Elevated concentrations of strontium, an element associated with oil and gas waste waters, have accumulated in the shells of freshwater mussels downstream from wastewater disposal sites, according to researchers from Penn State and Union College. With concern growing that the underlying geology in the Permian Basin is reaching capacity for disposal wells, the Trump administration is examining whether to adjust decades-old federal clean-water regulations to allow drillers to discharge waste water directly into rivers and streams.
Wastewater disposal is becoming a bigger problem for oil and gas drillers. A rule of thumb is that, for every barrel of oil, four or five barrels of waste water are produced. For almost as long as there have been oil wells in Texas, drillers have pumped the vast quantities of brackish waste water that surfaces with the oil into underground wells thousands of feet beneath the Earth’s surface. Technically speaking, drillers are allowed to do this in limited circumstances under federal law, but the process of cleaning salt-, heavy-metal-, and chemical-laden waste water to the point it would meet state or federal water standards is so costly that it’s rarely done, experts say. At some point, if your disposal options are limited or it becomes so expensive you’re having to truck water to be disposed of several hundred miles away, companies will do it,” said Jared Craighead, legal counsel to Texas Railroad Commissioner Ryan Sitton.