Fracking’s wastewater issues and impacts on the horizon

Oct. 1, 2013

According to studies by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Marcellus shale is known to contain high levels of naturally occurring radioactivity made up of uranium, …

According to studies by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), the Marcellus shale is known to contain high levels of naturally occurring radioactivity made up of uranium, thorium and decay products, including radium-226 and other radioactive potassium isotopes. These contaminants are present not only in the flow back water often talked about, but also in the rock cuttings that will need to be properly disposed. It is estimated that each well produces about 4,000 cubic feet of rock cuttings that can be high in radioactivity. Additionally, consider the amount of wastewater generated from each well to be around 80,000 gallons.

Where does all this waste end up? Currently, Ohio is taking in over half of Pennsylvania’s waste — and also some of West Virginia’s — in addition to all the waste being generated from drilling operations within Ohio. Solid waste is currently being sent to one of 39 municipal landfills in Ohio and some others in the state of Pennsylvania. The problem is these municipal landfills are not equipped with proper radiation detection equipment for routine monitoring of incoming waste.

Testing for radioactivity

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, in 2012 radiation detectors went off 1,325 times, with over 1,000 of them being attributed to oil and gas waste. There were also instances in which trucks have been turned away from municipal sites due to extremely high radiation dose levels. There is no consistent testing being done on the waste accepted and the biggest concern is radium-226, which we suspect is present to some degree in this waste stream, is highly soluble in water and can leach into groundwater when exposed to rainwater.  

A new law being proposed in Ohio would require oil and gas companies to test for radioactivity on tons of solid waste, which sounds good in theory, but would allow waste streams with high levels to be mixed with other material to decrease the overall radioactive content. Does anyone remember the old saying “dilution is the solution to pollution”? It would be in the interest of public health to have an independent third-party conduct the testing, which would allow regulators better control over sampling techniques and testing methods.

As suspected, it all comes down to money, the cost of disposing this solid waste at a facility that is capable of properly handling low level radiological solid waste is nearly 85 times more expensive than just sending the waste to a municipal landfill. This adds up to huge disposal cost savings for the gas and oil companies.

Topic of interest

The wastewater generated from fracking has been a huge topic of interest with concerns about deep well injection and the ability of treatment plants to properly treat. The wastewater that flows back to the surface contains drilling fluids, which contain various chemicals and produced formation brines that can contain radioactive elements.

The Marcellus shale is known to contain higher levels of radioactivity than other shale formations. In New York, the Department of Environmental Conservation measured radium levels in flow back water from three counties and found some samples to be as high as 267 times higher than levels established for discharging back into the environment.

There are basically two ways to dispose of this hazardous waste, either by deep well injection or by having treatment plants treat waste and discharge it back into the environment.

Regardless of the hazards presented by this waste stream, Ohio laws allow this waste to be used on public roads for ice and dust control when approved by county commissioners, a board of township trustees or the legislative authority of a municipal authority. This is allowed to occur without any testing so this hazardous material may runoff into streams, rivers, ponds and lakes as well as slowly seep into the ground making its way into aquifers.  

More recently, due to rising costs and more regulations, gas and oil companies are looking at recycling options, which allow them to reuse this flow back water in other fracking operations.

Controversy over deep injection wells

There has been much controversy surrounding the topic of deep injection wells. The idea behind deep well injection is to take the wastewater and inject it thousands of feet underground — out of sight out of mind, right?

Not really, recent studies are indicating that in some instances this deep well injection is causing seismic activity. Another consideration is how much wastewater can be disposed of in these wells. The average depth of these wells is estimated to be 10,000 feet with a diameter of one foot; this means they can physically hold about 59,000 gallons of wastewater.  

In Ohio there are 190 injections wells, with an estimated capacity of 11.2 million gallons. Last year over 588 million gallons of wastewater was disposed of in Ohio’s injection wells. Where does the waste go in this case? It gets pushed further down and out where it could threaten drinking water sources, depending on a variety of factors, including the geology of the area and the presence of improperly constructed water wells. Improperly plugged wells that have been abandoned can also provide a pathway for contamination.  

The wells that are accepting oil and gas wastewater are classified as Class II wells, while Class IV wells are the only wells that are approved for accepting any type of radiological waste.

Using wastewater treatment plant for disposal

Finally, the last option for disposing of this wastewater is through the use of wastewater treatment plants. The traditional wastewater treatment plant has been designed to treat sewage water and other industrial water sources. In some cases this flow back water was hauled to these treatment facilities, which treated and then discharged the water into rivers where drinking water is also withdrawn.

It has been discovered that in some cases this treated water contained radioactive levels that were well above safe drinking water levels. In 2011 the state of Pennsylvania requested that drillers do not use these wastewater treatment plants for treating their waste streams due to concerns about public health. There has been evidence of some companies simply dumping this water down the sewer so the treatment plant is unknowingly getting water with higher levels of contamination.

Ohio has approved some treatment plants to specifically treat this waste stream, but there are still concerns about the levels of radiological present as well as the removal of radiological contaminants. Other concerns deal with the transportation of this waste either by truck, rain and, now being considered, barge. A treatment facility in West Virginia has plans to move this waste via barge in the Ohio River. This presents majors concerns because this river is a source of drinking water for many communities in three states and if an accident were to occur the results could be devastating. Currently, the coast guard must approve barges to carry this waste and so far have not.  

While the practice of hydraulic fracturing is not likely to go away, additional precautions should be considered to further protect public health. Less than three percent of the water in the world is considered fresh water, which is commonly used for drinking, and carelessly contaminating these sources because of profit can potentially affect the health of millions of people.

Radium, one of the most concerning radiological contaminants is very much like calcium and can accumulate in bones, which may eventually lead to leukemia. While there may not be immediate health effects, this type of exposure could affect many generations to come.

Marianne R. Metzger is GPG business manager for National Testing Laboratories Ltd.

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