Dark side of drilling boom brings rising number of harmful waste spills

Johnson's barren paasture
Click to enlargeAP Images

Carl Johnson and his son, Justin, walk across a stretch of pasture laid barren by a wastewater spill

Carl Johnson and son Justin are third- and fourth-generation ranchers who for decades have battled oilfield companies that left a patchwork of barren earth where the men graze cattle in the high plains of New Mexico. Blunt and profane, they 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 oilfield wastewater — a salty and potentially toxic drilling byproduct that can quickly turn fertile land into a dead zone. The leaked brine killed every sprig of grama and bluestem grasses and shinnery shrubs it touched.

For the Johnsons, the spill is among dozens that have taken a heavy toll: a landscape pockmarked with spots where livestock can no longer graze, legal fees running into the tens of thousands and worries about the safety of the area’s underground aquifer.

If we lose our water, that ruins our ranch,” Justin Johnson said. “That’s the end of the story.”

Their plight illustrates a largely overlooked 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 Associated Press analysis of data from leading oil- and gas-producing states found more than 175 million gallons of wastewater spilled from 2009 to 2014 in incidents involving ruptured pipes, overflowing storage tanks and other mishaps or even deliberate dumping. There were some 21,651 individual spills. And these numbers are incomplete because many releases go unreported.

Though oil spills tend to get more attention, wastewater spills can be more damaging. And in seven of the 11 states the AP examined, the amount of wastewater released was at least twice that of oil discharged.

What do you think happened to the land? What remediation was provided either voluntarily by the drillers – or at the behest of local jurisdictions, local, state and federal courts?

Please, read the article. It’s a fine piece of research, the best kind of journalism you will bump into.

Kudos to the AP and John Flesher.

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