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Editorial: Gov. right to power up inspection reforms

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The state Construction Industries Division has done the right thing by putting a stop to the longtime practice of allowing oil and gas wells to power up without first undergoing the required electrical inspections.

Journal stories by investigative reporter Colleen Heild have revealed that hundreds – even thousands – of drilling sites now in operation never received required inspections but were nevertheless given “releases” allowing utility companies to turn on the power.

When Heild reported that more than 500-plus pending inspection requests were found this spring parked in a computer file named “E-Vacant,” Gov. Susana Martinez ordered the backlog to be cleared within 90 days. Nine inspectors were brought in to southeast New Mexico and logged hundreds of hours of overtime checking the sites.

The results of those belated inspections are not comforting.

A review of records shows the after-the-fact electrical inspections resulted in 85 percent of the wells inspected – 236 of around 276 checked by the Journal – failed.

Well, at least they failed according to the tags left by inspectors. According to CID spokesman S.U. Mahesh, “failed” on the form really means “passed inspection with corrections … This is simply a data-entry issue.”

Mahesh also said no life-threatening situations were discovered and none of the sites was “red tagged.”

Some of the violations may be minor. Others clearly are not. And improper wiring in the presence of flammable hydrogen sulfide gas, a natural byproduct of well drilling present at some sites, is a very bad combination.

The problem of not inspecting this work is nothing new. New Mexico is a rural state with far-flung, remote sites no matter who is in the Governor’s Mansion, and inspecting construction projects is a huge logistical challenge.

It appears from CID records that about 38,000 open electrical inspection permits, many of them oil and gas sites, were simply closed in April of 2010 when Gov. Bill Richardson was still in office. Hundreds more were closed with the notation “passed” on a single day, Jan. 26, 2007.

The inspectors called in last month were delayed because the state didn’t even have the necessary safety equipment, or the inspectors proper training, to deal with sites where drilling had produced poisonous gas. That raises the question of how the state could ever have done routine inspections on these sites once they became operational.

Back in 2008, CID considered an alternative inspection procedure that relied on photographs of installations to deal with “resource shortages.” Another option under consideration by CID this year was an annual permit system that would eliminate the need for individual site inspections. Martinez has shelved that for now.

It is important that New Mexico remain open for oil and gas business – too many agencies and individuals rely on it. But to be truly open, that business has to be safe. The previous inspection process, a paper tiger complete with permits and releases but no real substance, certainly didn’t contribute to that.

The changes are needed and welcome.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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