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Deadly levels of H2S gas discovered at Lake Boehmer, but top oil and gas regulators doubt it’s their problem to fix

Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District

In late March, a researcher stepped into a rowboat in the middle of the Texas desert. While wearing a full bodysuit and using oxygen tanks to breathe, they made their way through Lake Boehmer and toward a gushing wellhead known as Sloane Blair No. 1.

The reason for the precaution: hydrogen sulfide, a deadly gas often found at oil and gas drilling operations. Earlier treks to Lake Boehmer by local officials and technicians found evidence that large amounts of the gas, chemically known as H 2S, was present.

Details of the March expedition, captured in a recent report, found that “under the right atmospheric conditions” the amount of H 2S coming from the wellhead “is potentially in lethal concentrations...”

Samples showed that the wellhead was producing concentrations of the gas over 14,000 parts per million, or ppm. It only takes exposure to 700 ppm of H 2S gas for a person to pass out and die. At 1,000 ppm, an individual will be killed instantly, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

Sloane Blair No. 1, the well that created Lake Boehmer and is the source of these dangerous emissions, is a former oil well that was converted into a water well for a local landowner in 1951. Even though it began its life as an oil well, the Railroad Commission of Texas — the state’s top oil and gas regulator — has so far refused to plug the problematic well, but Pecos officials are hoping the discovery of high levels of H 2S may change that.

“We just want them to do their job,” explained Ty Edwards, the general manager of the Middle Pecos Groundwater District. “They are completely fighting us over [jurisdiction]. Like they claim ‘No [we have] nothing to do with this well.”

Once the H 2S findings at Lake Boehmer became public, the Railroad Commission openly downplayed the situation. In a press release, the agency detailed how their personnel had been dispatched a few months prior to investigate whether the body of water threatened oil and gas as well as water resources in the area.

The statement explained, “During a visit in January to Boehmer Lake…RRC did not detect any H 2S…monitors worn were not triggered, and neither RRC’s inspector nor contractors were harmed.”

Cole Ruiz, an attorney representing the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District appeared before the three Railroad Commissioners that lead the agency on Tuesday to present the data collected in March and ask for help from the agency.

Ruiz said, “This is part of getting that conversation to continue…and hopefully working together in the same direction to solve some really serious concerns we have out [at Lake Boehmer.]”

It didn’t take long however before the discussion around Lake Boehmer became tense and hostile. Commissioner Christi Craddick openly doubted the data Ruiz presented and the need for the Railroad Commission to plug the well.

“When you assume we have a lot of money to go out and resolve your problem because your landowner or your groundwater district hasn’t done so, I think that’s a big assumption on your client's part,” Craddick stated.

Even though the railroad commission routinely plugs abandoned oil and gas wells, which it spends millions on every year, the agency is digging its feet in on the well at Lake Boehmer. The stance of the state oil and gas regulator is that once an oil well is converted into a water well, the agency no longer has to plug it.

Craddick claimed, “By statute today, our understanding is, good or bad, it is not our liability.”

But, if the well at Lake Boehmer threatens certain natural resources, the agency does have the power to plug the well. According to Clay Woodul, the Railroad Commission’s Assistant Director of Field Operations, if that's the case the agency can order the current landowner where the

Sloane Blair No. 1 is located to plug the well.

If the owner refuses, Woodul said he’s “prepared to go plug the well.” He then explained he’d recoup the cost by suing the landowner. 

Even though Woodul has doubts about the findings of the recent report, he recommended that representatives of Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District and the Railroad Commission coordinate an effort to take more samples to help the agency understand what’s taking place at Lake Boehmer.

Mitch Borden is Permian Basin Reporter & Producer at Marfa Public Radio.