The boom in unconventional drilling for natural gas known as fracking hit so fast that scientists have had to scramble to determine whether it’s safe for humans and the environment. Mostly they’re still trying to catch up.
But a study by the U.S. Geological Survey appears to have answered a critical question about the millions of gallons of chemical-laced water that are injected into the wells to fracture rocks and release trapped gas. Is there any cause for concern when that water is stored later, whether in treatment facilities or special underground wells?
The short answer is yes, said the study’s lead author, Denise Akob, a USGS microbiologist.
“The key take away,” said Akob, who led a team of researchers from Duke University and the University of Missouri in studying a stream near a wastewater storage site in Lochgelly, W.Va., “is really that we’re demonstrating that facilities like this can have an environmental impact.”
Upstream from the storage tanks, the waters of Wolf Creek tested normal. Downstream, there were detectable levels of chemicals that commonly lace fracking waste — barium, bromide, calcium, chloride, sodium, lithium, strontium. The report called the levels low, not enough to have a noticeable impact on marine life. But they did appear to have an effect on something that could be equally important.
Communities of microbes that help support life were dramatically altered downstream. There was a lower diversity of the life forms downstream, “which could impact nutrient cycling,” a building block of life in the creek, the USGS explained in a statement that announced the study.
“Water samples adjacent to and downstream from the disposal facility exhibited evidence of endocrine disruption activity compared to upstream samples,” the USGS explained. Long story short, endocrine disruptors can wreak havoc on the hormones of mammals. In the Chesapeake Bay watershed that includes bays, rivers, streams and creeks in six states and the District of Columbia, scientists have determined that endocrine disruptors have switched the testes of male smallmouth bass to ovaries.
The finding about the microbes “gives us a sense that the communities are changing downstream,” Akob said. How exactly they don’t know. Science works slowly, and in this case it will likely take another years-long study to determine how. The current finding that the water chemistry is changing “is a first,” she said, opening a window of understanding where there was none.
Hydraulic fracturing is rife in West Virginia, producing hundreds of millions of gallons of wastewater. In the Chesapeake Bay area, Pennsylvania is another state where fracking abounds, with wells being built to drill vertically a few hundred feet, then horizontally so that water can be injected into the hole to break apart shale and release gas. The practice is also widespread in Ohio, Texas, Wyoming, Oklahoma, North Dakota and elsewhere.
Scientists from across a range of federal agencies and universities are concerned about the chemical mixtures used to open the rock as well as the chemicals naturally trapped underground that now come to the surface. Oil and gas companies have refused to reveal what they use, saying the information is proprietary, like the secret ingredients used to make sodas. For that reason and others, Maryland, New York, New Jersey and numerous other states have either placed a moratorium on fracking or delayed it from ever taking place within their borders.
On its website, the Environmental Protection Agency lays out its concern. Unconventional oil and gas extraction, or UOG, “can be generated in large quantities and contain constituents that are potentially harmful to human health and the environment,” it says. “Wastewater from UOG wells often contains high concentrations of salt content, also called total dissolved solids. The wastewater can also contain various organic chemicals, inorganic chemicals, metals, and naturally occurring radioactive materials. This potentially harmful wastewater creates a need for appropriate wastewater management infrastructure and practices.”
Oil companies are aware of the concern. They often truck water to public and private wastewater treatment facilities to manage the problem. In Oklahoma, the wastewater is sometimes poured into underground storage wells, a practice thought by many scientists to produce small earthquakes.
At the West Virginia site, Akob and her researchers did not know where leaks might have occurred. They also found elevated levels of iron considered unsafe by West Virginia regulators, but that problem couldn’t be blamed on the wastewater because various mine excavations in the state have raised iron levels in many locations.
“The main thing is there are aquatic health guidelines for a single element” such as iron, Akob said. But the complex chemical mixtures produced by fracking “can have different responses.”
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