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DATE: December 3, 2019

SNIP: Contaminated, salt-laden water is bubbling up from the ground on an Oklahoma farm, and state officials suspect oil field activity is causing the problem.

Too much wastewater pumping, they fear, may have put excessive pressure on an underground formation, pushing toxic water to the surface.

The burbling brine could endanger groundwater and highlights the challenge for an oil and gas industry that is running out of places to dispose of its waste. Coming on the heels of the state’s earthquake swarms — also linked to oil field disposal — it could signal a new problem for industry as salt water breaking out without a conduit like an old well is extremely unusual.

Oklahoma Corporation Commission spokesman Matt Skinner, who has worked for the agency for 19 years, said he and most other staff at the agency have never seen a situation like this “purge,” as water rising to the Earth’s surface is often called.

Gov. Kevin Stitt (R) late last month issued an emergency declaration to free up additional money to address the crisis.

“The subject saltwater purge constitutes a serious threat to public health and safety and poses a serious risk to the environment if immediate action is not taken,” the governor wrote.

OCC has directed eight nearby disposal wells to shut down and has stopped issuing permits for new ones in a nearly 15,000-square-mile area west of Oklahoma City.

Environmentalists fear that won’t be enough.

“This is just the tip of much larger and more widespread water pollution to come as a direct result of the combined processes of fracking production and wastewater injection across our state,” said Johnson Bridgwater, director of the Oklahoma Sierra Club.

Officials say there haven’t been signs of contamination in nearby drinking water, but Ray Shimanek, a local county commissioner, suspects nearby drinking water wells remain at risk.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Shimanek, a Republican of Kingfisher County, said in a phone interview. “It’s going to get into somebody’s water.”

The wastewater also damages farmland. It’s all but impossible to grow crops on contaminated land.

The question of what to do with production wastewater in oil-dependent Oklahoma has bedeviled officials for years. The state still has earthquakes linked to wastewater disposal, although they’ve tailed off considerably since peaking in 2015.

Those earthquakes have been tied to injecting huge volumes of water too deep. Now, the problem may be that wastewater isn’t being injected deep enough.

Mike Cantrell, president of the Oklahoma Energy Producers Alliance, links the purge to the state regulatory effort to stop companies from injecting into deep bedrock in response to the quakes.

Because of that policy, companies started injecting wastewater into shallower formations “incapable of holding this volume of water,” Cantrell wrote in a blog post.

Disposal wells near the purge inject water about 2,000 to 3,000 feet deep. The disposal wells linked to earthquakes were commonly 6,000 feet or deeper.

Cantrell indicated he thinks wastewater from disposal formations has broken through to the surface in other places, and thinks the state should require groundwater monitoring to determine the effects of the moving salt water.