OBLONG, Ill. — Laird Dart stops his pickup in the middle of a huge patch of bare ground in a cornfield.
"This is all sterile," he says with a sweep of his hand across the patch, which runs 660 feet long and 18 feet wide. "Nothing will grow here. You can't keep it from washing away."
The culprit: a long-abandoned oil well whose rusty pipes are leaking salt water into the soil Dart farms. A soil conservation expert once estimated 900 tons of dirt had washed away from the patch, he says.
Several hundred yards away, the earthy smell of crude oil oozes through the air next to a cluster of rusty oil storage and separation tanks. Some of the tanks, in a low wooden shed, have been leaking. A reddish-black goo interspersed with deep puddles of brackish water covers the ground, spilling over a tiny berm into the cornfield beyond.
"There's rules and regulations that's supposed to keep this from happening," Dart says in disgust.
But those rules are weak and too often ignored, Southern Illinois farmers like Dart say. Like several other southeastern Illinois counties, Crawford County is dotted with abandoned, leaking oil wells, the legacy of what one official calls the industry's "past sins."
Illinois has more than 4,000 abandoned oil wells, and it's the state's job to plug them. With a $500,000 budget, the most the state can afford is capping 75 to 100 wells per year. At the present pace, it will be decades before all the wells are plugged.
"There's only so much money to go around," said Neda Banach, a legislative liaison for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. "Because of the sheer number of wells involved, it's not something we can do in a year's time or two years' time."
The problems are getting worse. Oil wells leak salt water because Illinois crude is mixed with salt water to begin with--usually more salt water than oil.
Most oil producers take the leftover salt water from their wells and pump it back into the ground to put pressure on the remaining oil, making it easier to pump out of the well. But pressurizing the underground system also can force oil and salt water out of abandoned wells that tap the same system.
The underground water many people use for drinking supplies is above the oil zone, and leaking oil wells can contaminate this water as well.
In the Crawford County hamlet of Hardinville, for example, residents pay up to $50 per month for treated water because oil and brine have contaminated many wells.
"Most of the people around here get city water, even though it's expensive," said Bill Rosborough, a farmer and real estate broker living in Hardinville.
Dart and Rosborough belong to a group of farmers seeking a solution. Their work is complicated, they said, by politics and economics.
Much of the blame lies in lax state regulations and poor environmental practices by oil companies, said Lelan Russell, executive vice president of the Illinois Oil and Gas Assn.
Until recently, the state required oil drillers to sign a bond agreeing to cap their wells when they were finished pumping. When operators of thousands of wells went out of business or sold off their wells during the 1980s, many merely forfeited those bonds to the state.
That left the state with debts that are difficult to collect and the job of capping wells dating back to 1900, Russell said.
Now, oil producers pay a fee to the state to fund the abandoned wells program. Oil producers plan to lobby for more state funding of the program and may ask for federal help to clean up the leaking wells, Russell said.
"We have to figure out how to deal with our past sins," he said. "The state didn't realize they were going to inherit all of these thousands of wells when the bonds were forfeited."
Another part of the problem, the farmers said, is that big oil companies sold their Illinois wells more than a decade ago, when oil prices plunged. That left a legion of smaller companies, many financially unstable, with the job of operating the wells and capping them properly.
Since oil prices were so low, the smaller operators had a tough time turning enough of a profit to pay for the cleanup of leaking wells. When those small companies go belly-up, the state must foot the cleanup bill.
The farmers' group has backed a plan to form a state task force on the abandoned wells issue.
But the plan is stalled. The state Department of Natural Resources refuses to name members to such a panel, saying the Department of Mines and Minerals is plugging the wells. Democratic state Rep. Charles Hartke, sponsor of the task force plan, said it is needed to find new sources of revenue to expand well-plugging activities.
The farmers said they will not give up until the problem is solved.
"We don't want to see this mess left to the next generation," Dart said.