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.
â€œMost people haven't heard of a soil farm,â€ Gadd said. â€œIt's not something you want to be a neighbor to.â€
He said one Love County soil farm was allowed to be established in a flood plain â€” a claim denied by regulators â€” and the operator failed to re-establish vegetation in the area.
â€œThe site is now an ecological disaster,â€ 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.
â€œThat will kill vegetation very quickly,â€ Baker said.
Most plants in Oklahoma can live in soil with up to 3,000 parts per million of salt.
Each load of drilling mud is tested to determine the size of the area where it can be spread, although Baker said many operators choose to use a larger area to prolong the site's life.
pay for their sites
Stephen Hooper, business development manager for Terra Renewal, said soil farming is the most cost-effective way of dealing with waste from drilling operations.
â€œAll the cuttings that come out of the ground need to be disposed of,â€ he said.
Hooper said Terra Renewal contracts with operators to dispose of drilling mud and cuttings then pays farmers to allow the material to be spread over their land, once the arrangement has been approved by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
Baker said potential soil farm sites must be tested by a qualified soil expert, whose analysis helps determine if the site is suitable for dumping. Sites must have at least 20 feet of the proper soil type.
He said it usually takes a week for an expert to gather and test soil samples necessary to apply for a soil farm permit.
Disposal companies like Terra Renewal use large fertilizer trucks to spread the drilling mud and other waste, Hooper said. The mud often is mixed with agricultural lime to help neutralize acids in the drilling waste and promote the degradation of any remaining oil.
He said nutrients in the mud often make the grass in those fields greener than it was the year before.
Hooper said he hasn't encountered much opposition to soil farming from landowners.
â€œIt's very profitable,â€ he said.
Hooper said landowners can earn up to $1 a barrel for letting their property be turned into a soil farm, not bad when the average well results in 15,000 to 20,000 barrels of waste.
Terra Renewal completes an average of about 50 soil farms a month, Hooper said, as crews from the company's offices in Chickasha, Elk City and Woodward try to keep up with drilling activity in the state.