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Water is the New Black Gold

Photo credit: Robert Ingelhart/Getty Images

By Sharon Franklin.

A recent New York Times series concerning fracking and water by Hiroko Tabuchi and Blacki Migliozziexplores the relationship between hydrofracking and our disappearing water sources.  

Giant new oil and gas wells that require astonishing volumes of water to fracture bedrock are threatening America’s fragile aquifers. An aquifer is a body of porous rock or sediment saturated with groundwater. Groundwater enters an aquifer as precipitation seeps through the soil. It can move through the aquifer and resurface through springs and wells. In Texas, the birthplace of the fracking revolution, increasingly complex oil wells are sweeping across the state into the surrounding United States. These new wells can consume millions of gallons of water that often come from our dwindling aquifers. To satisfy the “fracking thirst,” energy giants are now drilling not just for oil, but for the water they need to operate.

The New York Times series documents this surging water usage by examining an industry database in which energy companies report the chemicals they pump into the ground while fracking. The database includes details on their water usage, revealing the dramatic growth. Critics of fracking say it is an irony that so much water is being diverted to produce fossil fuels, given that the burning of fossil fuels is causing climate change, further straining freshwater resources. 

Nationwide, fracking has used up nearly 1.5 trillion gallons of water since 2011. This is equivalent to the amount of tap water used by the entire state of Texas in a year. Today, the insatiable search for oil and gas has become the latest threat to the country’s endangered aquifers, a critical national resource for industrial farming and cities. These mega-fracking projects, called “monster fracks,” have become the industry norm. They account for almost two out of every three fracking wells in Texas. Peter Knappett, professor of hydrogeology at Texas A&M University, refers to fracking companies as “newcomers, a new sector that burst onto the scene and is heavily reliant on the aquifers [that] could be pumping for several decades from aquifers that are already over-exploited and already experiencing long-term declines.”

There is public resistance emerging in New Mexico where a coalition of tribes and environmental groups are suing the state. They’re claiming that fracking companies are using up precious water resources and the state has failed to protect the interests of residents. Also, in Colorado, residents are fighting a proposed fracking project because they fear it would risk contaminating a reservoir their community depends upon. Oil companies require no permits to drill their own groundwater wells and there is no consistent requirement that groundwater used for fracking be reported or monitored. As droughts have gripped Texas and other Sunbelt states, many communities have instituted water restrictions for residents even as fracking has been allowed to continue unabated.

What is the oil industry saying about fracking?  Holly Hopkins, an Executive at the American Petroleum Institute, said the industry was “focused on meeting the growing demand for affordable, reliable energy while minimizing impacts on the environment” and its’ members were “continuing to develop innovative methods to reuse and recycle” water used for fracking. British Petroleum said it was “executing several pilot projects to recycle water” that would “minimize freshwater usage,” whileChevron added “that water was vital to its operations and that it aimed to use water efficiently and responsibly,” also saying that it used brackish or recycled water for fracking. Southwestern and Ovintiv did not respond to requests for comment.  

Because there is big money to be made in oil, and for those with access to water, it can be easy money to give away water rights. For example, Bruce Frasier, an onion grower who sells groundwater to a local fracking company for 50 cents a barrel, said that “If you’ve got the water to sell, you’re making a fortune”.   A small percentage of oil companies is making strides in reusing that fracking wastewater to drill for more oil and gas. Mr. Martin, a rancher and farmer who heads the Wintergarten Water District, doesn’t fault energy companies because he irrigates his cantaloupe fields using groundwater. However, he still contemplates a future of ever-dwindling aquifers, and somberly notes that “If the water goes away, the whole community will [go] away too.”

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Joppa, TX – Profile of a Sacrifice Zone

Photo credit: Nathan Hunsinger/The Dallas Morning News

By Hunter Marion.

Nestled between the slow, muddy waters of the Trinity River and the noisy I-45, sits Joppa, TX. Pronounced “Joppee” by locals, Joppa is a neighborhood located at Dallas proper’s southernmost point. It was founded by freed Black people shortly after the abolition of slavery in the 1870’s. Generations of residents lived relatively isolated from the growing metropolis until the town was annexed by the city of Dallas in 1955.

That annexation saw the gradual introduction of industrialization into the formerly forest-covered community. Pacific-Union built a railway cutting through the middle of the neighborhood. Asphalt plants, gravel mills, and landfills quickly ate up the bountiful, green floodplains of the area commonly called the “Bottoms.” Soon enough, Joppa became surrounded by polluting facilities and the refuse of interstate commerce.

Air pollution is the most prevalent problem affecting folks living in Joppa. Companies like Austin Industries, Martin Marietta, and TAMKO produce high amounts of particulate matter (PM) that consistently clog the lungs of locals. In the spring of 2023, air monitoring sensors in Joppa belonging to SharedAirDFW registered air quality that was double the EPA’s healthy standard of PM pollution!

Local organizations like Downwinders at Risk (a Dallas-based environmental organization and former CHEJ grantee) and Paul Quinn College have also reported that Joppa experiences levels of air pollution exceeding that of the rest of Dallas. Findings even cite that the life expectancy of Joppa residents is 13 years less than those living in the affluent Highland Park neighborhood of central Dallas. In addition to industrial contamination, the area is still recovering from the presence and removal of a giant pile of shingle debris called “Shingle Mountain,” which contributed to long-term water and air contamination in Joppa and the nearby neighborhood, Floral Farms.

To combat this issue, Joppa residents have been steadily gaining media attention and political action through grassroots efforts. For instance, in early 2023 residents sought to block the renewal of Austin Bridge & Road’s 10-year “specific-use” permit and protested the presence of a concrete batch plant that was discovered to be in operation without a permit. Local leaders like Alicia Kendrick have been vocal about the industries harming their homes, families, and friends, especially complaining about the EPA and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality’s (TCEQ) lack of enforcement on air quality standards in the area.

A key development in the fight to protect the neighborhood has been the Joppa Environmental Health Project. This is a community-led three-year environmental health study overseen by a research group from Texas A&M University. The project focuses on the effects of PM exposure upon Joppa’s residents. Community members intend to use the findings from this project as leverage against the city council to wrest control of Joppa over from the polluters. Although companies like Austin Industries have been prioritized by Dallas’s city council in the past, Kendrick and others have hope that continued pressure from organizing and research will prevail. They did not have to wait too long for a victory.

In June 2023, the Austin batch plant officially announced its closure and removal from the community. Excited by the victory of her 14-month battle against the company, Kendrick said that she was “determined to see this through, to use this [win] as a first step in giving Joppa residents a neighborhood where the air is safe to breathe.”


Texas Doubles in Illegal Air Pollution

A report released Wednesday by Environment Texas revealed that Texas released 135 million pounds of illegal air pollution in 2018. Among the 270 oil and gas contributors, is Texas Petroleum Chemicals (TPC) of Port Neches. The 2018 numbers are double those emitted in 2017 and Texas residents are putting up a fight. Read More.


Port Neches, Texas: TPC explosion cleanup and update

Two weeks after the TPC plant explosion, the Environmental Protection Agency has transferred the site cleanup oversight to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). Response efforts have been focused on site equipment recovery. TPC will continue to monitor the air surrounding the facility; however, current reports conclude that there is no actionable levels of butadiene (a known carcinogen). Read More.


Tropical Storm Imelda leads to a wake up call for the Texas chemical industry

The eastern coast of Texas has proven to be a vulnerable spot for natural disasters, tropical storms, and facility pollution. In the wake of tropical storm Imelda, the Houston and Baytown areas have reported a release of tens of thousands of pounds of pollutants due to the power outages, shutdowns, and storage tank failures caused by the storm. After the facility failures following Hurricane Harvey, legislators and industries have called for more stringent regulations and technology on storage tank in order to prevent future failures from approaching storms. Read More.


37 Injured in Explosion, Fire at Baytown, Texas Exxon Mobile Plant

On Wednesday, for the fourth time since April, there was an explosion and subsequent fire at a Houston area petrochemical plant. No one was seriously injured, but 37 people suffered from minor burns and injuries. Exxon Mobil’s plants in Baytown have a history of chemical violations in leaks, the last being in March. Currently, they are defendants in a lawsuit from Harris County citing environmental violations. <Read more>

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Is Drinking Water Safe in the United States?

by Summer-Solstice Thomas, CHEJ Science & Technology Intern 
In the small town of O’Brien, Texas, residents drank water that violated drinking water quality standards for months before one resident found out and altered his community. Facing financial stress, the city had switched from a treated reservoir to a groundwater source with violatingly high levels of nitrates to provide drinking water for its residents.
Nitrate pollution usually comes from fertilizers, as in agricultural towns like O’Brien, and can cause methemoglobinemia, or “blue baby” disease in infants. Nitrate levels in O’Brien schools were found to be 40% above EPA standards. Upon hearing the news, many residents switched to drinking bottled water or purchased individual water filters, but not all were financially able to.
O’Brien is just one example of residents suffering from public water quality violations, but they are not alone. In fact, millions of Americans consume unsafe public drinking water everyday.
Is US Drinking Water Safe? 
According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the US has “one of the safest public drinking water supplies in the world”. Recent reports, however, have challenged that statement. In March, EPA’s Administrator Andrew Wheeler assured that 92% of public water in the US meets EPA standards.
Given that 90% of Americans, or 300 million people, rely on drinking water from a public source, the 8% that doesn’t currently meet EPA standards indicates that over 26 million Americans consume unsafe water daily. Additionally, while the EPA sets legal limits for over 90 drinking water contaminants, ensuring that these limits are not breached is dependent on proper funding and oversight. Based on the 22% decrease between 2009 and 2014 in funding for public water distribution by state and local governments nationwide, it is possible that more than 8% of the nation’s water is unsafe.
Lead Violations
While the CDC has determined that there is no safe blood level of lead for children, the EPA lead rule determines action must be taken if 10% or more of taps sampled have a lead level of 15 ppb or greater. Recently, this rule has come under scrutiny as many companies find ways around the regulation, by selectively testing certain taps, “pre-flushing” or sampling slowly to reduce samples’ lead concentrations.
Additionally, in 2016, CNN found 5,300 US water systems, serving more than 18 million people, to be in violation of this rule. When the lead rule was first implemented by EPA in 1991, 10 million lead lines served public water nationwide. While this number has decreased to 6.1 million lead lines, there are still 15-22 million Americans served by lead lines, predominantly in the Midwest.

Bacterial Violations
Of the 10,000 public systems violating EPA drinking water standards in 2015, 72% of them were bacteria violations. Bacterial drinking water illness outbreaks have been rising since 2000, with 42 outbreaks between 2013-2014, causing over 1,000 cases of illness. Such violations often occur from contamination of water supplies by animal manure from agricultural operations or sewage, causing 16 million cases of acute gastrointestinal illness annually.
Disparate Impact
Violations of water quality are not experienced equally across the nation, and instead they disparately impact communities of color and low socioeconomic status. Research has determined that the prevalence of nitrates and pesticides in drinking water supplies in the San Joaquin Valley, California’s agricultural powerhouse, is significantly higher in Latinx and low-income communities. After the well-publicized water crisis in Flint, Michigan, children residing in socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods were found to have greater elevation of blood lead levels when compared to their peers.

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EPA to Remove Dioxin-Laced Contamination from River in Houston

 Congratulations to the San Jacinto River Coalition of Houston,  Texas and residents who live near the San Jacinto Waste Pits  Superfund Site for convincing the US Environmental Protection  Agency (EPA)that the only acceptable solution to address the  dioxin contaminated paper mill sludge waste in the pits was to dig  it up and take it out! At the end of September, the EPA agreed after  more than 6 years of controversy and analysis, to remove about 202,000 cubic yards of toxic waste from the site at a cost of approximately $97 million. The decision is not yet final as the agency is holding a 60 day comment period.
This site is located on 20 acres of abandoned land along the San Jacinto River that runs just east of the city of Houston. Sludge waste from pulp and paper mill production at nearby International Paper and before them Champion Paper was dumped at this site during the 1960s and has been leaching from the waste pits into the river ever since. A large portion of this property is continually underwater from the San Jacinto River causing dioxin contaminated sediment to come into direct to contact with the river water. Dioxin levels as high as 46,000 parts per trillion (ppt) have been found in the waste pit area. An action level of 1,000 ppt of dioxin in soil was used by the EPA to evacuate the entire town of Times Beach, MO in 1983. Dioxin is one of the most potent carcinogens ever tested and has been associated with a wide range of adverse health problems including reproductive, developmental, immunological, and endocrine effects in both animals and humans.    
The San Jacinto River Coalition formed in 2010 to address the contamination coming from the Waste Pits and to push EPA for complete removal of the contamination. EPA was inclined to leave the waste in place which made absolutely no sense to anyone who lived in the area as local residents watched the river routinely submerse the waste completely. A major concern has been dioxin leaching into the river because so many people fish the river and continue to do so even though the state has issued a fish advisory warning people not to eat the fish. For many local residents, fishing in the river is a main source of food.  
Jackie Young, director of the San Jacinto River Coalition was elated at the agency’s decision and was quoted in the Houston Press saying: “Leaving the waste in the river is unacceptable…This decision shows that the EPA is taking a firm stand based on the science and engineering and what the community has called for.” Sometimes the little guy does win. For more information, and