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 1½acre 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 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.
Among the states, New Mexico ranked third-highest for amount of wastewater spilled during that time period, at 13.3 million gallons.
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 of wastewater spilled doubled from 21.1 million gallons in 2009 to 43 million in 2013 before dipping to 33.5 million last year.
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.
The spills usually occur as oil and gas are channeled to metal tanks for separation from the wastewater, and the water is delivered to a disposal site – usually an injection well that pumps it back underground. Pipelines, tank trucks and pits are involved.
Equipment malfunctions or human error cause most spills, according to state reports reviewed by the AP. Though no full accounting of damage exists, the scope is sketched out in a sampling of incidents:
- In North Dakota, a spill of nearly 1 million gallons in 2006 caused a massive die-off of fish and plants in the Yellowstone River and a tributary. Cleanup costs approached $2 million. Two larger spills since then scoured vegetation along an almost 2-mile stretch.
- Wastewater from pits seeped beneath a 6,000-acre cotton and nut farm near Bakersfield, Calif., and contaminated groundwater. Oil giant Aera Energy was ordered in 2009 to pay $9 million to grower Fred Starrh, who had to remove 2,000 acres from production.
- Brine leaks exceeding 40 million gallons on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation in Montana polluted a river, private wells and the municipal water system in Poplar. “It was undrinkable,” said resident Donna Whitmer. “If you shook it up, it’d look all orange.” Under a 2012 settlement, oil companies agreed to monitor the town’s water supply and pay $320,000 for improvements, including new wells.
- In Fort Stockton, Texas, officials in February accused Bugington Energy of illegally dumping 3 million gallons of wastewater in pastures. The Middle Pecos Groundwater Conservation District levied a $130,000 fine, alleging a threat to groundwater, but the company hasn’t paid, contending the district overstepped its authority.
The loudest whistleblowers about spills are often property owners, who must allow drilling access to their land if they don’t own the mineral rights.
“Most ranchers are very attached to the land,” said Jeff Henry, president of the Osage County Cattlemen’s Association in Oklahoma. “It’s where we derive our income, raise our families.”
Some are reluctant to complain about an industry that is the economic backbone of their communities.
“If they treat us right, we’re all friends of oil,” said Mike Artz, a grower in North Dakota’s Bottineau County who lost a five-acre barley crop in 2013 after a saltwater pipeline rupture. “But right now, it’s just a horse running without the bridle.”
Tessa Sandstrom of the North Dakota Petroleum Council said the industry is supporting research on spill prevention and land restoration. When spills do happen, she said, most are cleaned up within a year, with tainted soil cleansed or replaced.
In New Mexico, the Johnson ranchers said the site of their 2010 spill has not returned to life, despite a restoration effort.
“It will never, ever be like it was,” said Justin Johnson. “It will never fully recover.”
An oilfield wastewater primer
As U.S. oil and gas production increased this past decade, so, too, did spills of salty oilfield wastewater that can foul the land, kill wildlife and threaten freshwater supplies. An Associated Press analysis of 11 states found more than 175 million gallons of wastewater spilled from 2009 to 2014. Questions and answers about this damaging byproduct of energy production.
What is it?
Oilfield wastewater is the fluid that comes to the surface when oil and gas are pumped out of the earth. Some is salty residue from ancient seas in underground rock formations. The rest is fresh water that was mixed with chemicals and sand and injected underground to crack open subterranean rock, the drilling process known as “fracking.”
The industry usually calls the liquid waste “produced water,” but other common terms include brine, saltwater and flowback.
How much is there?
In a typical year, about 10 times as much wastewater is produced as crude oil itself, according to one study by a group of state groundwater agencies. In 2012, for example, roughly 840 billion gallons of wastewater were produced from onshore wells. Offshore wells generated another 26 billion gallons.
How harmful is it?
That depends partly on the geological formation where it originates. Salinity varies from place to place. In its least potent form, such as wastewater generated by coal-bed methane production in Wyoming, it can be safe enough for livestock watering. In its most potent form, oilfield wastewater is at least 10 times saltier than ocean water.
The liquid also can contain metals such as barium and iron, oil and grease, and radioactive materials such as radium. Wastewater spills have killed fish in streams and ponds, and cattle that drank contaminated water. Brine-flooded land won’t grow crops or other plants.
Can it be recycled?
More than 90 percent of wastewater from onshore wells is pumped back underground – far below the aquifers that supply drinking water. Much of it helps stimulate additional oil and gas production. Of the remaining fluids, some are treated and reused for fracking or dumped in evaporation pits. Small amounts can be discharged into the environment if saline levels are low enough, or spread on dirt roads to limit dust.
How do spills happen?
Spills occur at various points in the production process: Pipelines that carry the wastewater to injection wells can rupture because of corrosion or bad connections. Storage tanks or surface pits can leak or overflow. And in some cases, workers illegally dump the liquid to avoid the expense of proper disposal.
Why haven’t we heard more about the spills?
Wastewater spills tend to happen in remote areas, often on ranch and farm land. And unlike big oil spills, they don’t generate heart-rending photos of otters or pelicans coated with black goo. But experts say brine can be more damaging to land than oil, creating sterile moonscapes unless properly treated.
Associated Press Data Journalist Dan Kempton in Phoenix contributed to this report.