OCC works to solve large groundwater 'purge' near Omega

OMEGA, Okla. — Every day for at least five months, thousands of gallons of saltwater have been gushing out of the ground at a site nearby the town of Omega, and Oklahoma Corporation Commission isn't sure why.

"Right now, it's still an open question," said Matt Skinner, Oklahoma Corporation Commission's public information manager.

The report came in July 1, 2019, for a single location on a farm where 3.5–12.5 gallons of saltwater rushes to the surface every minute, and OCC has been dealing with the issue ever since.

A final emergency order was requested and approved Nov. 22, allowing OCC to receive funding from Oklahoma Energy Resources Board. The governor's office was sent a letter to notify Gov. Kevin Stitt of the ongoing situation, and his office responded.

"The subject saltwater purge constitutes a serious threat to public health and safety and poses a serious risk to the environment if immediate action is not taken," the response said. "As Governor ... a serious environmental emergency is hereby declared to exist, and the Corporation Commission may immediately employ the necessary service contractors to address the containment of this existing environmental emergency in Blaine County, Oklahoma."

With additional funding from OERB, the cleanup effort is going to ramp up.

"The Oklahoma Energy Resources Board is going to help fund an effort to come up with a better way of handling that water," Skinner said.

"We're going to be putting tanks up in the site and directing the water right into them, and then the tanks will be emptied and the water disposed of properly."

The water is "high, high, high in chlorides," he said. "Very high."

While the flow varies wildly, it is "a very strong purge," he said, "purge" meaning the pressurized release of liquid to the surface.

"Obviously we want to find the cause, but the big deal is to stop the purge, that's our most pressing goal right now. We've taken a number of actions over the months," Skinner said.

OCC requested three non-producing wells to shut down, suspecting, due to location, that water was finding a path to the surface through those wells. That didn't work, so OCC had the three nearest disposal wells halted. That move didn't prove any more effective.

"When you have a purge like this, you start small and go bigger if the purge doesn't respond," Skinner said.

At this point, eight disposal wells in the area have been ordered shut down. A dozen others further away are allowed to keep operating as long as they don't exceed injection pressure of 1,000 pounds per square-inch.

Additionally, OCC's Oil and Gas Division has placed a moratorium in some areas on installing new wells that inject into the Permian group formations, where OCC believes the source of the purge is located.

"What we're trying to do is drop the pressure in the formation, so there's not the pressure pushing that purge up," Skinner said.

Ronald Schweitzer said 3 acres of his farm land have been ruined by the saltwater, but it could have been worse. It sprung up about 6 feet from the fence line, so it didn't take too big a trench to lead the flow out of his fields.

Three semi-loads of water are driven off from the property on an average day, he said. It might take more than that in the future, if recent trends persist.

"There's been five or six days in a row it increased by a gallon a minute," Schweitzer said. "Instead of going down, it's increasing."

He's got no anger toward OCC, and isn't too interested in passing out blame or criticism in any direction, but he's not sure if they will be able to solve the problem. He's not even sure it's a problem that can be solved at all.

"We're proud of everything they've done so far, but they haven't cured the problem yet," Schweitzer said. "They're taking this a step at a time, trying this, trying that, nothing has worked yet, but they've got somebody with a degree that's a foot long working on it. They're doing what they can."

The purge site is just over the Blaine County line, with Kingfisher County a stone's throw to the east.

With permission from Blaine County commissioners, OCC is channeling the water into a closed off ditch and taken to a disposal well site elsewhere, Skinner said.

Thanks to the incoming OERB money, methods of containment and cleanup can improve.

As far as state agencies go, OCC has been the sole entity tackling the purge problem, but it has formed a working group that includes industry partners, Skinner said.

OCC also has brought on a consulting engineer and consulting geophysicist to assist.

Efforts to control the flow will be ongoing until a fix is found, and there's no estimate when that will be.

"Right now, we're following a protocol where we're lowering pressure and seeing if that has an effect, we'll see," he said. "More actions might have to be taken."

Devon Energy Production, Lagoon Water Logistics LLC, H2OK LLC, Overflow Energy Stack LLC, and S & S Star Operating, are the companies listed as operators for the eight area disposal wells that were ordered shut down.

S & S Star Operating is listed as the operator for four of those eight.

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Willetts is education and city reporter for the Enid News & Eagle.
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