An environmental study published earlier this month in the journal Science of the Total Environment found dozens of water wells in South Texas are contaminated with toxic compounds associated with oil and gas extraction and production.
In the study, scientists from Dallas-based Inform Environmental, the University of Texas at Arlington, Tarleton State, the University of North Texas, and Ohio State took samples from 77 private water wells in the Eagle Ford Shale oil field spanning six South Texas counties.
The researchers found signs of dissolved gas present in the water, abnormal chloride/bromide ratios indicative of contamination, and volatile organic compounds (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes), typically linked to oil and gas production.
Shale oil production is the area’s largest industry, but the some contaminants could also stem from the region’s cattle, poultry, and grass production.
According to lead author Zachariah Hildenbrand of Inform Environmental, researchers couldn’t definitely link the water contamination to the area’s oil and gas activities because they don’t have access to the oil wells or the chemicals that were used in the drilling and production processes.
“This was a general reconnaissance analysis,” Mr. Hildenbrand told the San Antonio Express-News. “We’d like to start a second study with more wells and more elaborate analysis on those wells to understand what’s going on out there.”
According to the Express-News, the researchers hope they can work with the oil and gas producers in the area. Such a collaboration would allow them to study the chemistry of the wells during the drilling, hydraulic fracturing (fracking), and production processes.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to understand the implications of the oil and gas activity,” Mr. Hildenbrand told the Express-News. Understanding how the fracking activities affect the water could potentially lead to the development of affordable and practical remediation techniques, which is the goal of Inform Environmental.
But giant obstacles must be overcome first, starting with the information barrier surrounding the fracking industry’s activities that few outsiders have been able to penetrate. Nobody knows for certain what chemicals the frackers are injecting into subterranean layers of shale to extract the oil and gas.
“The potential influence of unconventional oil and gas development on groundwater quality remains a complex and controversial topic,” Mr. Hildenbrand told the Express-News.
Last month, the same researchers published a study looking at air pollution in the same area. They found that air pollution in the area can be high with elevated levels of benzene and other toxins harmful to the environment and human health.
However, the researchers found that when air pollution was high, it was usually caused by malfunctioning equipment, indicating that the pollution isn’t just an unavoidable byproduct of energy production, but it can be “monitored, controlled, and reduced.”