Contamination of drinking water supply has long existed as a fear held by those who live near oil fields and more recently in areas when hydraulic fracturing for the purpose of natural gas extraction takes place. For the most part investigations of possible contamination incidents have yielded reports of no contamination or results that gas companies call ‘inconclusive’ — but one report recently released by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) points fingers directly at the oil production industry. ( View the USGS Report Abstract )
The report gave details about what it considered serious drinking water contamination by oil production in an area called East Poplar, Montana.
Contaminated with WHAT?
The USGS found that nearly 18 square miles of shallow aquifers in the area contained brine (also called brine water by some), a known by-product of the oil production industry. Aside from its very salty nature, brine from oil production may also contain unwanted drinking water contaminants such as hydrocarbons, metals, and radioactive material from deep in the Earth (that occurs naturally).
A few more facts about the contaminated groundwater situation in Poplar, MT:
- The City of Poplar depends exclusively on the water from the aquifers and has approximately 3,000 residents.
- The USGS suspects that between 15 and 37 billion gallons of awater in the aquifers may contain brine produced by the oil industry’s operations in the region.
- To deal w/ the contaminated groundwater problem, the city had a pipeline from the Missouri River constructed.
- Financially, it made more sense for Poplar to build a pipeline from an external water source than begin the arduous, extremely expensive and sometimes considered ‘impossible’ task of cleaning up its contaminated groundwater
- During the course of its research, the USGS uncovered documented suspicions of groundwater contamination in records dated as far back as the 1950’s
- USGS research efforts found trails of reported contamination incidents dating all the way up the the early 2000’s
Many of you probably find yourselves thinking, “That’s it! Finally some PROOF that the oil production industry WILL ruin the ground water for all of us with its drilling practices!”
Oh, that such a claim could get made and actually hold up in Court.
As with any manufacturing process, oil production has many, many steps and processes… each of which could possibly fail at some point (or slowly over time) and result in the sort of contamination seen in Poplar.
Brine may have seeped out of industrial pipelines, temporary storage pits, above ground brine storage tanks, brine disposal wells, tanker trucks loading/unloading brine at drilling sites, or the actual oil production wells themselves.
Any or ALL of the aforementioned possibilities may have occurred at various times and as years passed contamination from any or all of those sources has spread throughout the connected aquifers beneath Poplar (since groundwater stays in constant motion).
Moral of the story?
As with any industrial or commercial activity, multiple ways for potentially environmentally damaging events will always exist and only through rigorous and thorough inspection and oversight by independent third party auditors will the public learn exactly how at risk those activities put its water supply.
Without those inspections taking place and followup penalties (when applicable) getting enforced, Big Business will have all the freedom it requires to keep on practicing ‘business as usual’… quite possibly at the expense of our safety.