New York oil wells at last drop

Environmental rules called a threat to dying industry

February 13, 2000|By Allen R. Myerson | Allen R. Myerson,New York Times News Service

BOLIVAR, N.Y. -- Some 135 years after New York state's first marketable oil for sale started flowing from a hole near here in western New York, the producers are trying to suck the last drops from wells producing on average a quarter of a barrel a day.

Now, the few hundred people still employed face a threat that they say could bring the long history of New York state oil production to an end. State environmental authorities are requiring them to spend thousands of dollars a well plugging holes that in many cases have been abandoned for decades.

The oil producers' admitted failure to plug these holes as they went, and as the laws have long required, has turned tap water in some homes into a black, odoriferous ooze.

One homeowner can demonstrate the pollution at his kitchen sink by igniting his water with a pocket lighter.

The result is a collision between the heritage of the oil industry's earliest days and the real-life environmental consequences in the present. The weary survivors of a local industry with its roots in the era of John D. Rockefeller see it as another setback in their struggle to hang on.

"We want to ensure there will be an oil and gas industry for our children," said Paul Plants, president of the New York State Oil Producers Association. "About the only thing we have going for us is our history."

Production peaked in 1882. In the first 4 1/2 hours of Jan. 1, Texas produced about as much as New York does all year. In 1998, exactly one new oil well was drilled in the state.

Bolivar (population 2,500) still has a Pioneer Oil Museum, open by appointment. But over recent decades the area has become so depressed that Robert F. Kennedy, when he was one of the state's senators, had it declared part of Appalachia, among the nation's poorest rural counties.

Drilling started in 1860

A year after the world's first oil well was drilled in 1859 at Titusville, Pa., drilling began nearby in New York, with commercial sales five years later. The general area is described hereabouts as the Southern Tier, huddling along the Pennsylvania border nearly two hours from Buffalo on winding roads.

Oil producers say their business became so obscure that during the mid-1980s, when Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan spoke on a bill to tax away the windfall profits that high prices had given major oil companies, he stated that New York, after all, produced no oil. About the only concern state officials have heard from environmentalists has been an objection to possible drilling for natural gas in a state park.

Many families have been in the oil business here for generations, but doubt they will be in it for generations more.

Families cheer the recent rise in prices, but say it has not lasted nearly long enough to change their fortunes.

At dawn in the corrugated steel shed that serves as his company's office, garage, changing room and machine shop, Plants huddles with a clutch of workers including his son, Stephen. Plants, at age 62 still as rugged as the rocky local terrain, has all his oil properties in New York but his headquarters just over the state line, in Shinglehouse, Pa.

As slight as New York's oil output may be, Plants says that a national issue is at stake: helping domestic oil producers maintain what is left of the nation's energy independence.

"The United States is absolutely addicted to foreign oil," Plants said. "But here, we're being viewed as a dying industry."

A dying industry

In a shed, a huge, spoked steel wheel, powered by natural gas produced along with the oil, rotates like a merry-go-round, pulling on cables radiating out around the hillside that in turn work the pumps down in the holes. Valves, gears and pistons clank, hiss and pop, evoking a place down much deeper than the wells.

Obsolete? No more so than the region's family farms, Plants said, adding: "Are cows an environmental threat? They walk in streams, they belch, they give off methane, so let's get rid of them."

For James H. Plyler II, 29, and Heather S. Gunn, 22, oil poses more of an environmental threat than indecorous cows. Early in 1999, as they looked over a two-bedroom home with peeling vinyl siding near Wellsville, just east of Bolivar, on a narrow mountain road convenient mostly to hunting clubs, they noticed that the water was dark.

Hiring no inspector, they say they were assured that it was just a result of the house's having been vacant for months after the woman who lived there had moved to a nursing home.

After putting down about 10 percent on this $35,000 house, they moved in on May 16, ran the faucets for hours and saw no improvement. Checking their water well, they saw that the pump and the wires leading to it were coated with oil.

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