New report finds state regulatory failure to safely manage radioactive and toxic oil and gas waste in New Mexico

Analysis of produced wastewater spills in New Mexico shows vast majority of spills are easily preventable with common sense policy updates

October 7th — A new report released today by Earthworks shows that the state of New Mexico permits oil and gas operations without adequate protections to prevent pollution from improper storage, processing, and disposal of oil and gas waste, also known as “produced water.”  As a result, industry workers and the public are exposed to potential carcinogens, heavy metals, and radioactive waste materials.

Research has also found significant health issues associated with oil and gas development, including respiratory conditions such as asthma, cardiovascular concerns such as heart attacks, adverse birth outcomes, mental health conditions, insomnia, and other acute health effects.

“There is significant risk to public health in New Mexico from the oil and gas industry under the status quo,” said Melissa Troutman, report author and Earthworks’ Research and Policy Analyst. “Many oil and gas waste problems are preventable with common sense policy changes, such as clarification from the Oil Conservation Division that spilling wastewater is actually violation of law and so too is the failure to report it.”

A petition for rulemaking to make explicit that spilling produced water is a regulatory violation has been filed at OCD by WildEarth Guardians. The petition will be considered at the October 15th meeting of OCD, and If granted, the Oil Conservation Commission will undertake a rulemaking.

According to New Mexico’s Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD), more than 1.4 million gallons of produced wastewater were spilled from 327 incidents in the first eight months of 2020. The total volume spilled would cover 4.4 acres with one foot of liquid oil and gas toxic wastewater.

“In 2019, nearly 4 million gallons of wastewater spilled from over 800 incidents,” said Troutman. “The fact that more than half of those spills were the responsibility of just four oil and gas companies alone–XTO, COG, Devon Energy, and Oxy USA–more than illustrates the failures of New Mexico regulators to protect public health.”

Preventing pollution and public health risks from New Mexico’s oil and gas sector is possible with policy changes that include:

  • closing the industry’s hazardous waste loophole (as New York State recently did),
  • requiring full chemical disclosure of all chemicals and additives,
  • requiring comprehensive testing based on full disclosure,
  • treating waste as potentially radioactive until proven otherwise, and
  • implementing transparent, publicly-disclosed, ‘cradle-to-grave’ tracking systems based on third-party test results.

Further oil and gas extraction under the status quo guarantees more pollution and risk to the environment and public health. This is why the best policy option is to halt any further oil and gas permitting in New Mexico. However, with the likelihood of more extraction in addition to the legacy of waste coming from existing wells, swift protective measures are required to be enacted through legislation and/or regulatory rulemaking.

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