By Camaron Abundes
LEA COUNTY, NM- Deep on a ranch in Lea County, a team from New Mexico's Oil Conservation Division observes an old emergency overflow pit. The pit is runoff of produced water used for drilling and oil.
"In the past sites like this were not necessarily a violation of the rules," Mark Fesmire, PE, JD, Chairman of the Oil Conservation Commission, said.
Fesmire says the state adopted tougher regulations for the use of pits. He says overall the state is taking a tougher stance when it comes to cleaning up and cracking down on industry contamination.
"People are becoming more and more aware that sites like this can pose be a threat," Fesmire said.
An inspector stumbled onto one site in Lea County, 17 years ago. It is one of more than 500 sites around the state in some form of remediation. Fesmire says OCD's new goal is to stop new contamination sites from popping up.
Since drilling started in the state in the 1920's some 90,000 wells have been drilled, about 50,000 wells are still active. Fesmire says most sites over the years used some sort of pit and all the sites maybe future remediation projects. Another concern, for Fesmire and his team is the penalty scale. It's been the same since 1935, $1,000 dollars a day for a violation. The Oil Conservation Division is made up of 70 employees who cover all the active wells. Fesmire says it is critical that companies report spills or hazards.
The layers of sludge, at the Lea County site, leaking out of a rusted tank formed what is essentially asphalt. What looks like rock is actually a oil, salt, and other deposits.
"Basically what's occurred here is a series of spills," Fesmire said. "If we were to dig down, we'd find soils that are moist with oil."
More testing is needed to find out if the groundwater is contaminated, but first the Oil Conservation Division must work the with the company responsible for the lease.
"It's been very,very difficult because when we get to the point where we can take some sort action, there is a change in ownership," Fesmire said.