For nearly two decades, an abandoned West Texas well has been pumping out extraordinarily salty water that kills all the vegetation it touches and contains sulfate levels many times greater than legally allowed for drinking. Dubbed “Lake Boehmer” by locals, after a former owner of the land it occupies, the water has expanded to cover roughly sixty acres near the tiny community of Imperial, about 25 miles north of Fort Stockton.
As Texas Monthly reported last December, no one seems to own the land, and no state agency has stepped up to fix the problem. That’s bad enough, but the situation appears to have gotten worse. A new test by the local groundwater district found that the well is now venting hydrogen sulfide— known chemically as H2S, colloquially as swamp gas, and generally as the cause of rotten egg odors—at dangerous, even potentially deadly levels. The finding prompted Pecos County to install a gate to prohibit curious Texans from driving down the public road to see the environmental mess for themselves. A sign on the gate warns of the high levels of hydrogen sulfide.
A hydrogeologist working for the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District examined the water in mid-February and again in late March. Ty Edwards, the manager of the district, shared with Texas Monthly a copy of the report, which found H2S concentrations coming out of the well at 14,428 parts per million. Federal worker protection regulations say that exposure to hydrogen sulfide should not exceed 20 ppm. Low-level exposure can cause eye irritation. Large-scale exposure can cause headaches, convulsions, and comas. Among the report’s other findings were elevated arsenic, radium levels ten times those of federal drinking water standards, and trace amounts of hydrocarbons typically found in oil reservoirs, not freshwater aquifers.
No one wants to take responsibility for Lake Boehmer. Edwards has identified more than thirty abandoned water wells in the Middle Pecos district that he believes should be put into the state Railroad Commission’s orphaned well program, including the one at Lake Boehmer. But the Railroad Commission says it doesn’t have jurisdiction over the Lake Boehmer well because that was converted into a water well. (Perennial note: The Railroad Commission has nothing to do with railroads. It regulates the oil-and-gas industry.)
Now the well’s toxicity has become a matter of dispute in the May 24 Republican primary runoff between Railroad Commission chairman Wayne Christian and Sarah Stogner, an oil-and-gas lawyer. On April 7, Stogner tweeted out a photo of the “No Entry” sign at Lake Boehmer. Soon after, the Railroad Commission issued a press release questioning the veracity of Middle Pecos’s findings, pointing out that commission staffers visited the site in January and detected no hydrogen sulfide, though they were wearing monitors that would have registered any level of the gas above about 10 ppm. The release also noted that any level above 1,000 ppm would result in “nearly instant death”—and its inspector and contractor left Lake Boehmer unharmed.
Stogner responded to the Railroad Commission press release by saying it amounted to an attack on Edwards’s character. “I’ve personally worked with Ty Edwards for years. He’s not a liar,” she tweeted.
Christian, who is seeking reelection on a platform of defending oil and gas production from attacks by “extremist special interest groups,” then called Stogner a liar. “Anything you won’t lie about?” he tweeted. “@TXRRC inspectors did not detect high levels of H2S, & disparaging their character for political gain is SHAMEFUL.”
Of course, the hydrogen sulfide level could have increased between January and the groundwater district’s testing in February and March. When I visited the lake last September, I caught a telltale whiff of rotten eggs, but I wasn’t wearing a hydrogen sulfide monitor. Or a gas mask, for that matter—an oversight I regret.
Add an orphaned and possibly lethal well to an already interesting race. A couple of weeks before the March 1 election, Stogner posted a video on TikTok of herself riding a pump jack while wearing only a hat, underwear, and pasties. She calls it her humpjack video. And Christian was accused of possible public corruption by the Houston Chronicle for taking a $100,000 campaign contribution from a company called the High Roller Group, after voting in favor of allowing it to build an oil-field waste dump—against the recommendation of Railroad Commission staff. The winner of the Stogner-Christian runoff next month will face off against Democrat Luke Warford in the general election this fall.
At least the public discourse has shifted to the question of whether the Railroad Commission is doing enough and acting aggressively enough to deal with the problem of abandoned wells. Early voting starts May 16.
Correction: This article originally misstated the date of the Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District’s testing of the water at Lake Boehmer.