If you’ve never heard of Blackside dace before, now’s your chance. Blackside dace is a federally listed threatened species of minnow found only in the Cumberland Basin part of Tennessee and Kentucky. We suddenly find them quite interesting because the US Geological Survey has partnered with the Fish and Wildlife Service in a newly released report that cites a fracking wastewater spill in Kentucky’s Acorn Fork as the probable cause of a mass die-off of Blackside dace and other species back in 2007.
The report is significant because, although it doesn’t get to the 100 percent certainty point, its degree of near certainty is quite an achievement given that a gaping trade secrets loophole makes fracking related water contamination almost impossible to prove.
The Acorn Fork Fracking Episode
The Acorn Fork fracking wastewater report appears in the latest special issue of the in peer-reviewed journal Southeastern Naturalist. It details an episode in which fracking waste fluid from operations at four wells overflowed retention pits and spilled into Acorn Fork, which is on Kentucky’s list of Outstanding State Resource Waters. Among other chemicals the fluid contained hydrochloric acid, dissolved minerals, and metals.
The result was a precipitous drop in pH and an increase in conductivity (conductivity refers to the electrical current in water, which affects the health of aquatic organisms), accounting for a “significant die-off” of Blackside dace along with more common species including the Creek chub and Green sunfish.
In addition to examining water samples, the investigators gathered evidence from fish sampled after the episode. The observations included gill lesions consistent with exposure to low pH and high concentrations of heavy metals, along with uptake of aluminum and iron that was consistent with waterborne concentrations, leading investigators to conclude that “the abrupt and persistent changes in post-fracking water quality resulted in toxic conditions that could have been deleterious to Blackside Dace health and survival.”
The Elusive Fracking Water Contamination Issue
Until now, most water contamination issues related to fracking have dealt with the operation itself, which involves pumping a chemical brine deep underground to shake methane gas loose from shale deposits. However, tracing the contamination back to its source has been difficult if not impossible. There are no federal laws requiring the industry to disclose the ingredients in fracking brine, though under the Obama Administration the US EPA has been slowly but steadily developing an information platform.
The new study underscores an important secondary issue, which is water contamination related to the storage and disposal of wastewater from fracking operations. Aside from the deliberate illegal dumping of fracking wastewater, the conventional open lagoon storage method lends itself to some obvious environmental hazards including leakage and overflows.
Let’s also note for the record that earthquakes have been traced to the common (and legal) disposal practice of injecting fracking wastewater into inactive wells.
Bad (Or Good) Timing On That Fracking Report
This is most likely a total coincidence, but the Acorn Fork report comes as the Bureau of Land Management considers new regulations for fracking on public lands. It also follows close on the heels of another problematic report for the fracking industry, in the form of public comments that the National Park Service submitted to BLM regarding the need for a more rigorous assessment of the impact of impact of fracking operations.
In a nutshell, NPS was satisfied with the methodology for addressing water resource impacts, but argued that the proposed regulations also need to address air resource issues as well as impacts to wildlife especially threatened and endangered species, cultural resources, visual resources, and recreation.
Regarding air resources, NPS focused on the management of stray methane gas from drilling sites and the impact of these “fugitive emissions” on climate change. The problem is that although natural gas is touted as a “cleaner” fuel than, say, coal in terms of greenhouse gas emissions when burned, that advantage could be canceled out by the amount of gas released into the atmosphere during other parts of the lifecycle including drilling, transportation and storage.
The NPS comments solicited howls of outrage from the industry, as chronicled by our friends over at thehill.com (the article includes a handy link to a pdf of the NPS comments, btw). The Hill’s Ben Gemen reports that in particular, the Independent Petroleum Association of America complained that the NPS was “out of step” with other federal agencies.
That’s not entirely true, though. While not a definitive study, a recent NOAA survey of fugitive emissions at one Colorado gas field indicate that in terms of sustainable fuels of the future, fracking might not be all it’s cracked up to be. Last time we checked, NOAA was a federal agency.