SPECIAL REPORT: Lawsuit over alleged contamination from Jones Co. oil field wastewater disposal well
JONES COUNTY, Miss. (WDAM) - New data in federal court filings allege soil and groundwater contamination at a Jones County property that was once an oilfield wastewater disposal well.
The family living next door, Marlan and Deidra Baucum, said they believe unsafe practices at the site led to Deidra’s cancer.
“It was devastating to me because I felt like this was something that should not have happened to her,” Marlan said.
Deidra was diagnosed with esophageal cancer, even though she didn’t smoke, and doctors said she wasn’t at high risk for the disease.
“It has totally changed our world,” Deidra said. “Not just mine, but (Marlan’s), our son’s, our family’s.”
Doctors first diagnosed Deidra’s cancer after she reported she was having trouble swallowing.
“A doctor looked at me and said, ‘Your wife should not be sick; she shouldn’t have this cancer,’” Marlan said.
The Baucum’s search for answers led them to a neighboring oil field wastewater disposal well site that was already at the heart of another lawsuit filed by the family in 2014. Family members documented new concerns with notes and photographs that are now contained in amended court filings.
The lawsuit alleges operations at the site put human and environmental safety at risk.
Attorney Michael Simmons, lead counsel for the family, said the case is in Jones County against Petro Harvester Operating Company and eight other defendants.
The lawsuit was amended in 2016 to include Deidra’s cancer.
“Someone intentionally, purposefully pumped oil field waste into the pits,” Simmons said. “Someone purposefully dug holes in the ground and put oil field debris, some of which is radioactive, in the ground and covered it up.”
The family’s Jones County case is on hold as they await a decision from a north Texas bankruptcy judge, where two of the Jones County defendants filed for Chapter 11 protection earlier this year. The action paused the Mississippi case.
However, recent court filings in the bankruptcy proceeding show 2022 joint testing results done by both parties at the site.
Simmons said that soil and groundwater were contaminated, noting the presence of arsenic, benzene and radium.
“Radium 228 causes lymphoma, bone cancer and blood formation diseases like leukemia and aplastic anemia,” Simmons said. “The radium in the groundwater on the Baucum property was at 12.5 times the EPA’s maximum contaminant level for Radium 228.”
The site is no longer in operation and hasn’t been in use since 2016. However, Marlan is concerned because it is on standby and could be used again one day.
Regardless of any future action at the site, lawyers said lab data shows damage has already been done.
“We were able to determine that the groundwater flows from the well site onto Deidra’s property; therefore, the contaminants found on Deidra’s property indisputably came from the well site,” Simmons said.
State or federal regulators never cited the property, Marlan said.
Family members also worry others may be impacted by what happened at the site.
“The city of Laurel has a well about a mile from this wastewater disposal well that draws drinking water from a depth of about 150 feet,” Simmons said.
In response to recent court filings by the plaintiffs in the bankruptcy case, attorneys for the trustees have argued there is no proof of contamination.
In past court documents in the Jones County case, lawyers for defendants have called the well “safe,” said it has “mechanical integrity” and poses no risk to the environment.
Simmons and the Baucums, however, are confident their documentation and testimony will convince the courts otherwise as the fight for accountability continues.
“Would they want to live next to an oil site where radioactive material has been buried in the ground?” Marlan asked. “Open, unlined pits they’ve known for decades they shouldn’t have had, would they do that? The answer to that question is absolutely not, but we’ve had to endure it.”
A hearing before a bankruptcy case judge is scheduled for November.
The Baucums said they believe they’re entitled to an administrative claim and are asking for $27 million. The family said that’s how much environmental experts believe it will cost to make the land safe again.
Simmons said the outcome of the Texas case could then impact two of the defendants in the Jones County case.
WDAM 7 reached out to multiple attorneys who had previously issued statements for defendants but have not heard back as of publication.
DEIDRA’S CANCER BATTLE
With all of the ongoing legal battles, Deidra also continues to battle cancer and its impact on her life.
After her diagnosis, she had surgery to remove most of her esophagus and part of her stomach. The procedure made eating and sleeping difficult.
Deidra now takes medicine at least eight times a day and has various appointments at doctors across and outside the state.
Fortunately, family members were thrilled to learn doctors recently determined the cancer has not spread.
“We would not have made it this far without God,” Deidra said.
The Baucums said their faith has helped them navigate the past several years, and they’re grateful for the support of their neighbors.
Despite Deidra’s challenges, she still goes to work and church and is active in her community.
“You never know who is going to be touched by your story or who can reach out and say there is a chance; there is a chance that things will work out,” Deidra said.
Deidra also said she is proud of her husband’s work on her case and believes it could impact other families living in the area.
“This fight is not just for me,” she said. “It is to bring attention to the issue for other people as well.”
Stay with WDAM 7 for updates on the Baucum’s legal and medical battles.
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