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OERB to fund containment system at saltwater purge site

November 22, 2019 - 19:59
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OCC issues emergency order after hearing Friday

After a hearing late Friday afternoon, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission issued an emergency order allowing the agency the agency to acquire funds to mitigate the surface impact from saltwater bubbling to the surface in a field southwest of Omega.

The order will allow the commission to accept funds donated by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board to construct a system to contain the water until the purge can be stopped through other means.

“On behalf of Oklahoma’s oil and natural gas producers and royalty owners, the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board (OERB) has offered to provide a monetary grant to contain the area affected by the saltwater purge until the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC) can determine the cause,” Dara McBee, OERB’s communication director, said in a written statement.

“This grant is an effort to provide the OCC with the resources they need to address the surface impacts of this issue while they continue to investigate the cause.” 

OCC spokesperson Sarah Terry-Cobo said the agency will be seeking up to $200,000 to install a system to pump the saltwater into at least three frac tanks, which will be emptied periodically and trucked away.

An OCC attorney, representing the Oil and Gas Conservation Division, appeared before the commission Friday afternoon and presented testimony from Shawn Coslett, manager of the pollution abatement department, and Wayne Hendricks, oil and gas field inspector supervisor.

The two men presented images of the as yet unexplained saltwater spring bubbling to the surface in a field owned by brothers Donald and Ronald Schweitzer just west of the Blaine County line.

First noticed by the landowners last May, the saltwater has been flowing unabated since that time, despite a number of OCC actions and directives intended to stop the flow, which at times produces as much as 12 gallons of water per minute, or more than 400 barrels per day. 

Terry-Cobo told the Times & Free Press that pressure underneath the field is decreasing, which OCC engineers see as a positive sign. But with no real indication of the source of the saltwater, no one can say with certainty when or if the declining pressure below ground will finally stop the flow to the surface.

Hendricks and Coslett testified Friday that “the purging of saltwater presents an emergency situation having potentially critical environmental or public safety impact.”

By issuing a final emergency order, the corporation commission authorized the agency to enter a memorandum of understanding with the OERB regarding the use of funds and request a certification from Gov. Kevin Stitt that an emergency exists. An emergency certification will allow the agency to circumvent competitive bidding requirements and enter a contract to construct the containment system. Terry-Cobo said specifications are being finalized.

The emergency order signed by all three corporation commissioners also reserves the right to seek reimbursement when and if the party or parties responsible for the purge are identified.

Terry-Cobo said the containment system is only intended to mitigate surface damage and won’t stop the ongoing effort to stop the flow and identify its cause. Once the flow is stopped, additional work will have to be done to restore the property to its previous condition.

Currently, the water is piped into the open borrow ditch at the edge of the property where it is periodically siphoned off and trucked away by Bison Oilfield Services. That is a problematic solution, at best. Although OCC staff members lined the ditch last week, that doesn’t prevent contaminated water from spilling over in heavy rains. Ronald Schweitzer told the Times & Free Press that’s exactly what’s happened more than once, with saltwater traveling across the road and onto property on the other side.

Terry-Cobo said once the containment system is built, Bison Oilfield Services will continue to truck the saltwater away, where it’s being disposed of in a well outside the area believed to be contributing to the purge.

A total of eight disposal wells, seven commercial and one noncommercial, have been shut in indefinitely by OCC directive.Injection pressure has been limited on another 12 wells, located primarily in the Watonga area, to no more than 1,000 pounds per square inch.