SAN ANTONIO - We've reported how hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas has created jobs and tax revenue for South Texas. However, fracking has also produced something else: millions of barrels of contaminated water.
That waste water is being disposed of underground, and some are predicting deep trouble if it gets into our drinking water.
By now most of us in South Texas are familiar with hydraulic fracturing wells. They use huge amounts of water, chemicals and sand, under high pressure, to break-up shale deep below ground and extract oil and gas. But it's what they do with the leftover, waste water that has many people concerned.
Everyday there's a steady flow of tanker trucks on the highways south and east of San Antonio, hauling used fracking water away from the drilling rigs that dot the landscape.
Where are the trucks taking the contaminated water? We followed one to find out.
We watched as it pulled into a facility that looks like a gas station, or maybe a truck wash. It’s actually a fracking water disposal well, and a busy one at that.
Trucks pull in, a hose is hooked up to the tank, and the waste water is pumped out.
What happens from there? The water is injected deep into the ground at high pressure. The well passes through aquifers where we get our drinking water, and extends far deeper, thousands of feet down, where it is released.
The theory is, solid layers of dense rock will keep the waste water trapped below, preventing it from seeping back up to our fresh water reservoirs.
There are thousands of injection wells in Texas, and with so much fracking water to dispose of; the state is issuing permits for many more. Three new disposal wells could soon open up next to Rochelle Rackham's ranch in Wilson County.
“When you re-inject that water, it has chemicals from drilling fluids as well as the fracking chemicals in it. No one knows where that water is going to travel. So we're all very concerned about the aquifer and is it going to end up in our drinking water,” Rackham told us.
Rackham is no environmental activist. She's an engineer who has worked her entire career in the oil and gas industry. She supports fracking, but says the way waste water is being disposed of is a disaster waiting to happen.
“At some point, someone has to step up and say, 'no more.'”
We went along with Rackham and other Wilson County residents when they went to protest one of the wells at a hearing in Austin. They plead their case before two inspectors from the Railroad Commission, which approves and monitors injection wells.
“We strongly object to this disposal well because we do not want Wilson County to become a dumping ground for oil and gas waste,” testified Diane Savage, a resident and member of the local water board.
A consultant for the well operator, named Gary Moy, also testified at the hearing, saying the well was both “environmentally safe and sanitary.”
Like many disposal wells in Texas, the one discussed at the hearing is not a newly built well. The company wants to re-activate a dormant well that hasn't been used in 30 years.
Opponents argue older wells can deteriorate over time and are more likely to fail and cause leaks.
There's also the fear the waste water could seep back to the surface through cracks or fault lines, or through abandoned wells, which has happened in North Texas and elsewhere.
We wanted to talk to the Chairman of the Railroad Commission about those concerns, but twice we were told Barry Smitherman was unavailable.
So we caught up to him before a recent commission meeting.
Trouble Shooter Jaie Avila told Smitherman, “I have to ask you about fracking water your agency allows to be pumped underground through these disposal wells. How can we be sure it's going to stay down there and not pollute our drinking water?”
Smitherman replied, “We have a whole department tasked with making sure this is done safely. I'm happy to visit with you, but I need to go prepare for my meeting now.”
Before Smitherman left, Avila asked a final question, "Should Texas be allowing the use of older wells to dispose of fracking water?”
“Again, we have a group that looks at the integrity of this," Smitherman said. “To make sure there's plenty of casing, or piping down below, plenty of cementing to guarantee there's no migration of the injection fluid into water. So, our people have been doing this for a long time, they do a good job at it, we won't approve one if it's not done correctly. But if it has the necessary safeguards we need to keep doing this.”
Opponents of disposal wells say the state needs to require that more fracking water be recycled.
It's not just an issue for people in rural areas. The Trouble Shooters have learned the San Antonio water system is itself protesting a proposed disposal well in Gonzales County.
In its letter to the Railroad Commission, SAWS says, "the injection operation would negatively impact the quality of water" meant for San Antonio customers.
SAWS is waiting for its protest hearing, just as Rochelle Rackham waits for a decision on the disposal wells near her ranch.
Rackham looked out at her land and said, “Once the water is contaminated, it's contaminated forever, it's not coming back.”