Flammable Water: Why the United States is still involved in the Water Quality Debate

Written by Isabel Rummel, ESLLC 2015-2016

Water in our world is becoming an endangered resource, especially in Colorado, but when we think of water quality issues we become disassociated. Waterborne disease, pollution, and environmental injustice to communities happens to other people, in far off countries, with much worse-off infrastructure than the US. In reality, however, water resource damage is a historical and present issue in the US that needs to be addressed. Hydraulic fracturing is one of the most pressing water quality issues in the United States today.

But first, a story:


A river on fire:

The United States has a long and tangled history with flammable water. Before the advent of cars, the oil and kerosene industry in the US was booming and almost wholly unregulated by the government. The bi-product of producing this kerosene is gasoline, a commodity in our market today, which was tossed into local rivers and streams, making waters extremely flammable. As a result, river fires like this one were common.

This is a picture of the Cuyahoga River Fire in 1969 Ohio, deemed the last river fire in United States history. It was started by sparks from a nearby train, lighting gasoline-soaked debris and the layer of thick oil-sludge that layered the top of the water. Most localities, like Cleveland which borders the Cuyahoga River, took precautions to account for these fires, keeping fire-boats on hand and building houses far from the banks to prevent damage. This was the modus operandi for decades, until Nixon passed the Clean Water Act in 1972 and conservation projects began to emerge.

Today the Cuyahoga River is still not top-notch for swimming or drinking from, but it has much improved. By 1989, the Cuyahoga River Conservation Project cleaned it up enough to be deemed ‘unflammable’, and projects have improved it from there.

Though they come from a new source, we still see flammable water today:


Hydraulic fracturing poses a serious water quality issue in the US and the world. It contaminates groundwater and spills into river/stream ecosystems, causing damage along the way. Though there is controversy about whether or not there is contamination from fracking companies, it is hard to refute when seeing the people who are affected in pictures like those above, or watching documentaries like this one.

In Colorado alone, a state that has numerous water quantity concerns, there are 4.7 million acres of federal (BLM) land used for oil drilling, where 95% of new wells employ hydraulic fracturing to get at hard-to-reach natural gas. Instead of polluting drinking water sources with gas, they are polluting drinking water sources to get to gas.


So what is hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and why is it so bad?

Hydraulic fracturing is horizontal drilling into deep shale regions of the earth. Once a pipe is sent as far down as possible, water mixed with a variety of known carcinogens like Benzene, Methanol, and Diesel Fuel is pumped at high pressures into the pipe, causing it to break the rock around it and release trapped gas up the pipe to be used. It is a major issue because of a few things. For one thing, it uses an enormous amount of water – enough to provide drinking water for 65 million people for one day – and contaminates all of it, rendering it unusable for years. Water treatment plants do not even have the capability of making used fracking water potable. Another reason it is a dangerous method is that it has the risk of contaminating freshwater sources used for drinking, agriculture, and other needed things. Because the process of breaking underground rocks is unpredictable and unmanageable, water and fracking fluid often contaminate common groundwater sources, which in turn can pollute surface lakes and streams. This is why people who live near fracking sites can light their water on fire.

The cleanup effort of the Cuyahoga River was due largely to the Clean Water Act of 1972 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, along with other protections such as CERCLA (Superfund 1980) and the National Environmental Policy Act off 1969. But issues today, like fracking, have found loopholes in these that prevent them from being addressed. For instance, the Federal Energy Policy Act of 2005 enacted by President George Bush, exempts natural gas drilling and extraction from the UIC (underground injection control) program of the Safe Drinking Water Act, allowing companies like Haliburton and Chevron to inject whatever chemicals they want into the ground with no regulation. Just as industry along the Cuyahoga River in 1969 was unregulated, so is the oil and gas industry, and both lead to fire.

Watch Bill Nye on Fracking:


Full-length ‘Gasland’ Documentary by Joshua Fox


Peter Dea lightly sipping his ‘cocktail’ of fracking fluid… “a little sandy”


Naomi Klein TED talk “Addicted to Risk”


“Reflections on Water and Oil” – A eco-critical perspective on oil in our society



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s