What Happens When a Flood Unleashes Oil and Gas Pollution?

An El Paso reporter investigates chemicals flowing freely through Texas rivers after severe flooding – and what isn’t been done to stop it.

By Rhonda FanningMay 3, 2016 12:45 pm

Thank goodness the floods are over – if only clean-up were that simple.

Four disaster recovery centers opened yesterday in Harris County, underscoring how the misery of the spring floods drag on for many Texans. More than 10,000 applications have been filed for aid in the four-county area surrounding Houston. In the Greenspoint District in north Houston, the Chronicle reports stories of people with rejected for assistance, even while mildew lines their apartment walls. FEMA officials say those told they don’t qualify for relief should appeal.

Another indication that the flood story’s far from over is aerial photos taken by state emergency-management officials of the record flooding along the Sabine River back in March. Those pictures reveal a rainbow sheen across the water and caramel plumes radiating from oil wells and fracking sites.

As the water receded, runoff joined the flow of rivers, streams and lakes. But what about those shimmering chemicals once they’re in the river?

Marty Schladen, a reporter for the El Paso Times, says the photos, which have been publicly available for years, show that this pollution from flooding has happened several times over the past few years – nearly every time Texas floods.

“There is a concern,” he says, “and I don’t know that anybody has a handle on how big of a one it is.”

Environmentalists have raised concerns since the fracking boom – there may not be proper safeguards in place to prevent chemical dispersal. Schladen says the Railroad Commission reports he was given don’t seem to track how much oil, gas or chemicals leave production sites during floods.

“They’ve just said things are cleaned up,” he says.

Schladen says there’s been some finger-pointing between the Railroad Commission and the state’s environmental authority, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ). The TCEQ says if a spill originates at an oil production site, it’s under the purview of the Railroad Commission to see that it’s cleaned up.

“The Railroad Commission says it’s the producers’ responsibility to clean up,” he says. “What they haven’t been able to do is point to any enforcement actions they’ve taken over the last three years for any of these spills, even though we have scores of photos of them.”

Chemicals used in fracking, either in fluids or waste water, are proprietary information and even state officials don’t know exactly what’s in that water.

“There is broad agreement by public health people and environmental groups that some of this stuff is pretty noxious,” he says.