Drilling boom brings rising number of harmful waste spills

Tuesday, September 8, 2015
Wesley Graves looks over a crater left after a saltwater disposal pipeline ruptured on his ranch near Snyder, Texas. Equipment failure is a major cause of oilfield wastewater spills. (Charlie Riedel ~ Associated Press)

CROSSROADS, N.M. -- Carl Johnson and son Justin, who have complained for years about spills of oilfield wastewater where they raise cattle in the high plains of New Mexico, stroll across a 1 1/2-acre patch of sandy soil -- lifeless, save for a scattering of stunted weeds.

Five years ago, a broken pipe soaked the land with as much as 420,000 gallons of wastewater, a salty drilling byproduct that killed the shrubs and grass. It was among dozens of spills that have damaged the Johnsons' grazing lands and made them worry about their groundwater.

"If we lose our water," Justin Johnson said, "that ruins our ranch."

Their plight illustrates a side effect of oil and gas production that has worsened with the past decade's drilling boom: spills of wastewater that foul the land, kill wildlife and threaten freshwater supplies.

An analysis of data from leading oil- and gas-producing states found more than 180 million gallons of wastewater spilled from 2009 to 2014 in incidents involving ruptured pipes, overflowing storage tanks and other mishaps. There were 21,651 individual spills. The numbers are incomplete because many releases go unreported.

Though oil spills get more attention, wastewater spills can be more damaging. Microbes in soil eventually degrade spilled oil. Not so with wastewater -- also known as brine, produced water or saltwater. Unless thoroughly cleansed, salt-saturated land dries up. Trees die. Crops cannot take root.

"Oil spills may look bad, but we know how to clean them up," said Kerry Sublette, a University of Tulsa environmental engineer. "Brine spills are much more difficult."

In addition to extreme salinity, the fluids often contain heavy metals such as arsenic and mercury. Some ranchers said they have lost cattle that lapped up the liquids or ate tainted grass.

"They get real thin. It messes them up," said Melvin Reed of Shidler, Oklahoma. "Sometimes you just have to shoot them."

The AP obtained data from Texas, North Dakota, California, Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Kansas, Utah and Montana -- states that account for more than 90 percent of U.S. onshore oil production. In 2009, there were 2,470 reported spills in the 11 states; by 2014, the total was 4,643. The amount spilled doubled from 21.1 million gallons in 2009 to 43 million in 2013.

Industry groups said waste is often recovered during cleanups, although some can soak into the ground.

"You're going to have spills in an industrial society," said Katie Brown, spokeswoman for Energy In Depth, a research arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America. "But there are programs in place to reduce them."

Concentrated brine, much saltier than seawater, exists in rock thousands of feet underground.

When oil and gas are pumped to the surface, the water comes up too, along with fluids and chemicals injected to crack open rock -- the process known as hydraulic fracturing. Production of methane gas from coal deposits also generates wastewater, but it is less salty and harmful.

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