Texas Sinkhole Puts Spotlight
On Oil, Gas Drilling
BEN CASSELMAN / Wall Street Journal 19may2008
|YouTube Video of Daisetta Disaster
See similar event below
A stadium-size sinkhole that formed in south Texas's oil country this month is renewing questions about the effects of billions of barrels of saltwater injected into the ground each year as a byproduct of oil and gas drilling.
High energy prices have led to a surge in drilling across Texas and other states, much of it in older oil fields that tend to produce large volumes of saltwater along with crude. Meanwhile, new technologies for producing natural gas use millions of gallons of water to crack open gas-bearing rocks — yielding contaminated water that must then be disposed of, usually underground.
The result: In 2006, the Texas oil and gas industry injected 6.7 billion barrels of liquid, mostly water, beneath the ground, and experts say that amount has been rising as new wells have multiplied and old wells are revived. Federal regulators, environmentalists and community groups worry that lax oversight is allowing some of the water — which can be 10 times as salty as seawater and often contains oil, heavy metals and even radioactive material — to escape from underground reservoirs. That could lead to the contamination of underground drinking-water supplies, the pollution of soil and surface water, and more sinkholes as underground structures are eroded.
"The volumes of water to be disposed of have just shot up, and the oversight isn't there," said David Frederick, an environmental attorney in Austin who has represented community groups in fights against disposal companies.
Critics have argued for several years that the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees the oil and gas industry, hasn't kept close enough tabs on the state's more than 30,000 disposal sites, allowing problems to go undiscovered. John Tintera, in charge of technical permitting for the Railroad Commission, said the agency regularly inspects disposal facilities and scrutinizes companies for violations.
The issue was thrown into the spotlight this month when a 900-foot-wide, 250-foot-deep sinkhole opened up in Daisetta, a 1,000-population town about 60 miles northeast of Houston.
The hole appeared next to an oil-field waste-water disposal facility, which was then found to have been injecting nearly twice as much water into the ground as its disposal permit allowed. The Railroad Commission didn't discover the violation until after the sinkhole appeared, even though the company that runs the facility, Deloach Oil & Gas Wastewater Disposal, reported the greater-than-allowed volumes in monthly reports it filed with the commission. Deloach officials declined to comment.
State regulators haven't yet decided what caused the sinkhole. But Donald Van Nieuwenhuise, director of the petroleum geosciences program at the University of Houston, believes the most likely cause is that waste water eroded an underground structure called a salt dome, a deposit of compressed salt, and caused the collapse.
Critics have jumped on the Daisetta incident as evidence of the risks of underground disposal. In recent years, oil and gas production has moved closer to urban areas, especially around Fort Worth — where a natural-gas formation known as the Barnett Shale has led to drilling at the airport, on college campuses and in residential neighborhoods. Fort Worth has banned saltwater disposal wells in the city limits, but they exist in surrounding counties.
Philip Dellinger, who oversees the Environmental Protection Agency's groundwater program in Texas, said he knows of only a handful of incidents in recent years in which saltwater reached the surface. But he believes there are more undiscovered cases where waste water has contaminated fresh-water aquifers.
The practice of underground disposal is a response to earlier environmental concerns. Until the 1960s, oil companies disposed of saltwater and other drilling waste in open pits, where it eventually entered waterways and drinking-water supplies. By comparison, underground disposal is considered safe when done correctly. Waste water is injected 1,000 feet or more below ground, under nonporous rock formations that prevent the water from escaping.
But if water is injected at too high a pressure, it can fracture the rock formation and escape. In other cases, waste water can flow up nearby oil wells or other permeations. Because much of Texas is a pincushion of old wells, many of them drilled before reliable records were kept, critics say it's difficult to know where the contaminated water might ooze up.
In recent years the EPA has pushed the Railroad Commission to do more testing to detect potential leaks before issuing permits. Mr. Dellinger said the Railroad Commission hasn't been able to keep up with inspections that might turn up problems before they result in serious contamination or erosion. Last year, the commission received 5,650 applications for new disposal sites, up 21% from 2005.
source: p.A3 19may2008
Daisetta Sinkhole Becomes
Private Pool for 7-Foot Gator
CINDY HORSWELL / Houston Chronicle 16may2008
DAISETTA — Workers standing on the rim of a giant sinkhole that formed last week in this Liberty County town gasp and point as the water inside the cavity starts to ripple.
The first thing visible is a long snout. Then the creature begins to undulate through the water, with its muscular tail and back forming two humps, before vanishing beneath the surface as quickly as it appeared.
Sightings of a 7-foot alligator, although rare, have been reported since shortly after May 8 when the ground collapsed a block from the high school and fire station.
Residents believe the reptile was washed into the 600-foot-diameter crater with water from the swamps that surround the town. Once plunging more than 260 feet deep, the sinkhole is starting to turn into a lake.
Ground water is seeping into the hole from the bottom while marsh water has gushed from the top. Authorities estimate the lake is at least 75 feet deep and is still rising. The exposed walls of the sinkhole are about 30 feet high.
Workers dismantling storage tanks teetering on the sinkhole's rim had initially mocked reported sightings of an alligator. They had spent hours on the rim and seen nothing — until about noon on Friday.
Now they are believers. An alligator is indeed inhabiting this spot, using the sinkhole for its own private swimming pool. A Texas Railroad Commission employee snapped photographs for proof.
"He must love oil," one worker remarked.
Texas Parks and Wildlife game warden, Danny Diaz, said the patch of gooey crude floating on the east side of the crater might irritate the alligator's skin, but he is using the water on the other side.
"It's not really safe for anyone to climb down into that hole now to get anything out," said Diaz, pointing to stress cracks in the ground that encircle the hole. "The sinkhole could start growing again, especially if we get a saturating rain."
The commission is still studying what may have caused the collapse and if other underground voids might cave-in later. As a precaution, the public is being barred from the site and a portion of FM 770 that passes by it.
But some have not been able to resist slipping past the orange barriers to sneak a peek.
"I've been over there every day and only seen the alligator once," said Connie Rerich, 19, who works as a volunteer firefighter and is a clerk at the town's grocery store. She said the reptile was floating on top of the water and then dropped below the surface like he was riding an elevator.
She wasn't too surprised, because she said many alligators populate the bog that surrounds the old oil field town.
Harry Coplin, 74, doesn't believe anyone is worried about the alligator taking up residence.
"Some of the workers at a propane gas plant that shut down here used to feed their leftover sandwiches to 9-footer that lived right back in there," he said.
Company at Sinkhole Accused of
Pumping Too Much Water
CINDY HORSWELL / Houston Chronicle 9may2008
The saltwater disposal company nearly devoured by a giant sinkhole this week in Liberty County was injecting sometimes double the amount of saltwater into the ground that its state permit allowed.
But officials with the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates such permits, stressed Friday that the cause of the sinkhole in the small town of Daisetta has not been determined.
"We have no proven link between Deloach and the sinkhole," commission spokeswoman Ramona Nye said.
Deloach Oil and Gas Wastewater Disposal Co. declined comment Friday on the commission's notice that the company had violated its permit by dumping 128,000 to 192,000 barrels a month down its disposal well. Its permit allowed 90,000.
The company injected about 800,000 barrels more than the 1 million barrels that the permit authorized in 2007, Nye said.
The company's disposal well is 200 feet from the massive hole that stretches three football fields in diameter and 100 to 200 feet deep. It is just a block from the high school and town's fire station.
Since the hole appeared as a crack on Wednesday morning and began to grow by as much as 20 feet at a time, it has gobbled up a tractor, 18-wheeler cab, trees, telephone poles and oil field equipment.
Authorities believe the sinkhole may have stabilized as only a few clods of dirt were occasionally sloughing from its sides on Friday.
Daisetta residents were given tours of the hole for the first time on Friday night. The public has been barred from the area as a safety precaution.
Don't sneak in there
The giant hole has become something of a national curiosity, and residents were eager to see Daisetta's little grand canyon.
"We want to let the children see that they won't be sucked into the ground," said Liberty County sheriff's spokesman Hugh Bishop. "But after this, anybody who sneaks in there can be arrested."
The town's main street, FM 770, which passes by the hole, remains closed to drivers.
Daisetta is an old oil field town and poised for potential sinkhole problems, geology experts say.
The town sits atop a large underground salt formation, known as a saltdome, which is a mile and a half in diameter and lies 650 feet to 1,900 feet below the surface, authorities say. A swampy area where oil has been pumped since the early 1900s surrounds the perimeter.
Sinkholes can form when rainfall, underground water or injected saltwater dissolves or washes out an underground cavity.
Fluids must penetrate a layer of topsoil and sandstone before reaching Daisetta's caprock and salt where a cavity can be created, Nye said.
Some of the town's old oil wells, which were never capped and don't appear on any maps, might have piping that provides avenues for fluids to reach those areas, said Carl Norman, a geology consultant in Houston who is an expert on sinkholes.
Since 1968, Deloach has had a state permit to inject saltwater down a 1,181-foot-deep well by the northwest edge of the dome where the hole opened, Nye said.
The injection well, which is now shut down, is supposed to keep the saltwater safely contained within the sandstone layer.
"They have to know it's going to stay there and not escape," said Nye.
The state calculates whether the geological formation can hold the amount that is going to be injected before granting a permit, she said. To increase that amount, the permit would have to be refigured and amended, she said.
The railroad commission also cited Deloach for failing to conduct its annual leak test on the piping in the well before April 30.
What's underneath? While Norman says the sinkhole could have been caused naturally by water percolating from the surface or underground, he believes the saltwater injection likely contributed to the cavity's formation.
The commission is exploring whether to drop a sonic device down the well to see if any cavity is forming.
Daisetta residents are a little jittery, wondering what lies beneath their feet.
"The ground could fall like it did the other day. I have to worry about my babies," said Tammy Rawlinson, who has four children and is afraid to spend the night in her home.
Daisetta Mayor Lynn Wells, who zooms around town on his bright red Harley Davidson motorcycle, tries to reassure residents. On Friday, he asked the state for a disaster declaration for financial assistance.
Another similar disaster at Lake Peigneur, Louisiana When Sink Hole Drains Entire Lake
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Mindfully.org note: We wonder just how long corporations can continue to destroy the earth before the definition of corporation is modified so that each individual owner and operator is directly and completely responsible for the damages caused by that corporation. They must be punished with the same severity of their crimes, most of which will never be cleaned up, leaving the earth permanently impaired and unable to provide us with the resources that are required for life. They are changing the earth for what is essentially an eternity in terms of human life.
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