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Jones Co. family’s lawsuit against oil company moving forward

New developments involving lawsuits claiming environmental contamination from an oil disposal well in Laurel.
Published: Nov. 11, 2021 at 4:29 PM CST
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JONES COUNTY, Miss. (WDAM) - New developments involving lawsuits claiming environmental contamination from an oil disposal well in Laurel, Miss. Both sides are waiting on decisions that could come down this week that may determine what happens next.

Deidra Baucum first filed a lawsuit against the owner of the disposal well back in 2014. That owner is Petro Harvester Operating Company.

Baucum and her family allege in court documents that unsafe practices of the Petro Harvester disposal well site contaminated their property and made Deidra sick. The Baucums live on Wansley Road in Laurel, and the well site is less than 1/4 mile from their home.

Previous photo from Petro Harvester well site.
Previous photo from Petro Harvester well site.(Source: WDAM)

The 2014 lawsuit filed in Jones County claims property damage, specifically that “Petro Harvester had for several decades...engaged in systematic and illegal dumping and disposal of oil field petroleum waste” on the company’s own property and the family’s adjacent property. In 2016, Deidra Baucum filed a second complaint in Jones County Circuit Court involving her cancer diagnosis. Doctors diagnosed her with esophageal cancer. Most of her esophagus and part of her stomach have been removed.

In court filings from September, Petro Harvester states, “the well is an extremely safe disposal well” and that " the well has mechanical integrity and poses no risk whatsoever to the environment.”

The legal battle between the Baucum family and the companies listed in the lawsuits has been in and out of court over the last seven years. Back in August, the Mississippi Supreme Court ruled the two lawsuits filed should move forward in Jones County Circuit Court. The companies named in the lawsuits argued these cases needed to go before the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board first to exhaust all administrative remedies. The decision means Deidre Baucum’s property damage claim and personal injury claim will be heard in front of a Jones County jury. The family and their attorneys hope that will take place in 2022.

Previous photo from Petro Harvester well site.
Previous photo from Petro Harvester well site.(Source: WDAM)

Meanwhile, the legal battle continues. Petro Harvester filed a petition on Sept. 30 asking the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board to allow the company to make changes to the disposal well at the center of this dispute. According to the petition on record, Petro Harvester “requests that the Board grant Petitioner authority to change the maximum injection pressure in the Laurel Field 36-13 No. 1 Waste Water Well for the downhole injection and disposal of various drilling, completion, and produced fluids from the Laurel Field.”

The oil disposal well has not been in use since 2016.

A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 17. The Baucum’s feel this is a tactic to delay the case. Their legal team filed a petition on Monday, Nov. 8, to the Mississippi Supreme Court asking the court to prevent the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board from hearing Petro Harvester’s request involving the authority over injection pressure.

According to court documents, this oil disposal well owned and operated by Petro Harvester in Laurel was drilled back in 1992 by another company. It was later “plugged and abandoned as a non-commercial well.”

In 1996, the well was converted into a disposal well. A class II disposal well is commonly used in the oil and gas industry.

According to the EPA, these wells house fluids, like brine water that are used when drilling. Here’s the description of this type of well explained on the EPA’s website. “During oil and gas extraction, brines are also brought to the surface. Brines are separated from hydrocarbons at the surface and reinjected into the same or similar underground formations for disposal. Wastewater from hydraulic fracturing activities can also be injected into Class II wells. Class II disposal wells make up about 20 percent of the total number of Class II wells.”

According to background information outlined in the Mississippi Supreme Court’s ruling on Aug. 5, an examination was requested of the well site back in 2014. “

Prior to the filing of the Baucum’s complaint on March 3, 2014, one of the Baucum’s relations requested that the MSOGB, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) examine the areas around the properties for pollutions and/or naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM).”

The court documents continue stating “...the operations manager for Petro Harvester, filed an affidavit that stated that those ‘representatives advised me that they found no NORM violations.’ "

Baucum’s legal team argues they have evidence to prove there are pollutants.

Previous photo from Petro Harvester well site.
Previous photo from Petro Harvester well site.(Source: WDAM)

In a letter sent to the Mississippi State Oil and Gas Board dated Oct. 28, 2021, attorney Michael D. Simmons attached an affidavit in which he argues, “proves that the Well site is contaminated.”

The affidavit is from a geologist hired out of Jackson, Miss. to conduct environmental testing on the land owned by Deidre Baucum. The affidavit states the geologist “supervised the installation of a groundwater monitoring well, AP-1.”

It was installed 100 feet from the Petro Harvester disposal well site in question. The geologist said samples were extracted from the groundwater in a zone 30 feet under the land surface. According to the affidavit, concerning substances were found, including Radium-228 at 12 times the EPA’s maximum contamination level and Benzene concentration at three times the maximum contamination level.

You can read the entire affidavit here.

The geologist ends his affidavit by stating, “...significant levels of hazardous substances and oil-field wastes were likely released...”

WDAM has reached out to Petro Harvester’s attorney who was listed on the Sept. 30 petition. The attorney, William Blair, issued this response:

“Unlike the Baucums’ attorneys, Petro Harvester will present the facts of this case in court and before the regulatory authorities.  We will prove that the lawsuit claims lack any merit at all. The disposal well operations in question are heavily regulated and monitored and have never been found by the Mississippi Oil & Gas Board, the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality, or the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to have harmed human health or the environment, despite the Baucums’ claims over the years to the contrary.”

WDAM will be sure to report on any updates that develop in this case.

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