By Alejandro Davila Fragoso
July 14, 2016
A massive fire at a fracking site in rural New Mexico that scorched 36 oil storage tanks and prompted the evacuation of 55 residents is dwindling but still burning Thursday, some three days after the first explosion was reported.
The fire that started Monday night is mostly out, WPX Energy, the Oklahoma-based company that owns the site, reported Wednesday. However, “small fires” remained at four of the 36 tanks, the company said. No injuries have been reported and according to the company no drilling was taking place at the site prior to the storage tanks catching fire.
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On Thursday morning plumes of smoke continued to billow from the five-acre oil production site located near Nageezi, a Navajo Nation town some 135 miles northwest of Albuquerque, the state capital. The fire has been allowed to burn itself out to prevent the spread of petroleum as fire crews stayed overnight to monitor the site. Some homeowners were allowed to temporarily return to their homes Wednesday to take care of basic needs, according to WPX updates. Meanwhile, the company is conducting air quality monitoring and providing lodging to the displaced families.
Officials said the cause of the fire is still unknown but residents told local media that they heard a series of explosions as the fire started Monday. “It was so loud. Loud pops and explosions. It was tanks exploding. You could see light from the flames reflecting off of the smoke in two giant swirling pillars. It was chaotic,” Kendra Pinto, who lives some five miles from the well site, told The Daily Times. The company said 50 firefighters and company personnel kept the fire contained.
WPX specializes in producing oil and natural gas via hydraulic fracturing. Since it divested from Marcellus shale extraction in Pennsylvania in 2014, the company has focused on developing the oil and natural gas liquids fields it has in Colorado, North Dakota, and New Mexico.
New Mexico has oil and gas resources in its southeast Permian Basin, and the San Juan Basin where the explosion took place. WPX has about 159,000 net acres under lease in the San Juan Basin, according to the Unconventional Oil and Gas Center. The company operates some 880 natural gas wells and holds a joint ownership interest in another 2,400 wells.
State documents show that WPX has in the past received violation notices for drilling wells before receiving all the needed approvals. And the nonprofit Environment New Mexico reported that prior to leaving Pennsylvania, WPX was one of the top 10 violators of health and environmental codes in the state, with 86 violations from 2011 through 2014. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. was number one with 265 environmental and health violations.
Developing San Juan Basin resources has been controversial and triggered at least one lawsuit as recently as last year, when activists objected to extraction saying fracking development was too close to the Chaco Culture National Historic Park.
There is no national data base describing fires on fracking well sites, but the oil and gas industry habitually suffers from pipeline spills, explosions, and derailments. Just last month there was amajor oil train derailment in Oregon. And earlier this year $20 million in damages were reported after a fire at a fracking site in Oklahoma.
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