Oklahoma Drinking Water Poisoned By Fracking, Claims New Report

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A new report from the Clean Water Fund claims that drinking water supplies in Oklahoma are at risk from several oil and gas wastewater wells. Many private wells could also be affected by wastewater disposal wells permitted by the Oklahoma Corporation Commission (OCC).

drinking water and fracking report
The blue area represents the underground layer of drinking water. Below the red line, the OCC can allow wastewater injection wells. Analysis found that 18 wastewater injection wells are going into the blue region, and thousands of private wells are getting water from within the red area — which is being used for wastewater storage. CREDIT: Clean Water Fund

“It’s disturbing that the OCC may have permitted oil and gas wells to inject directly into potential drinking water sources and that the agency can’t accurately point to where the drinking water is located,” said John Noël, lead author of the report. He is also the national oil and gas campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action. “That’s fundamental to the OCC’s job. It is the agency that is supposed to protect Oklahomans’ drinking water from the impacts of oil and gas activities. Without proper information, the OCC cannot assure that the state’s many thousands of injection wells have all been permitted safely.”

Speaking with ThinkProgress, Noël would not say whether there are specific drinking water reserves that have been contaminated. Instead he pointed out that OCC’s publicly available data is “wildly flawed,” outdated, and unreliable. “They are admitting there is flawed data publicly available and that’s what we are basing our analysis on,” Noël said. “How are they able to safely permit oil and gas wells?”

Oklahoma is home to Scott Pruitt, the man taking a hatchet to the EPA under Trump. As attorney general of Oklahoma, he was famous for suing the EPA. Trump’s primary environmental policy initiatives are based on the premise that states have all the money and manpower they need to protect their own environments.

An OCC spokesperson denied there are any wastewater injection wells that are going into drinking water sources. “The study is based on faulty data that we warned the group about in February when they presented their draft findings and we saw what data they were using,” Matt Skinner told ThinkProgress via email.

The Clean Water Fund claims Oklahoma has at least 18 wastewater injection wells that do not go deep enough to avoid known groundwater sources. In addition, the CWF analysis found that OCC may be using erroneous data to calculate how deep injection wells need to go to avoid drinking water sources.

There are 6,844 domestic water wells and 175 public water supply wells in the state that get their water from below what OCC assumes is the cutoff for underground drinking water supplies, the research showed. “We have checked the 18 wells they said were injecting into USDW (underground sources of drinking water),” Skinner told ThinkProgress. “They are not.”

Public drinking water wells are regulated by the Oklahoma Water Resources Board, not the OCC. A spokesperson for OWRB told ThinkProgress that the agency does not use the same measurements OCC does to regulate domestic water well drilling. He noted that domestic water wells are tested before they are permitted.

Drinking water is primarily regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency under the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, two vital pieces of environmental legislation. But fracking, a water-intensive oil and gas extraction method, has been exempt from many of the requirements of the two acts. The so-called Halliburton loophole allows fracking companies to keep the chemicals they use  — which end up in wastewater disposal wells  — secret from the public. It is known that one of those chemicals is often benzene, a known carcinogen.

Oklahoma is not the only state where drinking water oversight is being criticized. Clean Water Fund issued a similar report for Texas last year, which prompted a full review by Texas regulators. Researchers in Texas have found elevated levels of benzene and arsenic in groundwater near fracking operations.

Environmental groups in California have also found the state had permitted hundreds of oil and gas extraction or wastewater disposal injection wells in aquifers that should have been protected under the Safe Drinking Water Act. After the permitting mistakes came to light, the state rushed to ask the EPA to issue exemptions for the aquifers.

The Trump administration’s proposed EPA budget would cut oversight of drinking water supplies by 30%. “The declining budget is going to make this problem that much harder to fix,” Noël said.

Source: Think Progress    Graphic credit: Clean Water Fund.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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