BLM Otero Mesa Plan Fails to Protect N.M. Groundwater, Study Says

Contamination of Public Wells Feared

A new study finds that the controversial U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) drilling plan for Otero Mesa could jeopardize the potential of the aquifer beneath the Mesa to meet the water needs of 800,000 people in drought-stricken New Mexico. That conclusion is based on the fact that the BLM plan "makes no special provisions for protection of groundwater resources" including existing and proposed public water wells.

The study by the Albuquerque-based water-resource consulting firm John Shomaker & Associates, Inc., was conducted for the Otero Mesa Coalition and the Campaign to Protect America's Lands and was released just two days before a June 17, 2004, hearing on more environmentally sensitive rules proposed by the New Mexico Oil Conservation Division at the direction of Governor Bill Richardson.

The new study finds that the "...water supply beneath Otero Mesa is potentially vulnerable to contamination by the BLM proposed oil and gas development because of the proximity of existing water supply wells and the porous nature of the regional aquifer....In many cases, there are existing or proposed water supply wells in the same area as BLM land proposed for oil and gas developments."

The report criticizes the BLM plan for permitting oil and gas development without sufficient protective measures, even though the aquifer underneath the Otero Mesa and Salt Basin areas in New Mexico is highly fractured. The report also notes that the fractured limestone aquifer is highly susceptible to contamination resulting from the injecting of oil- and gas-related waste into underlying rocks or from spills and leaks from pits and materials on the land surface.

The report emphasizes that the potential risks to groundwater from the BLM-sanctioned drilling plan are not strictly theoretical. Similar drilling-related problems have been encountered with polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) pollution of the San Juan Basin in New Mexico, manganese and sulfur contamination of the aquifer tapped by the City of Artesia water-supply wells, and brine contamination of the Ogallala aquifer in southern Lea County in New Mexico.

Study author Steve Finch, who is vice president, senior geochemist and hydrologist at John Shomaker & Associates, said: "The proposed BLM plan puts in place no special provisions for protection of ground-water resources, which is to say the public water supply ... The vulnerability of the aquifer under the Otero Mesa can be inferred from fracture mapping, the direction of ground- water flow and the proximity of water supply wells to the BLM land proposed for oil and gas developments."

According to the study, the more cautious plan for Otero Mesa outlined by New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson highlights this danger and includes measures to avoid contaminating the aquifer.

"This new report provides a detailed scientific basis for the public's concerns about the risk to the critical water supply below Otero Mesa posed by the BLM's willingness to permit oil and gas development without adequate information or protections. The BLM should heed the results of this report in deciding how to manage the lands in this area," The Wilderness Society BLM Attorney Nada Culver said.

New Mexico Wilderness Alliance Executive Director Stephen Capra countered by saying, "Once again the BLM is failing to use facts and science in making decisions whose impacts will last far longer than the few days of gas the Yates empire can pump out of Otero Mesa. We urge the BLM to listen to the science and New Mexicans by putting the protections back into their plan that they threw out six months ago."

Campaign to Protect America's Lands

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