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Fracking – Injection wells -An unseen leak, then boom.
Firefighters continue to watch the flame go at what used to be Woody’s Appliance store in downtown Hutchinson on January 21, 2001 four days after an explosion rocked the city. (Photo by Fernando Salazar)
On Jan. 17, 2001, Hutchinson, Kan., awoke to an apocalypse.
Gas that had silently collected inside a downtown appliance store ignited, reducing two buildings to tinder carcasses and shattering windows for blocks.
Three miles away, a geyser of gas shot out of the earth, sending mud and rocks 30 feet into the air. Elsewhere, the ground popped open like the rotten hull of a boat, spraying brown briny water or catching fire.
The next morning, just when the earth seemed to recover its temper, a new plume of gas and water shot through the floor of a mobile home, killing two people. Hundreds of other Hutchinson residents were evacuated from their homes, many for months.
The mysterious disaster claimed national headlines, but there was little public discussion of the fact that it was caused by problems with underground injection wells.
Among a small community of geologists and regulators, however, the explosions in Hutchinson — which ranked among the worst injection-related accidents in history — exposed fundamental risks of underground leakage and prompted fresh doubts about the geological science of injection itself.
Geologists in Hutchinson determined that the eruptions had sprung from an underground gas storage field seven miles away. For years, a local utility had injected natural gas between 600 and 900 feet down into old salt caverns, storing it in a rock layer believed to be airtight so that it could later be pumped back out and sold. The gas had leaked out and migrated miles into abandoned injection wells once used to mine salt, then shot to the surface.
“It was an unusual event,” said Bill Bryson, a member of the Kansas Geological Survey and a former head of the Kansas Corporation Commission’s oil and gas conservation division. “Nobody really had a feeling that if there was a leak, it would travel seven miles and hit wells that were unknown.”
Though regulated under different laws than waste injection wells, gas storage wells operate under similar principles and assumptions: that deeply buried layers of rock will prevent injected substances from leaking into water supplies or back to the surface.
In this case the injected material had done everything that scientists usually describe as impossible: It migrated over a large distance, travelled upward through rock, reached the open air and then blew up.
The case, described as “a continuing series of geologic surprises and unexpected complexities” by the Kansas Geological Survey, flummoxed some of the leading injection experts in the world.
Perhaps more troubling was that some of the officials assumed to be most knowledgeable about injection wells and the risks of underground storage seemed oblivious to the conditions that led to the accident.
“The existence of those widespread formations and old salt-solution wells was unknown to the operators of the storage facility, the Kansas State Geologic Survey, city personnel, and its inhabitants,” noted a 2006 paper authored by Sally Benson, a leading geoscientist at Lawrence Berkeley Lab’s earth sciences division, and others. “It is still not clear how long the leakage occurred.”
Bryson agrees that officials should have known more about the number of abandoned wells in the area, but he says that otherwise Kansas’ regulations worked as intended.
The cause of the accident was identified because workers were diligently monitoring pressure changes in the gas injection well, as they are required to do. Once in a while, accidents are going to happen, he said.
“How far do you go to make sure that nothing will ever happen?” he said. “Lets face it: Something is going to go wrong… states have to be trusted enough to let us deal with that.”
Methanol appeared most often in hydraulic fracturing products (in terms of the number of compounds containing the chemical).
Found in antifreeze, paint solvent and vehicle fuel.
Vapors can cause eye irritation, headache and fatigue, and in high enough doses can be fatal. Swallowing may cause eye damage or death.
The BTEX compounds – benzene, toluene, xylene, and ethylbenzene – are listed as hazardous air pollutants in the Clean Air Act and contaminents in the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Benzene, commonly found in gasoline, is also a known human carcinogen. Long time exposure can cause cancer, bone marrow failure, or leukemia. Short term effects include dizziness, weakness, headache, breathlessness, chest constriction, nausea, and vomiting. Toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes have harmful effects on the central nervous system. The hydraulic fracturing companies injected 11.4 million gallons of products containing at least one BTEX chemical between 2005 and 2009.
A carcinogen listed as a hazardous air pollutant under the Clean Air Act and a contaminant in the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In its 2004 report, the EPA stated that the “use of diesel fuel in fracturing fluids poses the greatest threat” to underground sources of drinking water.
Hydraulic fracturing companies injected more than 30 million gallons of diesel fuel or hydraulic fracturing fluids containing diesel fuel in wells in 19 states.
Diesel fuel contains toxic constituents, including BTEX compounds. Contact with skin may cause redness, itching, burning, severe skin damage and cancer. (Kerosene is also used. Found in jet and rocket fuel, the vapor can cause irritation of the eyes and nose, and ingestion can be fatal. Chronic exposure may cause drowsiness, convulsions, coma or death.)
A carcinogen found in paint, building construction materials and roofing joints.
It is listed as a hazardous air pollutant in the Clean Air Act and a contaminant in the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Lead is particularly harmful to children’s neurological development. It also can cause reproductive problems, high blood pressure, and nerve disorders in adults.
One of the hydraulic fracturing companies used 780 gallons of a product containing lead between 2005 and 2009.
Flickr/Molly Des Jardin
Found in rust removers, aluminum brighteners and heavy duty cleaners.
Listed as a hazardous air pollutant in the Clean Air Act.
Fumes are highly irritating, corrosive, and poisonous. Repeated ingestion over time can lead to hardening of the bones, and contact with liquid can produce severe burns. A lethal dose is 1.5 grams.
Absorption of substantial amounts of hydrogen fluoride by any route may be fatal.
One of the hydraulic fracturing companies used 67,222 gallons of two products containing hydrogen fluoride in 2008 and 2009.
A carcinogen found in mothballs.
Listed as a hazardous air pollutant in the Clean Air Act.
Inhalation can cause respiratory tract irritation, nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, fever or death.
A carcinogen found in lead-acid batteries for cars.
Corrosive to all body tissues. Inhalation may cause serious lung damage and contact with eyes can lead to a total loss of vision. The lethal dose is between 1 teaspoonful and one-half ounce.
A carcinogen found in concrete, brick mortar and construction sands.
Dust is harmful if inhaled repeatedly over a long period of time and can lead to silicosis or cancer.
A carcinogen found in embalming agents for human or animal remains.
Ingestion of even one ounce of liquid can cause death. Exposure over a long period of time can cause lung damage and reproductive problems in women.
“Many of the hydraulic fracturing fluids contain chemical components that are listed as ‘proprietary’ or ‘trade secret.’ The companies used 94 million gallons of 279 products that contained at least one chemical or component that the manufacturers deemed proprietary or a trade secret. In many instances, the oil and gas service companies were unable to identify these ‘proprietary’ chemicals,suggesting that the companies are injecting fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify.”
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