The recent oil and gas boom has left many fossil-fuel rich US states to contend with with an unseemly side effect. Between 2009 and 2014, some 180 million gallons of wastewater generated during oil and gas extraction has sullied the land in Texas, North Dakota, California, Alaska, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Kansas, Utah and Montana, according to Associated Press analysis of data from regulatory agencies in those states.
The incidents stemmed from a variety of equipment malfunctions, such as rupturing pipes and overflowing storage tanks, and even some deliberate dumping. In many ways, spilled wastewater spills, which saturate the land with highly salty and often heavy metal laden-water, can be more detrimental to the land than oil spills that tend to grab headlines.
"Oil spills may look bad, but we know how to clean them up and ... return the land to a productive state," Kerry Sublette, a University of Tulsa environmental engineer and specialist in treating the despoiled landscapes, told AP. "Brine spills are much more difficult."
The briny water comes from deep within the Earth itself, the remnants of prehistoric oceans trapped deep underground. When fossil fuel companies inject water and chemicals into the ground to free hidden stores of oil and gas, in a process known as hydraulic fracturing, the briny water rises to the surface where it mixes with the fracking water.
The companies doing the extraction are responsible for disposing of that water, but breaches in pipelines and storage tanks can send the water gushing over the land, contaminating cropland and water bodies where livestock drink.
One New Mexico farmer described wastewater's effect on his land as "death by a thousand bee stings."
Industry officials say they are well aware of the concerns relating to spills and companies do their best to prevent such incidents and take responsibility for cleaning up after inadvertent spills.
"You're going to have spills in an industrial society," said Katie Brown, spokeswoman for Energy In Depth, a research and education arm of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told AP. "But there are programs in place to reduce them."
However, the AP found that over time, the number of spills have increased rather than decreased, likely a product of heightened oil and gas production.
"In 2009, there were 2,470 reported spills in the 11 states; by 2014, the total was 4,643. The amount of wastewater spilled doubled from 21.1 million gallons in 2009 to 43 million in 2013 before dipping to 37.6 million last year," AP reported.
The New Mexico Environment Department’s website advises, “Even with good management practices in place, spills and unauthorized discharges can and do occur… If you are responsible for a spill, you have an obligation under a number of New Mexico laws to report it to NMED and take appropriate corrective actions to mitigate the effects upon health and the environment.” The NMED requires that a spill of any quantity that could injure humans, plants, or animals be reported.
A flood of oil money from out of state has transformed small towns and provided hope in the form of jobs and a relatively stable income, as National Geographic documents. However, with this boom has come new environmental and health risks from spilled wastewater, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Cases such as these have prompted some other countries with similar significant energy needs to examine fracking with reservations.
"Shale gas is not the solution to the UK's energy challenges," Friends of the Earth energy campaigner Tony Bosworth told the BBC in an interview. "We need a 21st century energy revolution based on efficiency and renewables, not more fossil fuels that will add to climate change."
This report includes material from the Associated Press.