Natural Gas Drilling Poses Toxic Threat to Texas’ Drinking Water

Media Contacts

AUSTIN – Toxic chemicals used in natural gas drilling could pose a threat to water quality near Texas’ 95,814 gas wells according to a report released today by Environment Texas. The report, Toxic Chemicals on Tap: How Gas Drilling Threatens Drinking Water, details how the chemicals in gas drilling could endanger clean water in Texas.

“Texans need to be positive that there are no toxic chemicals in their tap water,” said Alejandro Savransky of Environment Texas. “Drilling for natural gas should not come at the expense of our drinking water.”

To extract natural gas, drillers often inject a toxic mix of fluids into the ground to create fractures which allow natural gas to flow to the surface. This process can force toxic substances already underground into drinking water. Some of the pollutant laden fluids drillers inject remain underground, and can also end up contaminating water supplies.

The fluids recovered by drillers can contaminate water as well. The recovered fluids are frequently stored in open-air pits, which have the potential to leak or flood, and can overwhelm local water treatment facilities. Also, the amount of water needed for the process- often millions of gallons- may drain local watersheds. In some cases, it has caused streams to run dry.  

In late 2007, three families near Grandview, Texas noticed changes in their well water just after a natural gas well within a couple of hundred yards of their properties was hydraulically fractured. At first their water ran dry, and then the water returned with extremely high pressure, blowing out pipes. Within days, five goats and a llama had died. All three families noticed strong sulfur smells in their water, which became unusable. Showering caused skin irritation. The Railroad Commission of Texas acknowledged that testing of well water found toluene and other contaminants.

“Similar stories exist across the nation. Industry dismisses them as anecdotal and ordinary citizens are left with the expense of testing and meeting a burden of proof that is unreasonably slanted in industry’s favor. Industry should prove its practices are not endangering public health and safety.  Establishing damage after the fact is too late,” said Sharon Wilson with Texas Oil and Gas Accountability Project. “Texas does not have any regulations specific to hydraulic fracturing, and communities have lost confidence in the state’s interest in protecting human health. Federal regulation and full disclosure is essential to ensure we have minimum protections in Texas.”

Due in part to a 2005 exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act, the EPA cannot fully regulate gas drilling. Moreover, the federal government does not require drillers to publicly disclose the fluids they use in some of their processes and only 5 states out of 32 states with gas drilling require public disclosure. The report includes data collected from states that require drillers to disclose the chemicals used in drilling.

“Texas does not require drillers to disclose the fluids they use,” said Savransky. “So Texans do not know what toxic chemicals might be threatening our drinking water.”

“We are blessed with an abundance of natural gas in Texas,” said State Rep. Lon Burnam (D-Fort Worth).  “But if we don’t take some concrete steps to protect our even more precious air and water resources, that blessing could quickly turn into a curse.”

“While we don’t know all of the chemicals used in gas drilling, we know that the list can include carcinogens, chemicals affecting organ function, and endocrine disruptors,” said Savransky.

Environment Texas asks that drillers be required to disclose the chemicals they use, as well as where and how much they use them. The group also calls for gas drillers to replace toxic chemicals with safer alternatives.

The group said that a variety of regulations and improvements are necessary: improved monitoring, in order to better catch gas or chemical leakage, improved disposal methods for recovered drilling fluids, and assurance that drillers are not operating in locations that may lead to the contamination of drinking water.

Some are hoping natural gas will gain prominence as part of our energy mix, but natural gas still emits a significant amount of global warming pollution.

“We need to protect our taps from this threat,” said Savransky, “That means we need to make sure drillers employ the best practices available, and that we hold them accountable for their mistakes. We should do everything we can to protect our drinking water.”