Middle Tenn. man gets lesson on when it's bad to strike oil

8:55 AM, Feb 14, 2012   |    comments
Booms lie across Brush Creek on Friday to catch oil seepage from John Gouldener’s property in Fairview. It’s unclear how much oil is under his land. / Jeanne Reasonover / The Tennessean
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FAIRVIEW - Since finding oil under his land, the Rev. John Gouldener hasn't dreamed of riches. Instead, he's worried how much the oil might end up costing him.

For more than a week, state and local officials have tried to corral the oil that's seeping out of Gouldener's property into nearby Brush Creek, outside Fairview's city limits. The smell of oil is heavy around the creek as absorbent "booms" sop up the oil flowing into it through holes along a creek bank and from the creek bed.

State environmental inspectors suspect the oil is coming from a small, naturally occurring underground oil pocket that was likely disturbed after a drilling crew installed a drinking water well for Gouldener on the property. A definite cause of the oil leak has not been determined.

Based on the other few oil discoveries in Middle Tennessee, geologists expect Gouldener's oil to taper off shortly, although it was still flowing into the creek this weekend. If the oil flow doesn't stop soon, however, state officials warn that a more aggressive plan must be taken, though a timeline hasn't been spelled out yet.

Gouldener, pastor of Crossroad Community Church in Nashville, fears the oil discovery has put him between a rock and a hard place.

"I want to do the right thing even if it costs me money," said Gouldener, 66, "but I don't want to do the wrong thing, and it cost me money."

Water well dug months before leak began

Oil is rare in Middle Tennessee, especially in Williamson County, where the county's 77 wells are all classified as water wells or dry and abandoned, state records show. There is no active permitting of oil or gas wells in Williamson County.

In Fairview, questions linger about the oil leaking into Brush Creek since no one knows when the leaking actually began, nor how much oil has seeped out, nor how much longer it's expected to leak out.

Gouldener hired Franklin-based Henry Drilling & Pump Co. Inc. in the fall to dig a new water well for his property on Brush Creek Road after the underground spring on the property dried up. He bought the property about a year ago.

Drillers hit a pocket of methane gas while digging the water well, which happens frequently, but no oil was found, said drilling company president Michael Henry.

"We've drilled thousands of wells, and we've never hit oil," Henry said. "We have no reason to believe there's oil in the well."

Lockhart said no state drilling rules were violated and the drilling was for a water well. It was completely unrelated to "fracking," a natural gas extraction practice that opponents say pollutes water wells.

Henry is skeptical the water well caused the oil leak, noting that the well is about 400 feet away from the creek.

"It could be all the rain we've had that's pushed this out of the ground," Henry said about the oil.

Oil discovered in January

The first sighting of oil came in January, when Gouldener said he noticed a light sheen of oil on the water, but he didn't know its source.

State regulators first learned about the oil Jan. 30 when an unidentified caller called the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, saying oil had been in the creek for three weeks. A state water pollution inspector visited the creek, but no sheen of oil was seen upstream and the oil seemed to only surface in one particular area, Lockhart said.

A second complaint about the oil was phoned in a week later on Feb. 7, which sent state and county emergency management officials to Gouldener's property, catching him by surprise. While he's been told the oil is a miniscule amount and merely a nuisance, he's also aware state officials could order him to seal up the well.

State regulations say anyone installing a water well must seal off saltwater, oil, gas or any other fluid or material that might contaminate fresh water.

"If the seep does not stop in a reasonable amount of time and if we feel there has been environmental harm, we would consider requiring a corrective action plan at the well head," Lockhart said.

Gouldener wants further meetings with the Henry drilling company and state regulators about the matter and is candid about his worries about the oil, the creek and his property. But he's also trying to keep his sense of humor about the discovery of oil on his land.

"I asked the (state) geologist, 'Am I next the Jed Clampett?' " said Gouldener, bringing up the 1960s TV hillbilly-turned-oilman character, "and he said, 'Sorry to tell you, no.' "

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