Benzene in the water: fracking and an impending public health crisis in California

Benzene is a naturally occurring chemical, but a known human carcinogen: overexposure can affect your blood and immune system. Benzene exposure is linked to both acute and chronic myelogenous leukemia, and acute lymphocytic leukemia.

In short, it’s not a chemical you want in your water.

Fracking in California causing benzene water pollution

The process of hydraulic fracturing—“fracking” — to release natural gas and petroleum deep in the ground is a complicated and dirty process.

Here’s how it works: oil and gas companies drill holes deep into the ground until they hit shale rock.

A map of the shale rock across the United States.

A map of the shale rock across the United States.

Then, they pump in huge quantities of water and fracturing fluid to create enough pressure to crack the deep-rock formations. Natural gas, petroleum and brine flows through the cracks; the oil companies extract it and sell it.

So what happens to the water and chemicals that fractured the rock?

California oil wells end up with about 10 gallons of fracking wastewater for every gallon of oil they extract.  Between 60-80% of that wastewater is pumped back out of the ground.*

Oil companies are supposed to treat the wastewater to prevent it from contaminating groundwater, then dispose of it by dumping it into a pit or a disposal well.

In 2013, California public health officials, concerned about the mass quantities of chemical-laden wastewater, ordered water tests. The results, recently published by the LATimes, found

On average, benzene levels 700 times higher than federal standards allow…

How California let oil companies pollute the water

There are rules and laws dictating how oil companies are to dispose of the benzene-laden fracking wastewater.

So how could the wastewater end up in California’s drinking water?

Back in 1983, federal Environmental Protection Agency officials put California’s oil field regulators — the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources — in charge of enforcing a federal law: the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Instead of protecting California’s drinking water, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources have allowed oil companies to inject their wastewater into hundreds of protected aquifers that hold public water.

California’s state regulators say the errors were “inadvertent”, and due to mismanagement. The federal Environmental Protection Agency calls the errors “shocking.”

In fact, it’s hard to tell how the state agency allowed this to happen, since they have almost no data on wastewater. Evidently, the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources keeps paper records, and doesn’t even have a complete record of where oil wells are releasing the contaminated wastewater.

Even worse, the same incompetent state agencies that allowed the benzene contamination to occur are now in charge of fixing the problem.

“Every citizen of California has the right to pure and safe drinking water…”

California State Health and Safety Code, Section 116270-116293

Instead of upholding it’­s own law (and the federal Safe Drinking Water Act), California’s state government has potentially exposed millions of its citizens to incredibly toxic levels of benzene, putting them at risk for fatal diseases.



* What happens to the 20-40% of fracking wastewater left underground? It’s cause for another major public health concern: earthquakes induced by fluid injection from the fracking process. See The Legal Examiner: What the Frack? Man-made earthquakes are for real