Though the rise of fracking (and the chemicals used in the fracking process) has raised concerns about groundwater contamination, the source of a majority of Texas’ cases is far more mundane.
Gasoline is the most prevalent source of groundwater contaminant in Texas, according to a Joint Groundwater Monitoring and Contamination Report put out last year by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Of 2,083 total cases in the last five years, almost half (922) were because of a gasoline leak. The map above plots every reported contamination case from 2008 to 2012, the most recent year of data.
“We have all these gas stations … some of these are old and have been there a while, and eventually they leak,” Cyrus Reed, conservation director of the Lonestar chapter of the Sierra Club, says. “Often times they’re not huge hazards because that water isn’t necessarily the water that you drink, but they still are required to report it, and required to clean it up.”
Because the leaks generally come from gas stations, cases of contamination are largely concentrated in the state’s big cities.
“Petroleum storage tanks are nothing new. It’s probably because there used to be one on every street corner,” Cary Betz, chairman of the Texas Groundwater Protection Committee, says. “Those activities actually peaked in about 1998 and 1999, so if you go further back in the reports, you’ll see about twice as many groundwater contamination cases related to petroleum storage tanks then as you see today.”
“But they’re still a major problem just because there’s so many of them,” Betz adds.
While there were relatively few reports from the Railroad Commission of Texas, responsible for reporting contamination involved with the oil and gas industry, Reed believes that there probably are more unreported contamination cases in rural drilling areas.
“A lot of the private water wells out in rural Texas may be monitored by the individual people that own them, or may not be, whereas in a city, particularly if you’re using drinking water, you’ve got monthly reporting,” he says.
The state has had a number of problems managing its groundwater, especially during this latest drought, and contamination presents a problem for Texans on many levels.
“Depending on the type of contamination, and what the contaminant is, it can affect people’s health or even in some cases be deadly.” Reed says. “The other thing is the cost. Water that you are going to use, you’re going to need to treat it. So if it’s contaminated, you’re going to need to treat it that much more.”
“The more contaminated it is, the higher the cost, and that affects ratepayers, regardless of the health and environmental impacts.” Reed says.