News Feature | October 8, 2013

Study Finds Radioactive Fracking Water In Stream

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome
@sarmje

frackingRegular

Now there's even more information for fracking proponents and environmentalists to disagree on.

For a quick reminder, fracking (or hydraulic fracturing) is the process of withdrawing natural gas from shale rock layers within the earth. It is of particular interest to the water sector because of its byproducts. "The shale is hydraulically fractured with water and other fracking fluids," according to the pro-fracking site Energy From Shale. That means wastewater is leftover at the end. Currently, there is an energetic debate about the dangers of that water and how to clean it.

New research from Duke University adds more fodder to the debate. A two-year study examined the water in a stream not far from a fracking location. The treatment plant was the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility on Blacklick Creek.

The findings were not flattering.

"Their analyses, made on water samples collected repeatedly over the course of two years, were even more concerning than we’d feared," Smithsonian reported. "They found high concentrations of the element radium, a highly radioactive substance. The concentrations were roughly 200 times higher than background levels. In addition, amounts of chloride and bromide in the water were two to ten times greater than normal."

How bad is that?

Avner Vengosh, an earth scientist from Duke, did not beat around the bush: "“Even if, today, you completely stopped disposal of the wastewater, there’s enough contamination built up that you’d still end up with a place that the U.S. would consider a radioactive waste site.”

When it comes to fracking, the water sector is taking a keen interest in the dirty water that comes up during the process. "Between 10 and 40 percent of fluid sent down during fracking resurfaces, carrying contaminants with it. Some of these contaminants may be present in the fracking water to begin with. But others are leached into the fracking water from groundwater trapped in the rock it fractures," the report said.

Federal standards for cleaning up fracking wastewater do not exist. The EPA says: "No comprehensive set of national standards exists at this time for the disposal of wastewater discharged from natural gas extraction activities. As a result, some shale gas wastewater is transported to treatment plants (publicly owned treatment works or private centralized waste treatment facilities, many of which are not properly equipped to treat this type of wastewater."

It is not impossible to treat fracking wastewater, but wastewater plants may not be ready yet. As one environmental group, the Catskill Mountainkeeper, put it: "Theoretically, this toxic cocktail [of wastewater] could be treated at treatment facilities assuming these plants were properly equipped to remove these chemicals and radioactivity, however, there are few if any plants that currently have the technology to do this."

What does the other side say? Pro-fracking voices stress the economic viability of this process and note its potential for alleviating the energy crunch. They also argue that the process is safe and that infrastructure barricades the environment from any harmful materials that may arise.

"Wells are built with at least four layers of steel casing and concrete and are cemented in place, creating a solid divider between gas production and any fresh-water aquifers," according to a Power Electronics article debunking "myths" about fracking.

As former Energy Secretary Steven Chu said, “We believe it’s possible to extract shale gas in a way that protects the water, that protects people’s health. We can do this safely.”

For more from Water Online about fracking, click here.

Image credit: "Wisconsin Frac Sand #1," © 2012 Carol Mitchell, used under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/deed.en