NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - The state of Louisiana has fallen way behind in properly plugging some 4,000 abandoned oil and gas wells. It's a problem we told you about in our "Left for Dead" investigation in early November.
Now, we have the results from air and soil samples taken at a handful of well sites near residential communities. And these results suggest that, while these wells were left for dead by their operators, many of them are anything but dead - they're leaking substances that could have a dangerous impact on the air we breathe, the ground we stand on and even the water we drink.
The well in Rickey Jordan's backyard in Shreveport offers a prime example. The well, serial #22697, was drilled in 1939; its operator abandoned it a few years later and never properly plugged it.
78 years later, gases from the well shaft still are rising to the top.
The naked eye won't spot these gases, but a thermal imaging camera can detect the plume escaping the wellhead. With such a camera, bubbles formed by pouring a little liquid soap over the open needle valve can be seen containing a dark substance - in this case, hydrocarbon gases, some of them toxic.
Environmental researchers used a thermal imager to examine the plume rising from the well. They also took an air sample - and the test results are jaw-dropping.
The researchers found 11 percent of the gas coming out of that mile-deep well is methane. It's a highly flammable gas, and a so-called "greenhouse gas", as reported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
What's more, the sample contained a heavy concentration of benzene. That's a highly toxic chemical that is known to cause cancer. Exposure can lead to damaged organs and bone marrow, excessive bleeding and damage to the immune system. The researchers documented levels of benzene that were 37 times higher than Louisiana's Ambient Air Standard.
They also found a heavy concentration of acrolein - yet another hydrocarbon that is toxic to humans.
Environmental scientist Wilma Subra offered her own reaction to those test results: "Very, very, very concerned."
Subra warns that these toxins conceivably could reach underground to Cross Lake - that's the main water supply for the City of Shreveport, and it sits less than half a mile from Rickey Jordan's house.
In October, we sent a public records request to the City of Shreveport, asking for "all correspondence received from the La. Department of Natural Resources or other state agents, from 2012 to the present, regarding potentially hazardous emissions from wellheads or other oil- or gas-related infrastructure located within the city limits of Shreveport or the administrative limits of Cross Lake." The city responded:
Jordan told us in our initial report that the backyard with the well in it is completely off-limits to his grandchildren: "We keep them in the house all the time because it's not safe."
FOX 8 also collected soil samples from orphaned well sites in north and south Louisiana. One of those sites was an abandoned well outside of Thibodaux.
"You can hear... that sound of something clearly leaking from that oil well," we reported in an on-camera segment, standing beside the well in late October. "And as we zoom in up top, you can see something dripping from up there. And as we widen out and show you the ground right here, it is covered with oil."
In this case, we focused on the blackened mud and grime extending for several feet around the well, sitting in some woods about 800 feet from several residences.
What we found: The soil around the wellhead is loaded with barium, lead and arsenic.
The state's Department of Natural Resources says it's working to plug that well, after our reporting. But any site restoration will require expensive remediation efforts, just to clean up the ground around that leaking, abandoned well.
"In this case, because it's an orphaned and/or abandoned well, they're going to go in eventually, when they have enough resources, and plug the well - but not necessarily clean up the remainder of the site," Subra tells us. "And so, it's there, for anybody who uses that property, to contaminate."
A source tells FOX 8 that a contractor for DNR came out to secure that open pressure valve on the Shreveport well. The contractor apparently took an air sample, too, so the state can determine on its own what's been spewing from that wellhead.
We don't know whether the state has tested the air at the well site near Thibodaux. Though DNR has oversight of the state's oil and gas wells, Louisiana's Department of Environmental Quality would have to deal with any environmental impact from potential contamination.
We asked DEQ on Nov. 22 for any environmental impact data they may have, regarding orphaned wells across Louisiana. Wednesday, DEQ press secretary Greg Langley told us the agency has no such data at all, and referred us back to DNR.
If you want to find how close one of these abandoned wells may be to your neighborhood, you can use our interactive map of orphaned wells below (mobile users may need to turn their phones for a wider view).
If you can spot a well's serial number - and we urge you to do so at a distance - you can search for it and see if it is one of the orphans on our map. And if you'd like to tell us about it, send us an email to email@example.com.
Editor's note - This story was updated on Nov. 29 with LDEQ's response to our inquiry.