Tempers flare in Railroad Commission open meeting with MPGCD

The MPGCD presented its findings from recent groundwater and air sampling at Lake Boehmer.
Published: Apr. 13, 2022 at 8:57 PM CDT
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(KOSA) - A Railroad Commission of Texas open meeting got testy on Tuesday when one of the commissioners consistently criticized the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District.

Commissioner Christi Craddick interrupted an MPGCD lawyer multiple times while he presented a water report for Lake Boehmer.

“Are things dead?” Craddick interjected at one point. “Because this is serious stuff you just showed up with, with us having no information.”

The MPGCD attempted to draw attention to the numbers in an investigation published Tuesday to coincide with the presentation to the RRC, titled, Groundwater and Air Sampling of the Sloan Blair No. 1 Flowing Well in Lake Boehmer.

The samples taken from Sloan Blair No. 1—simply the well head at Lake Boehmer—took place in February and March. Results showed alarming levels of numerous chemicals, including arsenic, chlorides, sulfates, and radium.

These particular findings aren’t surprising. Multiple samplings nearby have found similar problems with groundwater.

There is one result that does jump out: hydrogen sulfide (H2S).

According to the investigation, H2S was present in concentrations of 14,427.3 parts per million (ppm) at the well head.

At exposure to 1,000 ppm, a person will be killed in seconds.

The commission was dubious of the findings. RRC Assistant Field Manager Clay Woodul said RRC inspectors were at Lake Boehmer in January and didn’t encounter significant H2S levels.

Craddick blasted the MPGCD for bringing the presentation in front of the RRC.

“We do not plug water wells,” Craddick said. “That is not our statutory authority.”

Craddick is correct. But this is where the problem in fixing the blowouts lie.

Water wells aren’t the RRC’s problem. In fact, even if originally drilled for oil, the wells leave the RRC’s purview if they’re transitioned into a water well, unless hydrocarbons are found in the water. It is unclear who is responsible if other deadly chemicals are discovered.

Wells like the Sloan Blair No. 1 at Lake Boehmer were dug by oil operators, only for ownership to be transferred to landowners decades ago. Sloan Blair No. 1 transferred to the landowner in 1961.

The MPGCD and local landowners argue the structural problems with the wells now are often problems created by the operators long ago due to the poor engineering of the era.

“Why is it that I have to spend my money, and my time, and my energy, plugging your wells?” asked Schuyler Wight, a landowner near Lake Boehmer.

Wight’s land has experienced multiple blowouts, including one so bad TXDOT is spending tens of millions of dollars to move a nearby highway away from it. One blowout has caused part of his land to look more like a boneyard than West Texas.

Still, at one point of the presentation, Craddick interrupted the MPGCD and asked if the land and life near Lake Boehmer were dying.

“Everything around the lake, if you’ve been out there, is barren,” the MPGCD lawyer said. “So, there’s nothing living.”

“It’s barren because it’s in the middle of West Texas,” Craddick replied. “I grew up out there. You’re in the middle of a drought.”

The shocking exchange shows the wide disconnect between West Texans and the RRC. At the very least, it represents a dangerous misunderstanding.

“We’re not a money pit,” Craddick said.

So, if the lake doesn’t fall under the RRC, and the MPGCD and local landowner can’t afford to fix a problem that would cost millions of dollars, the question is quickly shifting from “Who will fix the problem?” to “Who can afford to fix the problem?”

It’s a question that only gets more expensive by the day.