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West Texas Baptist camp protests construction of adjacent oilfield waste facility

Google Earth shows two pits for waste water associated with oil drilling and their proximity to Circle Six Camp in Lenorah, Texas.

LENORAH, Texas (BP) – Circle Six Baptist Camp and Conference Center is a vital resource for John Bocko, youth and worship pastor at First Baptist Church in Lamesa.

Rather than a two- or three-hour drive for a retreat, it’s only 30 minutes. Circle Six is affordable. And like other churches in the area, First Baptist has made a personal as well as financial investment in the camp’s facilities in recent years.

“If Circle Six wasn’t there, I don’t know how we could offer the same quality to our students at that price,” said Bocko, who is also chair of the camp’s board.

Leaders and volunteers like Bocko are concerned that if work carries through on a waste disposal facility bordering the camp, they may have to move after 65 years of ministry at that location.

The Texas Tribune recently published an extensive piece on the issue and its potential environmental impact.

Two pits to aid in the storage, treatment and recycling of produced water, a byproduct of oil and gas drilling, were completed next to camp property last summer before permits were extended to do so.

Among those quoted by the Tribune was William Rogers, a West Texas A&M University environmental scientist and oil and gas remediation expert. He was called by Circle Six lawyers last summer when the camp was granted a standing by The Railroad Commission to oppose completion of the pits.

“In my 40-some years, this is probably the worst siting that I’ve ever seen, as far as being close proximity to a camp, proximity to the groundwater, the potential risk and the unknowns,” Rogers testified. “I, quite frankly, was shocked at seeing the proximity of the camp to the facility.”

Martin Water Midstream, the company overseeing the facility, said it will not accept produced water with detectable amounts of hydrogen sulfide. But Rogers countered that bacteria in the ponds would generate hydrogen sulfide gas. He said under the right conditions — cold temperatures, low winds — that gas could travel to the camp.

Housing for staffers as well as campers is located on the portion of camp land closest to the pits. Executive Director Brian Colbath, who talked to BP earlier this week about the camp’s growth since the COVID pandemic, lives there with his wife and four children.

“We have public health and safety concerns for our campers, staff and families,” he told the Baptist Standard. “We want to keep kids safe.”

In an email to a Martin Water representative, Colbath wrote of “multiple complaints” from groups and churches using the camp over dirt pollution from the pits’ construction.

“I appreciate the efforts to recycle water and save the environment,” he said, “but not sure why it has come at the cost of the kids and the senior adults that use our facilities.”

Circle Six began as a ministry of six Baptist associations and existed from 1945-59 on 12 acres in Big Spring. Due to growth, the camp moved in 1959 to some donated property at its current location, eventually buying nearby parcels and stretching to around 100 acres.

In addition to serving local Baptist churches, the camp has also been rented by an independent Baptist church and utilized by groups like Angelo State University for a freshman retreat. When Colbath was on a sabbatical last year, Bocko and others stepped in to host events for the men’s basketball teams from Texas Tech and Abilene Christian universities, there on separate teambuilding retreats.

Circle Six has renovated and built facilities for Bible studies and worship as well as those designed for recreation such as a ropes course. Churches like First Lamesa contributed to those on behalf of their students.

“The area that we’re in – truthfully – is pretty bare,” said Bocko, who grew up in Post, Texas. “There are no mountains, very few trees, and the trees we do have really look more like shrubs.”

No water has been placed in the pits yet. However, there is significant concern over not just harmful chemicals making their way into the drinking water, but the anticipated smell as it mingles with the Texas summer heat.

Those can dramatically impact camp experiences like the one Bocko’s group had last year.

“Everyone had a blast. Many said it was one of the best weeks ever,” he said. “My group gets excited and want to register three months before that even opens.

“Circle Six is a ‘humble’ camp. They don’t bring in the big personalities, so they do the best they can in sharing the love of Jesus Christ with young people. Lives are changed every single year.”