Hugh Fitzimons is a rancher from Dimmit County who also serves on the Wintergarden Groundwater Conservation District. Last week, he stood before the three members of the Railroad Commission of Texas and gave a stark warning as to why he was concerned about the proliferation of disposal wells.
With oil and gas drilling booming, so are the number of wells used for wastewater, growing by about a thousand a year since 2009. There are now over 35,000 disposal and injection wells in Texas according to the Railroad Commission.
The wells are used to get rid of the millions of gallons of chemically-tainted wastewater and produced water from oil & gas drilling. The waste is pumped deep underground, far below the aquifers holding water used by cities and ranches.
A Disposal Well Breakout
Here’s why Fitzsimons said he’s concerned: In 2011, a disposal well in Dimmit County suffered a “breakout.” Wastewater being pumped into the well traveled over a quarter mile underground where it reached an old, abandoned oil well. The wastewater went up the oil well and began leaking onto ranch land.
“Luckily it was found by the landowner, “ Fitzsimons told the commissioners. “But this could have been a travesty of epic proportions. If that wastewater had gotten down into our aquifer, that could have spelled the end for our town. “
He was telling his story to the Railroad Commission because it was considering a case involving a disposal well proposed by Marathon Oil in Gonzales County. The Gonzales County Underground Water Conservation District wanted to protest Marathon’s permit for the well, which would then require a public hearing.
“The evidence in this case is all from one side because we haven’t had the hearing,” Gregory Ellis, a lawyer for the Gonzales County water district told commisioners. “We don’t know exactly what is going to happen with this injection well.”
RIght to Protest
Marathon argued that local governments — not water districts — have the right under Texas law to file protests.
“There is no statutory right to a hearing,” John Hicks, a lawyer for Marathon told the commissioners. If it appeared Marathon was trying to avoid scrutiny, Hicks said, “Marathon oil is committed to environmental stewardship and doing what is necessary to protect freshwater resources.”
And besides, Hicks said Marathon’s proposed well was four miles outside the boundary of the water district. And it was on that point the commissioners agreed.
“To me, we’ve got to look at the facts of every specific case. Obviously, if it was in the district I think that’s a different conversation we’d be having today but to me, it’s not,” said commissioner Christi Craddick.
The three members of the commission all voted in favor of Marathon. Environmentalists quickly assailed the decision.
“The Railroad Commission has a terrible track record of watchdogging the oil and gas industry and holding them accountable. Groundwater districts should have the right to scrutinize proposals to dump waste near drinking water supplies and demand strong safety standards,” said Luke Metzger, of Environment Texas, in an emailed statement.
The decision is also at odds with what the Railroad Commission’s own staff had recommended. In a memo to commissioners, a staff member said there was ample reason for the commission to hold a hearing so that the water district’s concerns could be “explored and fully argued.”
One Source of Precious Water Gone?
There is also concern that Texas regulators are being shortsighted in promoting drilling that’s stimulating the state’s economy instead of promoting long-term solutions to the state’s water shortage.
For example, in the case of the proposed disposal well in Gonzales County, Marathon wants to pump wastewater into what currently is a water well. The water is “brackish” and not drinkable, but someday it might be.
“Down the line [brackish water] will be used for desalination,” said Greg Sengelmann, General Manager of the Gonzales County water district.
In an interview with StateImpact Texas last year, Sengelmann said that in the future, underground water reservoirs once thought unusable for drinking and therefore acceptable for injecting with wastewater might be filtered, de-salted and purified.
“In our district, we’re closer to the population centers between Austin and San Antonio and the I-35 corridor where the water’s needed. So it’s easier to pipe from our district rather than go all the way down to the ocean and desalinate.”
StateImpact Texas’s Terrence Henry contributed reporting for this story.