Ashley Williams Watt’s Cattle Ranch in windy West Texas is littered with rusted pipes. Hundreds of abandoned oil wells sunk long before her family acquired the land are now nothing but corroded skeletons. The wells were blocked with cement decades ago and ignored, unable to generate any usable amounts of oil or gas.
But there’s something strange going on beneath the surface of the country, where Watt used to play amid the mesquite trees, jackrabbits, and javelina, and where he first drove dirt roads at the age of ten. The wells appear to be disconnecting themselves one by one. They’re pouring hazardous chemicals into the groundwater beneath her land, contaminating it.
Watt, now 35, believes the difficulties on her Cattle Ranch, which stretches across the Permian Basin’s oil-rich regions, are becoming worse. First, she discovered crude oil bubbling from an abandoned well in April. Then, in June, she received a call from an oil company worker informing her that another well was leaking pools of salty generated water, a dangerous byproduct of oil and gas extraction.
Watt said, “I’m watching this well literally just spew brine water into my water table, and then I have to go home at night, and I’m sweaty and tired and smelly, and I get in the shower, and I turn on the shower and I look at it, and I think, is this shower going to kill me?”The disaster unfolding on Watt’s 75,000-acre Cattle Ranch reveals a rising issue for the oil business, as well as the communities and governments left to clean up the mess. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the United States has 3.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells. A third of them were filled with cement, which is the recommended method for preventing hazardous chemical leaks.