After high school, Compton attended college and worked a variety of jobs locally and as far away as Denver. He started a cleaning service and a delivery company, worked on websites and was employed for a while by a computer company.

He eventually returned to Lovington, where in 2017 his cancer was diagnosed. He immediately suspected environmental factors, recalling the taste of the water and the smell of the pool in which he swam daily for many years. Within weeks of his diagnosis, he began “investigating my own murder,” as he called it.

Estimated well locations in Permian Basin, southeast New Mexico and west Texas

Compton took to social media and attracted more than a thousand followers on Facebook as his condition worsened. He collected several dozen names of other cancer patients – many of whom could not be independently verified. With his friend Rachel Lehcar, Compton started the Lea County Cancer Cluster page on Facebook and the website.

His efforts ultimately attracted the attention of Lovington city officials. Last summer, Williams called for an independent test of the municipal water-well quality and contacted the New Mexico Department of Health, which reported that the rates between Lea County and the rest of the state showed no statistical difference between 2011 and 2015. “With glioblastoma diagnosis rates at 2.5 per 100,000 in Lea County and 2.4 per 100,000 statewide, both are below the national average of 3 per 100,000,” the Department of Health concluded.

Charles Wiggins, director and principal investigator of the New Mexico Tumor Registry at the University of New Mexico school of medicine, concurred. “We found that the rates of that tumor were about the same, or very similar, to the rest of the state.”

Williams vows that “protection and preservation of our municipal water supply is our number-one priority, along with conservation as well,” pointing out that his own family consumes the water. Lovington’s water is tested monthly for quality, including a chemical analysis that notes any increase in dangerous chemicals and byproducts — some of them carcinogenic — associated with petroleum drilling.

“We recognize there is always a potential for it, but we do everything in our power to mitigate and eliminate that risk,” said Williams, adding that Compton’s concerns “did not change any of our protective mechanisms we’ve got in place or any of our testing. It just provided us some information that does say that the rates here in Lovington and Lea County are not higher than anywhere else.”

Of course, that is no solace to those diagnosed with cancer. After Compton died on Oct. 21, Lehcar posted on Facebook that she would continue the fight, but “we just had to hit the pause for a bit.”

An economic engine that requires oversight
It’s important to understand the scale of the oil and gas industry in southeast New Mexico. Lea and adjacent Eddy counties have long been New Mexico’s leading oil producers, even before the boom that accompanied the rise of hydraulic fracking technology. The Permian Basin, 250 miles wide and 350 miles long, takes up most of west Texas and extends into eastern New Mexico. It’s been the source of more than 500,000 barrels of crude per day with predictions of more than double that production in the coming months.

Environmentalists and some state officials say that New Mexico’s unique geology puts its groundwater at greater risk than other states where fracking has been shown to contaminate water supplies. In the Permian, the groundwater aquifer rests on a basin of limestone. Beneath that is a salt bed. With oil shale resting from 3,000 to 15,000 feet beneath the surface, a single drilling through limestone takes millions of gallons of freshwater. Despite improvements in the process, public and private agencies acknowledge the risk of groundwater contamination is high in all affected counties.

The Navajo refinery in Artesia, NM. Don J. Unser / Searchlight New Mexico

While controversy has long surrounded the hydraulic fracturing process, industry proponents argue the process poses little serious risk to water sources if done properly. But the EPA has disagreed, finding that thousands of wells throughout the West are vulnerable to contamination.

At the state level, the OCD gathers well production data; permit[s] new wells; enforces the division’s rules and the state’s oil and gas statutes; make[s] certain abandoned wells are properly plugged; and ensure[s] the land is responsibly restored,” division director Heather Riley notes on the agency’s website. But with fewer than two dozen inspectors, enforcing its mandate may be impossible.

In 2012, Earthworks — an environmental nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C. — produced a study that found OCD had failed to “fulfill its duty to the law, and to the public interest.” If there is enough money to drill throughout the region, Bruce Baizel, energy program director for the organization, said, there should be enough funds to strengthen regulation and improve enforcement. He sees it as “make hay while the sun is shining moment for New Mexico. It’s got a lot of revenue and, yes, there are a lot of issues facing New Mexico: education, health care, and jobs need to be addressed. With so much revenue, now it’s incumbent upon the state to take advantage of that revenue and ratchet enforcement so the environmental impacts of the oil and gas boom are minimized.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Oil Conservation Division as part of the New Mexico Environment Department. It is part of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

John L. Smith is a longtime columnist for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, frequent commentator on Nevada Public Radio, and freelance writer whose stories have appeared in Time, The Daily Beast, and Reuters,...