“The poison beneath us”: Big Oil’s toxic legacy grows to unthinkable proportions


I became an environmental lawyer because of the reckless way that Big Oil has been treating the American landscape for decades. My first big case was launched more than 20 years ago, after we learned that companies like Chevron were dumping tons of radioactive pipe and wastewater across rural Mississippi — used, even, to construct school playgrounds. I brought cases in small towns in rural Kentucky where Ashland Oil had poisoned the Lee aquifer with its careless pollution. I never stopped to add up just how much radioactive and toxic goo that the oil giants were throwing back into the land, whether it was in open unlined pits or higher-tech methods where the waste is injected deep into the earth.

I just knew it was a lot.

Now the investigative reporters at ProPublica have done the math:

Over the past several decades, U.S. industries have injected more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation’s geology as an invisible dumping ground.

No company would be allowed to pour such dangerous chemicals into the rivers or onto the soil. But until recently, scientists and environmental officials have assumed that deep layers of rock beneath the earth would safely entomb the waste for millennia.

There are growing signs they were mistaken. 

The project by investigative reporter Abraham Lustgarten chronicles alarming episodes of contamination that trace back to an astronomical 680,000 injection wells that have been drilled across the United States. Some of these involve oil and gas production waste here in my backyard in Louisiana and Mississippi. One of the most important revelations is that the number of such wells is increasing dramatically, in part because of the fracking boom across the United States. How much should we be alarmed by this report? I call your attention to this comment:

“In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted,” said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA’s underground injection program in Washington. “A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die.”

The boom in oil and natural gas drilling is deepening the uncertainties, geologists acknowledge. Drilling produces copious amounts of waste, burdening regulators and demanding hundreds of additional disposal wells. Those wells — more holes punched in the ground — are changing the earth’s geology, adding man-made fractures that allow water and waste to flow more freely.

The ProPublica article notes there are thousands of cases of these wells failing, or leaking, or sending toxic brine bubbling back up to the surface. And those are just the ones we know about. The story cites some of the more egregious cases of pollution from these wells killing farmers’ trees or threatening major drinking water supplies, and it chronicles how these toxic time bombs are poorly regulated, if at all.

I hope this major article serves as a wake-up call to Americans, that the kind of pollution from Big Oil and Big Gas that I’ve been fighting in the courtroom for more than a decade is getting worse and worse. I also saw a story this past week that less than a third of all Americans are familiar with the term “fracking.” Unfortunately, it’s time that everybody learns what it means. The future of the water that what drink will depend on knowing what the energy giants are trying to dump into the ground under our feet.

Please read the ProPublica investigation into pollution from injection wells. It can be found here: http://www.propublica.org/article/injection-wells-the-poison-beneath-us

To read the study showing Americans’ lack of awareness about fracking, go to: http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2012/06/21/503600/what-the-frack-most-americans-dont-know-what-hydraulic-fracturing-is/?mobile=nc

© Smith Stag, LLC 2012 – All Rights Reserved

1 comment

  • This is genunely alarming. Important information for everyone and a wake up call to reality. We must demand green energy, and vote against fracking. Tell us how we can effectively do this. Thank you Atty. Smith!

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

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