Be careful what you wish for

Highway 285 (VHA Photo)
Highway 285 (VHA Photo)

By Gilda Morales

For several oil booms, Culberson County residents have pined for the economic windfalls that have rewarded surrounding traditional oil towns like Pecos, Wink, Andrews, Odessa-Midland and the rest of the Permian Basin. Then the boom hit Culberson County with a bang, catching entities like the County and the Hospital District, unprepared for what the increased tax revenues mean in the way of increased responsibilities.

Because all taxing entities receive tax revenues from increased oil and gas activity in the county, there is an expectation that the northern part of the county should be receiving law enforcement, EMS and fire services for those revenues. Four deaths in less than a month in the northern part of the county, most of natural causes, nonetheless, produced an outrage from several oilfield companies when the response time to the area was more than three hours.

Representatives from two oil companies addressed commissioners court at their last meeting to protest the county’s lack of an appropriate vehicle to transport the deceased in a dignified manner.

For some time now, Sheriff Carrillo has been sounding the alarm about not having enough staff to provide coverage in northern Culberson County, comparing the long response times to getting a call in Las Cruces and having to respond there in a timely manner. With only 7 deputies to cover 3813 square miles, amounting to 544 square miles each, 24 hours per day, 365 days per year, it is no wonder that the department is stretched to the limit.

Local EMS service is also understaffed and under pressure to respond to situations where time is of the essence, but in locations that are extremely remote and not easily accessible.

One week ago, a contingency of county officials, including Judge Carlos Urias, Commissioner Raul Rodriguez, Commissioner Gilda Morales, and Lisa Morton, with The Van Horn Advocate, made the long trip to Orla, Texas, the hub of the burgeoning oil and gas industry. Orla, located about 38 miles north of Reeves County, is accessible on Highway 285, better known as “Death Highway.” Until recently, Orla had a population of two and a post office. Now, it is home to a large Pilot Travel Center and an Alon Travel Center as well as several food trucks catering to the transient oil and gas community.

The group met with Craig Matthews, a Security Advisor with Chevron, who then led them to the Chevron drill site where the last death occurred. The drive was over an extremely rough dirt road, which by our calculations, was already approximately 160 miles and more than 2 ½ hours from Van Horn. Sheriff Carrillo pointed out numerous small signs at the entrance to endless dirt roads, each leading to a drill site. He told us that each sign has the GPS coordinates which are the best hope to lead first responders to the emergency site. Each entrance has at least six nondescript signs which make finding these locations difficult at best, and at night, even more so.

(VHA Photo | LM)
(VHA Photo | LM)

The Chevron drill site was a sprawling area complete with two office trailers and a row of residential trailers within walking distance. A massive oil rig attached to an impressive contraption capable of moving the entire rig was the focus of the entire operation, which was controlled by a sole operator in an adjacent trailer. Mr. Matthew’s colleague explained in great detail, the great pains the company takes to insure employee safety, but even so, the unforeseen event does happen, as well as unexpected deaths from natural causes or health problems.

Matthews then pointed out the trailer where his employee was found deceased and whose delayed trip out of the compound brought the issues that have arisen with the recent explosion of oil and gas exploration to light. He was asked what the biggest need was in the way of law enforcement, with an assumption that theft would be a major problem. Surprisingly, Matthews responded that their major concern is the traffic on 285, where the consensus is that a police presence would deter reckless behavior and driving. He was very cooperative and convinced that a consortium of oil companies could help make a substation in North Culberson a reality, with the devil being in the details. Commissioners have already agreed in principle that obtaining a vehicle for incidences such as the one where the Sheriff had to transport the body of the deceased employee in a pickup is a definite priority. The next agenda should include a conversation and authorization to meet with oil officials to come to an understanding and plan, as well as a timeline on establishing a police presence in northern Culberson County.

(Next week, the challenges of providing EMS services to northern Culberson County.)