Texas

Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

What Will Hundreds of Water Tests Reveal About Drilling in Texas?

“In Texas, I don’t think there’s anybody else doing quite what we’re doing,” says research scientist Kevin Schug.

Becky Burke's home in Denton County has a water well in her side yard and a gas well in the front yard

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Becky Burke's home in Denton County has a water well in her side yard and a gas well in the front yard

What Schug is doing can be found in a two big kitchen refrigerators in a lab on the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington. The fridges are crammed with hundreds of plastic bottles containing samples from private water wells located mostly in North Texas, but some of them in West Texas, too.

The project hopes to determine if drilling for oil and gas and burying chemical waste generated by the work is contaminating groundwater. The project is not sponsored by Texas environmental regulators nor the oil and gas industry but rather by UT Arlington. UT’s Bureau of Economic Geology is also involved.

“At the university here, we can stand in a neutral case and look at this very objectively using analytical techniques that can say whether there is or is not an impact,” Schug told StateImpact Texas.

Research chemist Kevin Schug with fridges full of water well samples

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

Research chemist Kevin Schug with fridges full of water well samples

Results from an expected total of 550 well water samples won’t be made public until this fall, but Schug hints at one set of results from a ranch in Nolan County, just west of Abilene. Unlike many of the wells tested where drilling had already taken place nearby, researchers were able to take water samples in Nolan County before and after oil drilling took place. (Water samples taken before drilling begins are also known as ‘baseline testing.’)

“About all I can say right now [is] we do see some changes in parameters over time, but I’m really not at liberty to speak about that until the paper goes out for peer review,” Schug said.

An initial analysis of samples from 100 private water wells near drilling sites in the Barnett Shale region of North Texas found a third had seriously elevated levels of heavy metals, including arsenic. But the metals occur naturally in soil, and a definitive link to drilling was not made.

Some States Require Testing

UT-Arlington researcher Zac Hildenbrand captures sample of well water in Denton County

Dave Fehling / StateImapct

UT-Arlington researcher Zac Hildenbrand captures sample of well water in Denton County

State-required testing of groundwater before and after drilling for oil and gas took affect earlier this year in Wyoming. A similar rule for baseline testing has been the law in Colorado since last year, and Ohio also requires baseline testing.

But not Texas.

“The Railroad Commission does not require oil and gas operators to conduct baseline water testing before drilling, but some operators choose to do this on their own. There are no proposals at the Commission that I’m aware of for such a rule or requirement at this time,” wrote Ramona Nye in an emailed response to StateImpact Texas. Nye is a spokesperson for the Railroad Commission of Texas, which regulates drilling.

Last month, a Railroad Commission report on complaints of methane gas in water wells in Parker County said the gas was not from nearby drilling.

Nye said recently-updated rules for how wells are drilled “ensure groundwater is not impacted by oil and gas activity.” But some water experts, including a manager of a North Texas groundwater district, have voiced strong concerns that a lack of state regulation, particularly of waste pits at drilling sites, is raising the risk of groundwater contamination.

Homeowner: ‘It’s Frightening’

The Railroad Commission of Texas says its rules protect groundwater when oil & gas wells are drilled near water wells

Dave Fehling / StateImpact

The Railroad Commission of Texas says its rules protect groundwater when oil & gas wells are drilled near water wells

One of the samples taken by the UT Arlington scientists came from a water well in the side yard of Becky Burke’s house in Denton County. A stone’s throw away in her front yard is a gas well drilled in 2002 (photo at right).

“Back when this all happened, we were excited about it. It looked like revenue, a good opportunity,” Burke said, referring to royalty payments landowners receive from leasing land to oil and gas companies.

But over the years, Burke said she began reading about concerns that drilling could endanger groundwater in Texas and other states where drilling has surged. Burke said she and her family drank water from their well for years, but have recently stopped.

“To be honest with you, I was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 2010,” Burke told StateImpact Texas. “Earlier this year, I attended a seminar and one of the doctors suggested groundwater could be one of the culprits for Parkinson’s disease. So I’m very interested in knowing if there could be a correlation.”

“It’s frightening,” Burke said. “I’m certainly curious about it. And the more you read and learn, the bigger the concern.”

Comments

  • Tom Coppers

    Will they find contamination of the ground water similar to the horrible damage done in North Carolina by the factory hog waste and possibly soon to be toxic fracking in NC?……..Fracking coming to North Carolina?—Once
    the
    natural
    gas is sold overseas and almost
    all the ground water in North Carolina is poisoned, then the residents
    will be dependent on buying water at any price forever to stay alive. Is
    selling drinkable water the hidden agenda? If you live for another 30
    years, you will see the wasteland NC will become. The toxic soup
    springing up from under our feet could happen with any step we take. The
    Aquifers can flow together for hundreds or thousands of miles. It would
    be too late then. North Carolina is not new to allowing industry to
    destroy former clean natural resources. The COASTAL FISHING INDUSTRY WAS
    KILLED after NC permitted 3800 massive open-pit hog waste lagoons
    contaminating the state’s drinking water, polluting its air and streams
    and causing open sores and deformed fish and crabs. The runoff from 19
    million tons of hog waste produced annually in Eastern North Carolina
    from the hog factories has polluted Albemarle Sound, the largest
    freshwater sound in the country, and adjacent
    Pamlico Sound, the largest enclosed saltwater sound. Would you eat
    seafood with open sores and deformations? Also causing Red Tide and
    Pfiesteria. So, they have polluted the large sounds on the coast for
    decades and now they want to poison the Aquifers in North Carolina and
    water in nearby states that share the same ground water? This can
    be stopped. Please call your representatives. The internet can show you
    how many vast communities have poisoned water from Fracking. It’s
    documented. Now they have no clean water. So again, what price will they be charging citizens for clean water to stay alive?

    • richardguldi

      This is truly government of the corporations, by the corporations, and for the corporations.

    • vonrock

      Hey the Chinese need to eat. each other.
      Wait !! we have the EPA. oh yeah right.

  • DoryHippauf

    ” The project is not sponsored by Texas environmental regulators nor the oil and gas industry but rather by UT Arlington ”

    project may not be sponsored by the oil/gas industry, but UT Arlington gets a lot of “donations” from the oil/gas industry. Considering how well their study went a couple of years ago.

    11/1/2010 – AUSTIN, Texas — ConocoPhillips has committed to contribute $1.5 million over five years
    to support cutting-edge energy research at The University of Texas at
    Austin. The five-year grant, administered through the university’s
    interdisciplinary Energy Institute, is split evenly between the Cockrell
    School of Engineering and the McCombs School of Business. The Energy
    Institute provides guidance to the state of Texas and the nation on
    sustainable energy security through the pursuit of research and
    education programs.

    A study was recently released by the University of Texas on connection between Fracking and Water contamination. It concluded there is no connection.

    Heading up the study was one Charles “Chip” Grout,
    Director, Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy;
    Director, Energy & Earth Resources graduate program; Jackson Chair
    in Energy and Mineral Resources Department of Geological Sciences.

    Charles “Chip” Grout also serves on the board of Plains Exploration and Production Co. (PXP) as an independent director. He formerly served six and a half years as Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, having been appointed by President Clinton and retained by President Bush.

    Buried in the study and under-reported by the media is this little nugget:

    There are other dangers, the study says:

    “In spite of the much broader disclosure of the ingredients of the
    [fracturing] additives, there is not yet a clear understanding of what
    are the key chemicals of concern for environmental toxicity or their
    chemical concentration in the injected fluid.”

    “The greatest potential for impacts from a shale gas well appears to
    be from failure of the well integrity,” meaning a poor job of cementing
    the well casing, allowing chemicals to leak into an aquifer by flowing
    upward between the casing and the borehole.

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