Pollution of groundwater is a serious concern throughout the country. Oil and gas exploration and production (E&P) pollutes the water in many ways. This article will focus on the operations conducted during oil and gas production that create groundwater pollution and what can be done about it from both a legal and an environmental standpoint.

Farmers, cattle ranchers, and other owners of property with oil wells should be concerned about the long-term negative impacts of E&P that create legal liability for landowners and decrease the value of their real estate. Landowners must demand that the oil companies perform sufficient testing to determine the nature and extent of any adverse pollutants present in the groundwater and require a cleanup of the groundwater if appropriate. This often requires legal action in the form of a civil lawsuit and reporting to the appropriate regulatory agencies.

Old Wells Create New Pollution

Old well sites create new environmental damage as they age, especially if they are not properly maintained. Many major oil companies originally operated onshore at the beginning of the oil rush. As these companies grew and fields were depleted of minerals, the major oil companies sold off many of their land assets to develop fields offshore and outside the United States. They sold these assets and operations to considerably smaller operators, many of whom do not invest in upkeep necessary to protect the environment from pollution presented by old wells.

Fortunately, mineral royalty contracts usually provide a remedy to landowners against all companies in the chain of title to the lease. This allows landowners to seek damages and other remedies against big oil even if they no longer operate there. The oil and gas industry calls these actions “legacy lawsuits,” because they concern historical operations. The damage caused to groundwater is the oil industry’s legacy and the landowner’s problem to solve.

Oil Well Surface Equipment and Facilities Can Pollute the Groundwater

Typical well sites have equipment like transportation lines, tanks, and heater-treaters. This surface equipment can fail over time, causing leaks that are a source of pollution to groundwater. It is not uncommon to see rusty and corroded lines and tanks at old well sites. Operators must routinely test lines to ensure there are no leaks. Tanks and heater treaters must be periodically inspected and replaced to protect against failure. Often operators fail to perform these inspections and defer this maintenance. And when something goes wrong, it can be undetected for a significant amount of time. Pollution from spills like this can migrate deep below the soil into aquifers. In short, old, rusty, corroded equipment is a ticking time bomb.

Oil Wells Can Leak Underground Polluting the Groundwater

Additionally, old wells can leak pollution underground into freshwater aquifers. Well leaks are called a loss of well integrity by the oil industry. A well that is improperly engineered or drilled can lead to leaks. Like the surface equipment, the pipe inside the well corrodes due to pressure, heat, saltwater, and other stresses on the metal. When a well leaks underground, it obviously cannot be seen and may go undetected for many years. Pollution seeping into aquifers over time can permanently damages the aquifer until the water is pumped out and treated. This type of cleanup requires special expertise and equipment. It can be very expensive to fully restore the damaged aquifer.

Oil and Gas Wells Groundwater Pollution Types

Oil wells create many different types of toxic waste that can pollute groundwater. Oil wells can pollute groundwater with arsenic, lead, chlorides, hydrocarbons, and radioactive materials. These materials will persist in the groundwater until the water is cleaned up. Depending on the level of contamination, the water can be unusable and unsafe for drinking.

Our firm is experienced in assisting private landowners hold oil and gas companies accountable for their groundwater pollution. For a free consultation, contact our office at 504-593-9600.

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