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Don’t Drink the Water!

Part 8 of our “Frack This” series, examining the gas and water emergency in DeSoto Parish

Louisiana has an abundance of water, from her powerful rivers to her sleepy bayous; her lakes, swamps and marshlands; and even her average humidity in excess of 70%. We’re also blessed with a lavishness of rainfall – 60 inches a year, on average – second only to Hawaii.

That profusion of precipitation falls on the rich alluvial soil of the state (deposited over millennia by the flood and ebb of river waters), and percolates down into the subterranean sands of Louisiana’s aquifers, filtering and purifying the water as it moves downward into the underground rivers.

We dig wells and pump the freshwater up for our use in drinking, washing, flushing, and watering our flowers.

But in DeSoto Parish, where thousands of oil and gas wells punch through the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer to reach down into four different deeper oil and gas-bearing strata, that life-sustaining water source is now contaminated.

When I met with Louisiana Department of Natural Resources officials on August 23, I asked them about the drinking water supply in DeSoto Parish, and the status of the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer. I was told the Office of Public Health had recently sampled wells and water systems in the area, and reports were expected “shortly”.

Those reports are in.

Don’t drink the water.

The contamination of the aquifer is more widespread – and has been going on longer in the Bethany-Longstreet area – than state officials have been publicly acknowledging.

Three different state agencies have responsibility for permits and monitoring of drinking water, water wells, and the aquifers in Louisiana. The Department of Natural Resources issues and certifies the water well drilling permits; Louisiana’s Department of Health, Office of Public Health, tests public water wells and public and private water systems; and the Department of Environmental Quality monitors the aquifers. None of them seem to be communicating with each other overmuch, and therefore they’re not recognizing the extent of the contamination or officially aware they’re now faced with a major and massive crisis.

Previous articles in our “Frack This” series have documented the visible manifestations of the emergency from water-well blowouts to boiling ponds to off-the-charts readings of hazardous gases. We’ve also documented the efforts of DNR and its Office of Conservation to minimize concerns and public attention on these unnatural events, with their reassurances that “it’s all under control.”

Now the Office of Public Health has published the reports of the latest testing done on the eleven public water systems in DeSoto Parish, conducted from July through September. The info comes from their Louisiana Drinking Water Watch website.

Nine of DeSoto’s public water systems have elevated chloride levels, ranging from 50 times the allowable limit, to more than 2300 times the allowable limit. These two groups of disinfectant byproducts are haloacetic acids (HAA5) and total trihalomethanes (TTHM). Generally, when chlorine or chloramine is used to treat source water, it binds with organic and inorganic matter in the source water, forming compounds like bromoacetic acid, chloroacetic acid, and chloroform. The EPA standard for total haloacetic acids in drinking water is six – one hundreth of one microgram per liter (0.06 ug/L). For total trihalomethanes, it’s eight – one hundredth of one microgram per liter (0.08 ug/L)

Haloacetic acids are carcinogenic, and cause developmental and reproductive defects. Trihalomethanes are liver, kidney and neurotoxins, also cause developmental and reproductive defects, and are carcinogenic. The risk with TTHM isn’t just from ingestion. Because these are gases, they can also cause respiratory problems from inhalation and skin absorption during showering or bathing.

These systems in DeSoto Parish are providing their customers with drinking water containing as much – or more – chlorides as a swimming pool that’s just been “shocked”.

Higher than allowable levels of these chlorides have long been considered a symptom of the water system using too much disinfectant, though the literature on these contaminants also says it’s typical for levels to rise during the summer months, as water systems disinfect more heavily due to warmth-related growth of organics like algae. And all of these most recent tests on the DeSoto Parish water systems were conducted during the height of Louisiana’s oppressive summer heat.

But a study by American Chemical Society scientists from Duke University and Stanford University, and published in the September 2014 Environmental Science & Technology journal, says even .01 percent of fracking wastewater added to source water would create a 70-140% increase in TTHMs and HAA5.

Further study by Duke and Stanford University scientists, published June 2017 in the water research journal El Sevier, show that salinity in groundwater will also increase the formation of these disinfection byproducts.

One of the euphemisms for fracking wastewater is “brine”.

The EPA states: “When a public water system exceeds the maximum contamination level (MCLs) for both total trihalomethanes (TTHM) and haloacetic acids (HAA5), it must issue a public notice to inform consumers.”

An official with the Louisiana Department of Health has advised me that two of the water systems in DeSoto – Logansport and South DeSoto — have been issued violation notices for being out of compliance with safe drinking water standards. They, along with a third water system, Highway 513, had the highest readings of HAA5 and TTHM. But because Highway 513 had lower readings earlier in the year, they narrowly escaped a violation, since their annual average was still within the allowable limits.

These were the regularly scheduled water system tests. Until I spoke with this LDH official, they were unaware that there was any probable cause for concern, nor that there was any sort of problem brewing in DeSoto Parish.

What about the Keatchie Water System, which has a well near the nine-square-mile area that DNR has been focusing on as “ground zero” for the well problems?

In 2012, the water system was cited for violations of the HAA5/TTHM limits, and in 2013 was ordered to make an emergency connection to the DeSoto Parish Water Works. Though the system’s wells have been tested regularly since then, they have continued to exceed the HAA5/TTHM limits, resulting in continued major violations being issued, and the continuing requirement to provide water to their customers from a source other than their own wells.

What does Louisiana’s Department of Environmental Quality’s required monitoring of the entire Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer show? First, they only sample and test every three years, and they don’t test using the same wells each time. From 2006 to the present, five different wells in DeSoto Parish have been sampled – usually three each time – and those results have been combined with readings from nine other wells in the five other parishes that use water from this aquifer.

The last time DEQ did full test samples in DeSoto Parish was 2015. They are due to sample again before this year is over, and file the composite report next year. None of the water wells they have previously used for checking the aquifer are in the Bethany-Longstreet area.

What can be seen from the details provided in DEQ’s ASSET program reports is that the salinity levels, and specifically the sodium levels, in the Carrizo-Wilcox aquifer beneath DeSoto Parish have been increasing steadily since the advent of Haynesville Shale fracking activity in 2008. As far as this aquifer is from the Gulf of Mexico, it’s highly unlikely that this is the result of saltwater intrusion from that source.

And because the data for DEQ’s FY 2016 triennial report on the aquifers had not yet been posted on their new website, I had to specifically request the data from that agency. They provided it, and have now been informed of the “DeSoto Parish matter” – information which DNR has yet to officially share with them – or, apparently, with LDH.

Meanwhile, Shreveport TV station KTBS reported last Thursday (Oct. 11) that benzene has been found in “several water samples taken in the area that’s being investigated”, and that DNR has now notified “the Governor’s Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness, Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Health, and the DeSoto Parish Police Jury.”

DNR spokesman Patrick Courreges told KTBS, “You know we get pockets of gas in the aquifer here and there in North Louisiana…That’s just part of the geology. This is some deeper gas from several thousand feet down that’s made its way into the aquifer and charged a little area.”

That’s right – DNR is still maintaining that the problem is “confined” to this 9-square-mile area, but that they’re actually “dealing with an area much smaller than that.”

Further, Courreges told the TV station, “There’s no imminent threat of harm to the public.”

Sure.

Don’t drink the water.

Don’t shower or bathe in it.

And whatever you do, don’t light a match.

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