Oil companies damage groundwater through neglect and ill practices. This article will discuss several ways oil and gas operators historically pollute groundwater. This article will not discuss hydrofracking groundwater pollution.
What are Legacy Lawsuits?
The oil industry coined the term “legacy lawsuits” to describe civil actions seeking recovery of property damages caused by historic oil and gas exploration and production. Oil companies gain access to mineral underground on private property by leasing property from the owner. Oil companies lease the right to capture and sell minerals. Sometimes they lease to gain access to the surface for other activities. Usually, these leases remain active for long periods of time. Most major oil companies sold their rights to smaller companies for economic reasons. However, these companies often retain liability for pollution of groundwater.
How Do Oil and Gas Wells Damage Groundwater?
Historically speaking, oil and gas exploration and production can damage groundwater by either polluting the surface of the property, which causes pollution to migrate below the surface into groundwater, or by directly polluting the groundwater below the surface through their wells. Groundwater testing can reveal many pollutants from the oil field including:
Oil Field Pits Pollute the Groundwater
Oil Companies drilling wells created pits for the storage of waste materials, drilling muds, and other pollutants on the surface of the property. Rather than clean up the pollution from these pits, oil companies often either abandoned them or they covered them with soil, burying the pollution underground. Over time, these pollutants migrate through the soil and into the groundwater.
Oil Tanks and Lines Pollute Groundwater
Tanks and lines spill or leak due to corrosion caused by lack of maintenance or through other acts of oil company negligence. Tanks separating produced water from oil accumulate radioactive materials. Operators cleaning these tanks dump the waste onto the ground or into a pit. Storage tanks can rupture, spilling their contents. Lines leak due to corrosion or breakage. By failing to properly maintain and inspect this equipment, oil companies pollute the surface. This surface pollution migrates over time to groundwater.
Leaky Wells Pollute the Groundwater
Generally, old oil wells pollute the groundwater when something goes wrong and causes pollution to enter freshwater aquifers deep underground. The steel pipe in old wells can corrode, allowing leaks to occur. Produced water and hydrocarbons can migrate through the well, contaminating freshwater zones. Oil companies often convert old wells into saltwater disposal wells (SDW). These wells accumulate radioactive materials, have a high propensity for corrosion, and often lose well integrity, which can cause groundwater pollution.
Landowner Actions When Groundwater is Polluted
Many property owners don’t know if their groundwater is polluted or the full extent of known pollution. Environmental experts can test and study the groundwater to determine the scope, severity, and source of the pollution. When studies show the pollution was caused by oil and gas activities, then property owners can seek damages, including cleanup of the groundwater through a civil action. Legacy lawsuits can be settled for both monetary compensation and cleanup of the pollution. This requires a lawyer conversant with both oil field activities and the associated environmental damages.