Climate

During Fracking Hearing, Nebraskan Challenges Oil And Gas Commission To Drink Wastewater

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James Osborn pours a mystery concoction into water at a Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission meeting in March 2015.

James Osborn pours a mystery concoction into water at a Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission meeting in March 2015.

James Osborn pours a mystery concoction into water at a Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission meeting in March 2015.

Opposition to a proposal to dump out-of-state fracking wastewater in Nebraska went viral over the weekend, after a community group posted a video of a man offering chemical-laden water to a Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission.

The commission was hearing public comment on a Terex Energy Corp. application to inject up to 10,000 gallons per day of wastewater from fracking in Colorado and Wyoming into an old oil well on a ranch in Sioux County, in the northwest corner of Nebraska.

In the video, James Osborn pours three cups of water for the commissioners, then pours a brown liquid into each cup, asking them, “Would you drink it?”

Watch the video by Bold Nebraskahere:

During hydraulic fracturing (fracking), large amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, is injected underground to crack shale rock and release pockets of oil or natural gas. The process produces a lot of leftover wastewater — in America, fracking produces an estimated 280 billion gallons of wastewater per year, according to a report by Environment America.

Because it is difficult to treat, fracking wastewater is usually stored in pits or underground. In the Midwest, fracking in Nebraska’s neighboring states has boomed in recent years, leaving millions of gallons of wastewater needing to be stored.

Nebraskans at the hearing were concerned about contaminating their groundwater, as well the increased traffic from trucks. In addition to concerns about drinking water, Nebraska has other reasons to worry about water. Agriculture is the state’s biggest business, valued at $21 billion a year.

“Everything about Nebraska runs on water,” Osborn says in the video. “There is no doubt that there will be contamination, there will be spills.”

Even treated wastewater from fracking has been found to have chemical contaminants that can be harmful to human health. Several eastern states have banned or are considering banning wastewater disposal from the fracking boom in Pennsylvania, both because of pollution concerns and because fracking has been linked to an increase in earthquakes.

“Knowing the earthquakes, the contamination of water, the destruction of land, we don’t want to see it happening in our state,” said Jane Kleeb, the founder of Bold Nebraska, the group that posted the video. “I know a lot of people see Nebraska as a flyover state, but we are not the country’s dumping ground.”

According to Bill Sydow, the director of the Nebraska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, Nebraska already has 130 “salt water disposal” wells, including four or five commercial wells, like the project proposed. Several thousand gallons of post-fracking water are being injected in Nebraska every day, Sydow told ThinkProgress, and most of the water is from fracking projects in Wyoming.

“People have become fearful of hydraulic fracturing,” he said. “I feel it’s unfounded. It’s unwarranted.”

Sydow said the levels of contaminants in waste water from fracking were so low that a person’s body would be able to “handle” drinking it. He said he was not aware of any instances in which wastewater from fracking had contaminated drinking water.

“Nevertheless, it will be completely kept out of the environment at the surface,” he said. The injection well named in Terex’s application is an “excellent candidate” for water storage, Sydow said, because it is relatively new and has four layer of concrete protection.

In a letter to the commission, State Sen. John Stinner said he would introduce a resolution calling for a study on whether the commission has adequate authority to regulate waste disposal wells. “I am very concerned that the Commission has no means to fund the monitoring that would be required for the future to assure the safety of the groundwater,” he wrote. “Moreover, how would any repair of future environmental damage be accomplished and any clean-up funded?”

In January, Stinner introduced a bill authorizing the commission to monitor and regulate out-of-state wastewater disposal in Nebraska. Stinner did not respond Monday to questions from ThinkProgress.

The commission is required to make a decision in the next 30 days. If either the applicant or intervenors appeal, it would go to the Nebraska District Court.