Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells Become Pollution Portals

Abandoned Oil and Gas Wells Become Pollution Portals by Roberto Suro, May 3, 1992, The New York Times
From the Louisiana bayous to the arid plains of Texas and Oklahoma, thousands of oil and gas wells, abandoned at the end of their productive life, have become conduits for noxious liquids that bubble up from deep below the earth’s surface to kill crops and taint drinking water. For state governments in America’s oil patch, these abandoned wells have become an expensive legacy left by a fading industry. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency estimates that there are about 1.2 million abandoned oil and gas wells nationwide and that some 200,000 of them may not be properly plugged. In Texas alone, officials calculate there are 40,000 to 50,000 abandoned wells that could pose pollution problems. Often drilled to depths of a mile or more, oil wells typically tap into sandy formations permeated with a brine that is up to four times saltier than sea water and that is laced with radioactivity, heavy metals and other toxins. Without extensive and costly plugging, that brine can flow up the well shaft and seep into fresh water aquifers or sometimes reach the surface. Occasionally the brine from abandoned wells hits the surface with explosive force. In the last few years it has erupted through a parking lot in San Angelo, Tex. Mixed with natural gas, it spewed into the backyard of a home in Bartlesville, Okla., and oozed onto a freeway construction site in Tulsa. But the damage is usually slower and more insidious. A single unplugged exploration hole in West Texas leaked brine for 22 years before being discovered, polluting the ground water beneath 400 to 600 acres of land, a 1990 study by the Bureau of Economic Geology at University of Texas found. … “In a very short time Texas has gone from denial, to saying maybe there’s a problem but there’s no money to fix it, to now where we’re saying there’s a real problem and we can find the resources.” … Water moves laterally across the aquifers, slowly but across great distances, to streams and creeks. … When the freshwater aquifer that supplied the central Oklahoma town of Cyril, population 1,200, was declared unsafe because of brine pollution in 1989, there was little doubt that the oilfield below it was at fault.

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