You might even say it glows: The fracking wastewater edition


You’re probably familiar with the old saying, “Water, water everywhere — and not a drop to drink.” But when it comes to the hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater that have been produced in the explosion of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas from Pennsylvania to California, it’s much, much worse than that. Evidence is mounting that the wastewater that’s produced from fracking contains high levels of radioactivity — endangering not only the workers who handle it but millions of people downstream for where some of this dirty, dirty water has been disposed.

This is sad but not surprising. My first environmental cases — going back more than two decades — involved the radioactive contamination that was produced by conventional oil and gas drilling near the Gulf Coast. When drillers pull up oil and gas from deep under the earth, they also bring up radioactive material, which ends up contaminating the so-called produced water that’s siphoned off from these fossil fuels, as well as the so-called “scale” that lines the drilling pipes. Fracking is a newer technique that involves pumping massive quantities of water deep under the earth, to break apart shale underground and extract the pockets of natural gas that are trapped within them. Not surprisingly, this rock so far down is often highly radioactive, and so are the large quantities of wastewater that’s produced by the fracking process. That’s not all: Typically gas drillers have added toxic chemicals, even benzene, to the mix of fracking fluids. And the wastewater is also typically contaminated by compounds such as PAHs, or polycyclic aeromatic hydrocarbons.

Now, Shale Reporter has an in-depth report on what happens when someone is chronically exposed to this toxic and radioactive soup:

PORTAGE, Pa. — Randy Moyer said he hasn’t been able to work in 14 months.

He said he’s seen more than 40 doctors, has 10 prescriptions to his name and no less than eight inhalers stationed around his apartment.

Moyer said he began transporting brine, the wastewater from gas wells that have been hydraulically fractured, for a small hauling company in August 2011.

He trucked brine from wells to treatment plants and back to wells, and sometimes cleaned out the storage tanks used to hold wastewater on drilling sites.

By November 2011, the 49-year-old trucker said he was too ill to work, suffering from dizziness, blurred vision, headaches, difficulty breathing, swollen lips and appendages, and a fiery red rash that covered about 50 percent of his body.

Unfortunately, that’s not surprising when you delve into the science of fracking wastewater. Indeed, it’s hard to know without detailed testing what exacly made Moyer so sick. But the Shale Reporter article spells out the worrisome link between fracking in the Marcellus Shale — centered on Pennsylvania and some of its neighboring states — and radioactivity.

As the article notes, the “flowback” — the excess water from the fracking process — can be highly radioactive in this region. One significant geological study found that wastewater from unconventional wells in Pennsylvania and conventional wells in New York was 3,609 times more radioactive than the federal limit for drinking water and 300 times more radioactive than a Nuclear Regulatory Commission limit for nuclear plant discharges. Other studies have shown levels of barium and radium much higher than allowable limits. And here’s the scary part: Pennsylvania has been producing this kind of wastewater at a rate of nearly 500 million gallons a year — and that’s just the quantities that they report.

Where does it go? Some of it gets re-fracked, some of it gets disposed of in injection wells, and as been reported over the last couple of years — some of it has ended up in conventional sewage treatment plants, feeding into streams and rivers that provide drinking water.

Here’s another story that broke this weekend and which should be a cause for alarm:

Should a Texas company be allowed to ship fracking wastewater by barge up the Ohio River prior to disposal? The company says yes. Environmental groups say no. The U.S. Coast Guard, which has final authority over river cargo, says it is investigating.

The proposal to ship fracking wastewater, also called brine, on the Ohio River has been in the works since last June, according to the Columbus Dispatch. A company called GreenHunter Water, based in Texas, recently acquired three massive liquid-storage tanks along the Ohio River that could be used as a transfer station between fracking sites and disposal wells. According to the Dispatch, there is a fracking boom in Ohio right now.

Some of you may recall that it was just last week that we had a major barge accident on the Mississippi, which resulted in a mid-sized oil spill and also shut down river traffic for a couple of days. That was an unfortunate event, indeed — but just imagine the outcry if a barge crashed and spilled millions of gallons of radioactive water into a major river.

Once again, we see how the whole approach to the natural gas boom in America has been to frack first, ask questions later. Thousands of wells have been drilled — not just in Pennsylvania but in every region of the country — before basic environmental questions were asked or answered. Prime example: How much waste will be produced, how dangerous will it be, and where are we going to put it? Government needs to put the brakes on fracking — until we learn how to do right. It’s the least we can do for folks like Randy Moyer.

Please read the extensive Shale Reporter article about fracking wastewater:

To find out more about the plan to barge wastewater on major rivers such as the Ohio, check out:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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