FACT SHEET: Environmental and Health Concerns About Oil and Gas Spills After Hurricane Harvey

Pollution Concerns with Oil and Gas Wells

An oil or gas well operating in normal conditions produces water in addition to oil and/or gas. The water comes from naturally occurring formations deep underground, and may be mixed with the targeted fossil fuel. As oil or gas is pumped from the ground, water also comes to the surface. That water is known as “produced water” and is too dirty to be released to surface waterways. This wastewater is typically stored at the well site in large tanks or open pits and is periodically trucked away, usually to be injected into deep underground disposal wells.

During extreme weather events, like we saw with Hurricane Harvey, wastewater storage tanks can be damaged or even float away, while open pits can flood, mixing wastewater into the floodwater.

Produced water can contain salt (which is why the produced water sometimes is called brine), naturally occurring radiation, and other naturally occurring contaminants like heavy metals.1 If the well has been fracked, the water that comes to the surface will also contain fracking chemicals (with the highest concentration of those chemicals in the first few weeks of the well’s operation).

Environmental Impacts of Spills

Wastewater spills can cause environmental damage.Produced water is known to contain 83 different toxic chemicals.2 If produced water spills into the public water supply, these contaminants could threaten human health. Additionally, the high level of salinity has been found to harm soil health.3 

  • In normal circumstances, the salt levels in produced water can kill all vegetation and prevent its regrowth,4 while spills into waterways can kill fish.5 For example, a 2012 spill of 3,000 gallons of oil wastewater north of Dallas killed trees in a wildlife refuge.6 
  • We also know that oil and produced water will travel far and wide. In one post-Harvey spill, the Railroad Commission reported: “Oil stains are visible in trees 10-feet above ground level at a site about one-half mile from the location pad.”7 

Health Concerns from Oil, Gas and Wastewater Spills

While it is unknown exactly how much oil and produced water can be found in the floodwaters of Houston, there are health concerns for anyone who was exposed to the flooding or who is involved in the cleanup process. Currently, the Houston Chronicle and other outlets are reporting that residents in Houston are experiencing skin infections, itchiness, and coughing problems after exposure to floodwaters. Skin irritation and respiratory problems are common symptoms following exposure to oil and wastewater spills.8

Exposure to spilled oil is associated with health effects, such as headaches and dizziness.9 The chemicals in oil can affect the central nervous system, skin, eyes, and respiratory system. Researchers studying people living in the vicinity of past oil spills have found consistent evidence of acute toxic effects. These effects include neurological damage, eye irritation and damage, and respiratory or breathing problems among exposed residents.10

Poor Reporting Means Gaps in Knowledge

Unfortunately, we cannot know the extent of produced water spills since Texas does not require well operators to disclose them.11 In the aftermath of Harvey, most produced water spills have been reported in conjunction with oil spill reporting, which is mandatory, and we likely don’t know about all of the wastewater spills that have happened.

The following is a list of spills from the Railroad Commission, as of September 6, 2017. We will continue to update the list as we gain more information.

Preventing Future Impacts: Policy Recommendations

The only way to truly prevent future spills of oil, gas and drilling-related wastewater would be to transition away from fossil fuels toward a clean energy future. In the meantime, there are steps Texas can take to prevent future spills and limit damage.

Colorado faced similar threats in September 2013, when heavy rain and flooding caused 43,478 gallons of produced water and 48,250 gallons of oil and fracking condensate to spill.12 After the flooding subsided, the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission inspected the damage and identified best practices for the future. The Commission eventually passed new regulations, including requirements that:

  • All new wells in floodplains can be shut-off remotely, and 
  • All wells be retrofitted with containment berms on steel rings that can contain spills.13 

Another way to minimize damage is to keep wells out of floodplains, and to mandate a substantial buffer between oil and gas drilling sites and bodies of water, as well as homes and development. Banning the use of open-air pits for wastewater storage would also improve safety.

In order to address ongoing safety concerns associated with floodwater cleanup, the state and federal government must fund monitoring activities so that residents and first responders know what chemicals and risks that they are being exposed to during this process.

Furthermore, the state should improve reporting requirements so the public knows which chemicals are being used in drilling operations and knows when wastewater spills occur.


For More Information, Contact:

Luke Metzger, Environment Texas Director: 512-743-8257

Kara Cook-Schultz, TexPIRG Toxics Director: 405-613-0970

Elizabeth Ridlington, Frontier Group Policy Analyst: 707-546-1913

Factsheet produced by Environment Texas, TexPIRG, and Frontier Group, which are members of The Public Interest Network.


1. Mike Soraghan, “Wastewater Spills Untracked in Texas, Masking Pollution,” Energy and Environment News, 18 November 2015, www.eenews.net/stories/1060028166

2. Lindsey Konkel, “Salting the Earth: The Environmental Impact of Oil and Gas Wastewater Spills,” Environmental Health Perspectives, December 2016.

3. Ibid.

4. Mike Soraghan, “In Texas, Wastewater Spills Get Less Scrutiny,” Energy and Environment News, 2 August 2016, www.eenews.net/energywire/stories/1060041056

5. John Flesher, Associated Press, “Fatal Flow: Brine from Oil, Gas Drilling Fouls Land, Kills Wildlife at Alarming Rate,” The Dallas Morning News, October 2015, dallasnews. com/news/news/2015/10/24/fatal-flow-brine-from-oil-gas-drilling-fouls-land-kills-wildlife-at-alarming-rate

6. See Note 1.

7. Fayette County - Vaclavik Unit (22772) Lease, Well No. 1, reported September 5, 2017.

8. BS Levy, et al., “The adverse health effects of oil spills: a review of the literature and a framework for medically evaluating exposed individuals,” Journal of Toxicological and Environmental Health, April 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21618948

9. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, ToxFAQs for Total Petroleum Hydrocarbons, August 1999, available at www.atsdr.cdc.gov/toxfaqs/TF.asp?id=423&tid=75

10. B. Laffon, et al., “Effects of exposure to oil spills on human health: Updated review,” Journal of Toxicological and Environmental Health, May 2016, https://www.ncbi. nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27221976

11. See Note 1, and Nichole Saunders, Environmental Defense Fund, “Report Identifies Ways to Reduce Water Contamination from Oil and Gas Development in Texas,” 20 June 20, blogs.edf.org/texascleanairmatters/2017/06/20/report-identifies-ways-to-reduce-water-contamination-from-oil-and-gas-development-in-texas

12. Matthew Lepore, Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, “Lessons Learned” in the Front Range Flood of September 2013, 14 March 2014

13. Bruce Finley, “Colorado Adopts Rules for Oil and Gas Operations in Flood Zones,” The Denver Post, 2 March 2015, www.denverpost.com/2015/03/02/colorado-adoptsrules-for-oil-and-gas-opera...