The hidden side of fracking that’s killing America


It’s usually not hard to tell when you’re in fracking country. The large rigs tend to tower over the rural environment where most are located, whether it’s the steep hillsides of remote Pennsylvania or the flat prairies of Texas. To those who live nearby, these drilling and gas-or-oil-production sites are a constant nuisance — noisy, filling the air with noxious air pollution, or, too often, polluting the local wells, sometimes from unsound drilling practices.

But increasingly we’re learning that it’s not the primary operation of fracking — the harvesting of fossil fuels — that is causing the greatest damage to Mother Earth. Instead, the issue is the back end: The millions of gallons of water that comes up from underground when oil or gas is produced, and the quandary of what to do with it, is what is causing the most unexpected and arguably the greatest environmental problems. What has been taking place in California — now suffering through it’s worst drought in modern history — is simply unconscionable:

Oil companies in drought-ravaged California have, for years, pumped wastewater from their operations into aquifers that had been clean enough for people to drink.

They did it with explicit permission from state regulators, who were supposed to protect the increasingly strained groundwater supplies from contamination.

Instead, the state allowed companies to drill more than 170 waste-disposal wells into aquifers suitable for drinking or irrigation, according to data reviewed by The Chronicle. Hundreds more inject a blend of briny water, hydrocarbons and trace chemicals into lower-quality aquifers that could be used with more intense treatment.

Most of the waste-injection wells lie in California’s parched Central Valley, whose desperate residents are pumping so much groundwater to cope with the historic drought that the land has started to sink.

“It is an unfolding catastrophe, and it’s essential that all oil and gas wastewater injection into underground drinking water stop immediately,” said Kassie Siegel, director of the Climate Law Institute at the Center for Biological Diversity environmental group.

I know from my experience as an environmental lawyer suing the big oil companies that this water is even more dangerous than the article suggests; much of it is tainted by radiation from the underground deposits where the oil is produced. The news that these wastes were dumped in or near critical aquifers that provide water for millions of people is a stunning regulatory failure — one that has occurred in California under both Republican and Democratic administrations. When it comes to Big Oil and its money and influence, partisanship tends to melt away.

It’s shocking that officials couldn’t see the risks in pumping so much tainted water back into the earth, and the threat is not just to drinking water. As we’ve discussed here in earlier posts, there’s mounting evidence that deep well injection of wastewater is also linked to the spike in earthquakes, especially in states like Oklahoma that had seen little seismic activity before:

GUTHRIE, Okla. – The earthquakes come nearly every day now, cracking drywall, popping floor tiles and rattling kitchen cabinets. On Monday, three quakes hit this historic land-rush town in 24 hours, booming and rumbling like the end of the world.

“After a while, you can’t even tell what’s a pre-shock or an after-shock. The ground just keeps moving,” said Jason Murphey, 37, a Web developer who represents Guthrie in the state legislature. “People are so frustrated and scared. They want to know the state is doing something.”

What to do about the plague of earthquakes is, however, very much an open question in Oklahoma. Last year, 567 quakes of at least 3.0 magnitude rocked a swath of counties from the state capital to the Kansas line, alarming a populace long accustomed to fewer than two quakes a year.

When New York State imposed a fracking ban a couple of months ago, I noted that the case against the practice had become overwhelming, and that was before we learned that drought-stricken California was allowing Big Oil to wantonly pollute its dwindling water supplies. That should be the last nail in the coffin of fracking in America. Sadly, it probably won’t be.

I make more of the case against fracking in my new book: Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

Read more from the San Francisco Chronicle about the massive dumping of hazardous fracking wastewater here:

Check out the latest news on the rise of earthquakes in Oklahoma:

1 comment

  • The landowner, who’s ancestors helped to found our pristine little town, is a Big Oil Lawyer. They have disregarded the Zoning ordinances and are securing their permits from the state, while simultaneously being sued by both the parish and the town. How likely are we to see an unprecedented success of our local governments in upholding our zoning laws here in St. Tammany Parish?

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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