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Oil companies dispose of drilling mud in soil farms

Some Love County landowners are concerned about the disposal of drilling mud in their area, while industry officials maintain the practice of creating soil farms is safe if done property.
BY JAY F. MARKS Modified: December 10, 2010 at 7:08 am •  Published: December 10, 2010

To Ben Gadd, it's the oil and natural gas industry's dirty little secret.

Operators dump barrels of water-based drilling mud onto pasture lands, creating soil farms that Gadd worries are too hazardous for the environment.

“Most people haven't heard of a soil farm,” Gadd said. “It's not something you want to be a neighbor to.”

He said one Love County soil farm was allowed to be established in a flood plain — a claim denied by regulators — and the operator failed to re-establish vegetation in the area.

“The site is now an ecological disaster,” he said.

Gadd is among those protesting another commercial soil farm proposal in Love County, where his family owns property.

Soil farms are tightly regulated by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, officials said, with only occasional problems.

Tim Baker, manager of pollution abatement for the Corporation Commission's oil and gas conservation division, said problems are usually logistical issues, such as when a truck driver gets lost and puts drilling mud in the wrong location.

Such problems can be resolved easily by scraping the mud off the ground and moving it to the proper location for the soil farm, he said.

Oklahoma's regulations allow for commercial soil farms or one-time application of drilling mud. Baker said the latter is the more popular choice because it carries fewer liability concerns.

He said there are about seven or eight commercial operations in the state, while thousands of permits have been issued for one-time applications of drilling mud. Most have been in northwest or southeast Oklahoma, where most of the drilling has occurred recently.

Baker said state's regulations were designed to protect the water table, so dumping is allowed only in areas with a certain percentage of clay in the soil. Clay slows the migration of salts into the ground.

Regulators monitor the levels of arsenic and chrome in drilling mud, which also can contain oil and grease, but salt is their primary concern.

“That will kill vegetation very quickly,” Baker said.

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