,” said resident Marilyn Wall, who witnessed the explosion from her home across the street. She said she was stunned “by the extent and the length of time that the stuff was shooting out of the earth.”

A worker standing on a construction platform above the plume was sprayed with debris and scrambled to lower himself down with an escape rope, a video of the explosion shows.

DON’T DRINK THE WATER

For Hanson and Michael Rowe, their troubles did not end the day their abandoned well was plugged. They no longer drink from the water well on their property because it gives them diarrhea, they said. Michael Rowe said she still suffers from headaches and coughing spells.

Kentucky’s Energy and Environment Cabinet is still fighting to recoup the $383,340 cost from the now-defunct J.D. Carty and Blue Energy in an ongoing court battle.

An attorney for John Carty, founder of J.D. Carty, said his client had sold what few assets remained in the company and therefore bore no responsibility. A lawyer for Blue Energy said the company denies ever operating the wells on the property and has no responsibility to maintain or plug them.

J.D. Carty was only required to have one $50,000 “blanket bond” to cover all its wells in Kentucky. The amount forfeited to pay for the leaky well on Rowe’s land, determined in part by its depth, was just $2,500 – less than 1% of the cost to fix it.

After the incident, Kentucky lawmakers passed a bill last year that effectively doubled bond requirements for shallow wells to help cope with the state’s 13,000 abandoned wells. Still, state regulators say the list of wells is growing.

Hanson Rowe said he supports fossil fuel development because using natural gas for heat and cooking has improved his quality of life. But the couple say they hope their lawsuit against the companies involved will help change the way the energy industry manages its wells.

“You lost your health, you’ve lost it all,” Hanson Rowe said.

Reporting by Nichola Groom; Additional reporting by Ekaterina Golubkova in Moscow, Rania El Gamal in Riyadh; Editing by Richard Valdmanis and Brian Thevenot

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