In the heat of the U.S. drilling boom less spectacular aspects such as wastewater spills are often overlooked.
A disastrous oil spill is a hot topic any time. Tainted soil, wildlife struggling to escape the black goo make for a catchy, traffic-generating story. What of the less publicized side effects of the drilling boom, albeit as poisonous and long-lasting?
An Associated Press analysis shed a beam of light on the situation. Wastewater spills are spoiling the land, causing vegetation to wither and contaminating freshwater sources across the country.
According to the findings of the AP analysis, in a five year timeframe (2009-2014), 180 million gallons of wastewater were spilled on different sites across the U.S. The sources of wastewater spills vary from overflowing tanks to deliberate dumping to ruptured pipes. And these are some of the examples among the 21,651 spills. Moreover, as many of the incidents are not officially reported, the real number of wastewater spills could be even higher.
Oil spills receive their fair share of attention. And for the right reasons. However, wastewater spills may cause more damage than oil spills. Even if due to the sheer amount of chemicals released with the water and the amount of wastewater that leaks on the ground. The AP analysis found that wastewater spills amounted to twice the quantities of oil spilled.
Spilled oil is absorbed over time by minerals found in the soil. Wastewater, or brine absorbed in the soil leads to land drying up and nutrients vital for vegetation being annihilated. As such vegetation dies, grazing sites are destroyed, crops wither and ecosystem disturbed. Moreover, freshwater sources are contaminated, leaving communities without access to drinking water.
Kerry Sublette, environmental engineer with the University of Tulsa declared:
“Oil spills may look bad, but we know how to clean them up and…return the land to a productive state. Brine spills are much more difficult”.
Besides the high level of salinity of wastewater, this contains heavy metals like mercury or arsenic and radioactive molecules.
The data obtained by the Associated Press came from regulator agencies in Montana, Utah, Kansas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Alaska, North Dakota, Texas and California. Together they represent over 90 percent of the U.S. onshore oil production.
The analysis findings indicate that the number of wastewater spills is increasing by the year. From 2,470 reported spills in 2009, the number increased to 4,643 in 2014. However, there is no complete data set on freshwater and land contamination. Neither federal nor state regulators make assessments of this type.
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