After an oil release into the Arkansas River was spotted Thursday, state regulators have filed contempt proceedings against a Bixby operator and are notifying the federal Environmental Protection Agency of a possible violation.
The Oklahoma Corporation Commission is statutorily charged with responding to incidents involving the release of dangerous substances to ensure protective action is taken.
Commission spokesman Matt Skinner said a representative of Shanks Drilling and Production Co. in Bixby told regulators that he “opened valves to get water into his tanks to keep them from floating away, and oil got out.”
Skinner said there’s no way to gauge how much was released.
“Oil on water is impossible to measure,” he said, adding that the operator told regulators the release was “about five barrels.”
The Corporation Commission also is in the process of notifying the EPA, Skinner said, “because the release would be something that they would need to look at to see if it was a violation of their rules, as well.”
The EPA’s National Response Center requires notifications of all oil, chemical, radiological, biological and etiological discharges into the environment.
Skinner said he knew of at least four other reports of incidents related to flooding, including one in which the operator “took all the proper steps” to mitigate the release. He said the Shanks incident was the only one so far being reported to federal regulators.
A message left at the phone number for Shanks Drilling and Production Co. was not returned Thursday, and calls Friday indicated the phone number was disconnected.
“A release isn’t necessarily a violation,” Skinner said, adding there must be compounding factors to begin contempt proceedings. “The issue becomes ‘Are you cleaning it up right? Did you report it right?’ ”
He said it’s always the operator’s responsibility to contain a release and noted an incident in Wagoner County in which the operator, Endeavor Energy, immediately brought in containment booms and an environmental firm.
“They moved pretty fast on it, and they reported it to the NRC and took all the proper steps,” Skinner said. “We had that ... phoned into DEQ May 28, and it was handled by Friday last week.”
As for the release spurring the contempt proceedings, regulators haven’t been able to evaluate the situation firsthand.
“We can’t even get into the site,” Skinner said. “We tried and we just couldn’t do it. ... When you have flooding that is this massive, it’s largely waiting for the waters to recede and then take samples and visually inspect the areas to find out what needs to be done to remediate the areas.”
He said regulators did get a few reports that resulted in active containment where minimal flooding allowed crews to access the areas.
“In fast-moving floodwaters, contamination can spread. So we anticipate having a very busy time of it possibly having to oversee remediation of areas that are a distance away from where the spills occur,” Skinner said. “We won’t know until the floodwaters go down. With flooding this severe, some of the sites are not anywhere near the point of release.”
The release from Shanks’ tanks was visible as a Tulsa World photographer live-streamed an aerial tour of flooded areas Thursday, and newspaper staff contacted regulators right away.
“That’s why we were able to get out there,” Skinner said. “Public calls are very important.”
Hotlines are staffed 24/7 for those needing to report a dangerous substance being released into the environment.
Corporation Commission: 405-521-2211
Department of Environmental Quality (if drinking water is threatened): 800-522-0206
National Response Center: 800-424-8802