For the fifth week since the blowout began, a large flare is still burning at the site of GEP Haynesville, LLC’s blown out fracked gas wells in northwestern Louisiana. The blowout occurred on August 30, shortly after the company began a frack job, igniting two adjacent wells. A state official estimated that efforts to contain the blowout could take another two months, or more.
The flare has gone out at times, resulting in fluid from the well, including what the oil and gas industry calls “produced water,” spreading a mist into the sky over a mile away, alarming nearby residents.
[UPDATE: Patrick Courreges, communications director for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources (LDNR), told DeSmog via email on October 8: “Both blowout wells killed – no longer flowing,” however, work is still underway to kill them permanently.]
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“Once out, saltwater and whatever else was shooting out into the sky,” a resident, who asked to not be named, told DeSmog. “It would come back down, making a heavy fog, killing lots of trees, and getting on everything.” The resident said the fog persisted for four days and caused irritation and burning in the eyes and any open wounds when outside for more than a few minutes.
“The produced water/liquid is steam and water from the formation,” Greg Langley, spokesperson for the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ), told me. “The mist is saltwater.”
Produced water is a byproduct of oil and gas drilling and can contain salts, “oil residues, sand or mud, naturally occurring radioactive materials, chemicals from frac fluids, bacteria, and dissolved organic compounds,” according to the American Geosciences Institute.
State Monitoring the Air and Water
When asked if the mist or emissions from the blowout are a health risk to those nearby, Langley replied that LDEQ has performed air monitoring at the wells and in the surrounding community since the blow-out began. All readings have been normal or at non-detectable levels for volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and others. Langley also confirmed that “water sampling is ongoing in the watershed.”
Residents have not been warned about any potential environmental or health impacts from the blowout, according to the unnamed resident, who reached out to DeSmog.
“I absolutely have issue with residents being told there is nothing to worry about,” Melissa Troutman, from the advocacy group Earthworks, told DeSmog. “If this blowout had been handled justly and responsibly, residents would have been given a full report of what produced water contains and alternative housing during cleanup.”
“This is an industry that doesn’t have to disclose the toxic chemicals it uses or manage its hazardous waste as hazardous because of special exemptions from laws that the rest of us have to follow,” she added.
What Is in Produced Water?
“Produced water contains radioactive materials, including the carcinogen radium, as well as heavy metals and undisclosed chemicals that are used in the drilling and fracking processes,” Troutman said. She warned that “studies show oil and gas wastewater contains over a thousand chemicals, most of which have no toxicological hazard data, and in vitro testing on oil and gas wastewater has found hormone disruption, other endocrine related effects, and genetic mutation.”
Courreges gave further context to DeSmog.
“Produced water is simply water that comes up with oil and gas from deep underground, where the water and hydrocarbons have usually been trapped together for millions of years,” he said. “Produced water can contain any number of contaminants, but in general the main concerns are the extreme concentration of salt and the presence of hydrocarbons that may be mixed in with the water.”
LDEQ downplayed concerns about the possible contents of produced water.
The agency told DeSmog that, based on its experience with produced water in this gas field, it does not expect heavy metals, radioactive elements, or chemical additives such as benzene “to be present in significant quantities” in the produced water coming out of these gas wells. This presumably means the agency is not testing for those compounds.
“Benzene is a volatile and will evaporate quickly, means it off gasses into the air where people and animals breathe it,” Sharon Wilson, with Earthwork, said in response to LDEQ’s statement. “There is no safe level of benzene exposure.”
Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell emeritus scientist and engineer whose research first suggested the methane leaks from fracked gas could make it worse for the climate than coal, also thinks residents nearby should have been warned about the potential health risks from the blowout.
“In my experience it has been a knee jerk reaction in almost every circumstance. Regulators first issue statements [that] protect the operator,” said Ingraffea, who is on the board of Earthworks. He cited the Aliso Canyon disaster in Southern California, where a natural gas storage facility suffered a catastrophic and months’ long blowout. At first the public was also told not to be concerned, but later thousands of homes were evacuated.
Getting the Blowout Under Control
Drone video shot on October 1 shows that Blowout Engineers, the contractor trying to close in the leaking gas wells, has established some control over them, while work on a relief well began nearby.
“The current effort is focused on the attempt to fully kill the wells at [the] surface, which is the fastest way to stop the blowout if it can be done safely,” Courreges told DeSmog. “At the same time, work has begun on intercept wells to kill the blowout wells at depth. That is Plan B, but because it is more time-consuming, that effort has been begun before we know if [the] surface kill plan will work.”
He added that keeping the flare lit until the well can be shut in is considered the best option.
“From the safety perspective it is far better to have the methane burned off in a controlled manner rather than take chance that wind or other factors could push a flammable amount of methane into the work site and endanger the workers with additional risk of fire or explosion,” Courreges said. “As to the environmental concern, the main byproducts of the burning of methane are CO2 and water, and while CO2 is certainly a concern as a greenhouse gas, methane is far more potent.”
“Blowouts are rare,” Ingraffea pointed out. He described them as “low probability events with high impact results.” Though this natural gas blowout isn’t as devastating as BP’s 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil blowout in the Gulf of Mexico or the 2015 Aliso Canyon natural gas blowout, if the only way to shut in the well requires drilling a relief well, “you’re literally threading a needle underground,” he said.
“A long-term blowout like what is happening there has significant environmental impacts,” Ingraffea told DeSmog. “You’re either exhausting into the atmosphere unburned hydrocarbons or you’re burning hydrocarbons in the atmosphere. In both circumstances you’re causing the emission of significant greenhouse gases over a long period of time that were unexpected,” and not included in estimates of globe-warming emissions.
When the relief well drilling operation would be complete remains unclear.
“There can always be nasty surprises when trying to do complex and precise drilling,” Courreges explained. He could only offer a rough estimate “into late November at the earliest.”
LDNR assured DeSmog that the agency will look into specific compliance issues or potential penalties for those involved in the incident but not until after the cause of the initial blowout has been determined. LDEQ also plans to evaluate the long-term environmental impact once the blown-out well is shut in. Meanwhile, some of the people who live closest to the site are watching trees nearby die and are starting to look at legal options.