Robert Bowcock visited Louisiana and Mississippi on September 9-10th doing investigations into water pollution problems. Bowcock’s consulting business, Integrated Resource Management, deals with the safety and security of drinking water systems. His investigations have supported some of Erin Brockovich’s environmental defense work. On Tuesday, he was in St. John Parish, upriver from New Orleans. The Parish has Naegleria, a disease-causing amoeba, in its public water supply. On Wednesday, he was in Laurel, Mississippi consulting on a polluted salt water disposal well site and addressing elected officials and staff from the City of Laurel and Jones County.
In Laurel, Mr. Bowcock said that a polluted plume of ground water, originating at unpermitted waste water pits at the Petro Harvester oilfield waste disposal well site, is migrating underground and needs attention as soon as possible. The well site is the subject of a lawsuit by the Baucum family - landowners next to the well - but Bowcock’s opinion was that the migration of chemicals and salt water from the site would likely bring other nearby property owners into the case. Polluted groundwater at this site at the urban boundary of Laurel can affect human health, the suitability of property for development, and any number of urban planning and social issues. Public water supply wells are in the vicinity too.
Bowcock offered that the City of Laurel may even consider trying to move companies and agencies into an aggressive cleanup plan. This would involve remediation wells and pumping to suck the plume of liquid pollution to the surface for removal. Remediation wells must operate for years to manage groundwater pollution. One of the first hurdles in a cleanup is a jurisdictional issue between the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board, and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality over the category of waste disposal that has been taking place. Tallahoma Creek is downhill of the well and could also be receiving salt water and chemicals via shallow groundwater.
It is clear that the Department of Environmental Quality has an interest, because waters of the state are certainly being impacted by improper waste disposal. The agencies must get past their jurisdictional differences and get on with solving this problem, regardless of the civil lawsuit’s outcome.
When the meeting ended in City Hall, I asked Mr. Bowcock which source of pollution, the injection well or the surface waste pits, would likely contribute more to the problem. He immediately answered that the pits on the surface were the most probable source of the shallow groundwater contamination. He said that the first 20 feet of soil are extremely vulnerable to seepage from unlined pits and from spills. Also he said, regarding the mix of salt water and chemicals in oilfield waste, some chemicals migrate through soils at faster rates than others and many move through soil more quickly than water.
This situation in Laurel should be of concern to operators in the Southwest Mississippi Counties. There, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Tuscaloosa Marine Shale formation may lead companies to work in haste and with minimal caution when drilling and completing wells and disposing of waste fluids. Landowners with oil and gas leases must also be vigilant about what companies are doing on their properties. Clearly, unlined surface pits should never be used to hold any oilfield waste, chemicals or drilling fluids. Fluid spills on the ground should also be reported and managed aggressively.
Andrew Whitehurst is GRN's Water Policy Director and writes about Mississippi Water and Wetland Issues.