Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

$5 Million in Damages Awarded in Surface Case/may Be Highest in State

Newspaper article THE JOURNAL RECORD

$5 Million in Damages Awarded in Surface Case/may Be Highest in State

Article excerpt

A Beckham County couple have been awarded what may be the highest punitive damages yet awarded in the state for surface damages and pollution.

A jury awarded Donnie and Christie Marshall of Elk City $5 million in punitive damages in the couple's case against El Paso Natural Gas Co., heard in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma, in Oklahoma City.

The lawsuit arose from alleged pollution of a groundwater aquifer resting below the Marshall's property and faulty plugging of a dry hole on their property.

According to the Marshall's attorney, Robert Barnes, El Paso drilled the 15,465 foot deep Marshall No. 1 well in Beckham County through the aquifer without using a water string, a pipe, to protect it from pollutants and without notifying the Marshalls of the company's conversion of the well to an injection well, which the operator is required to do according to Oklahoma Corporation Commission rules.

El Paso's Gavin Smith, vice president of law and governmental affairs, said he plans to meet later this week with the local attorney for El Paso, Grey Satterfield, to decide the company's next step.

"The company is of the opinion that that well is properly plugged," Smith said.

El Paso began preparing an 11.5 acre tract on the Marshall's land in 1981. Prior to El Paso's arrival, the ground water in that aquifer had a chloride level of less than 30 parts per million, Barnes said. Drinking water is allowed to bave up to 250 parts per million of chloride. The aquifer begins 40 feet below the sandy surface and extends to depths ranging from 250 to 600 feet.

There are three ways the aquifer could be polluted, Barnes said:

- Salt, mixed with drilling fluids and circulating up the well bore, could be filtering through the sides of the well bore into the aquifer.

- Salt water, dumped into the drilling pit, could be percolating through the bottom of the pit and into the aquifer.

- Drilling fluids and cuttings from the pit could be injected into the well, travel up the outside of the pipe and enter the aquifer.

Within 30 hours after El Paso started drilling the well, the crew hit salt formations that are common in the area, Barnes said. The salt from the formation was able to mix with the drilling fluids, and because no water string, or well bore liner, was installed at the depth of the aquifer, the salt could have been filtering into the aquifer from the bore.

Only four days before the drilling team struck the salt formation, he said, an El Paso representative, who was the manager of the Marshall drilling site, attended a commission meeting on the need to use water strings to preserve fresh water aquifers.

Additionally, any salt from the formation that was carried all the way to the surface was drained into a 300 square foot pit on the site according to Barnes. …

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