After ordering a review of possible contamination within California’s aquifers, the US Environmental Protection Agency found that about three billion gallons of wastewater have illegally contaminated central California’s farm-irrigation and drinking water aquifers.

The Central Valley Water Board found high levels of toxic chemicals, such as thallium, arsenic and nitrates, had leaked into water-supply wells near wastewater-disposal sites.

According to documents obtained and reported on by the Center for Biological Diversity, the wastewater entered the aquifers through at least nine injection disposal wells, which are used by the oil industry to aid in the disposal of the toxic pollutants that are a byproduct of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Fracking: What is it and how does it affect the environment?

Fracking is used to increase the rates in which fluids like petroleum, water and natural gas can be recovered from underground natural reservoirs. It is an oil well stimulation technique, where underground rock is cracked open by hydraulically pressurized liquid.

Some fractures happen naturally, but synthetic fractures are made by injecting high-pressure liquid chemicals, and sometimes sand mixtures, into a well bore to stimulate a crack in subterraneous rock formations.

This creates fractures in deep rock that allow for natural gas and other natural resources to flow more freely, making them easier to obtain.

The controversy behind fracking stems from weighing the economic benefits of easily accessible hydrocarbon energy, versus the dangers to the environment it imposes. These dangers include the degradation of air quality, the possible triggering of earthquakes, noise pollution and also, freshwater and groundwater contamination.

Massive hydraulic fracturing uses between 1.2 and 3.5 million gallons of water per well to operate, but some larger projects can use up to 5 million gallons. Using this amount of water for fracking can also divert water from other areas, such as city water sources or sources for power generation. This raises the concern of having to divide the finite amount of water between the agriculture industry and the oil industry.

Although many of the chemicals used in fracking mixtures are usually harmless, some additives used in the US are known carcinogens. Out of the 2,500 possibilities of fracking additives, the Safe Water Drinking Act has listed more than 650 of the chemicals as hazardous pollutants.

Fracking byproducts can result in a plethora of toxic chemicals depending on the method used, but the current California wells most recently found to be contaminated were reported to contain significant levels of arsenic, thallium and nitrates.

Arsenic is a carcinogen that slows the immune system, and is most naturally occurring in volcanic ash.

Thallium is an extremely toxic chemical element. Although it is not freely found in nature, it has a history of being a popular ingredient in rat poison, and has even been famously used to poison humans.

The long road to contamination

The idea of “fracturing” rock to stimulate natural resource flow dates back to the late 19th Century. In the 1860s dynamite and nitroglycerin were used to essentially blow holes in subterranean rock formations to stimulate flow.

Modern fracking began as an experiment in the late 1940s with the first commercial success in 1949. By 2012, 2.5 million fracking operations have taken place throughout the world, with half of them in the US alone.

In July, the California Division of Oil and Gas and Geothermal Resources issued cease and desist orders to seven energy companies, under the suspicion that they may be contaminating nearby aquifers with the fracking waste fluids.

At that time, the California agriculture industry was already dealing with the loss of extraordinary amounts of water, which had already costed the state more than $2.2 billion, in 2014 alone.

In the past, at least 100 of the state’s aquifers were assumed to be useless for drinking or farming because of either the poor quality of water, or the fact that they were too deep underground to be easily accessible. The state then exempted them from the normal environmental regulations that protect other aquifers from pollution from the oil or gas industry.

California’s severe drought has forced the state into using these supplemental water supplies from underground aquifers, according to a study published by the UC Davis Center for Watershed Sciences.

The study showed that the current drought “is responsible for the single greatest water loss ever seen in California agriculture, with river water for Central Valley farms reduced by roughly one-third,” driving the decision to reevaluate the use of these those aquifers.

However, the contaminated aquifers in question are protected under environmental law, and are not part of the group of aquifers once sacrificed by the state.

ProPublica reported in 2012 that over 700,000 of the US’s injection wells are poorly regulated and often are polluting underground water supplies that are supposed to be protected by federal environmental law. Many of these wells, as it turns out, are in California.

Where do we go from here?

The entire extent of the pollution is yet to be determined. The Central Valley Water Board has so far tested eight of the more than 100 wells in the area and is aware of at least 19 more injection wells that may have also contaminated protected aquifers. So far, half of the wells tested have been found to contain an excessive amount of toxic chemicals.

Although much more extensive research needs to be done to find the full extent of the pollution on public health, the contamination of vital water sources has come to fruition at a time when California’s drought has reach unprecedented proportions. The drought is expected to continue through 2015, despite the onset of California’s wetter seasons.

Anniversary of Loma Prieta Earthquake

With the anniversary of the devastating Loma Prieta earthquake in San Francisco this coming weekend, public safety and earthquakes will be top of mind. Leading studies show that states with fracking have seen a surge in seismic activity, and some states, including Ohio, Oklahoma and California, have introduced new rules forcing drillers to measure the volumes and pressures of their injection wells as well as to monitor seismicity during fracking operations.

You can bet that here at Reset we’ll be tracking these issues as they develop. Stay tuned.