Waste Water From Fracking Pollutes Pennsylvania Watershed

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Waste water from fracking has contaminated a watershed in western Pennsylvania with radium, alkaline earth metals, salts, and organic chemicals. Some of the pollutants are associated with changes to the human endocrine system. Others are carcinogens.

fracking waste water studyCheap energy is an article of faith in US national and international policy considerations. Americans are determined to have abundant energy supplies at bargain basement prices even if it kills them — and it just might. Hydraulic fracturing — popularly known as fracking — is a technique used by the oil and gas industry to force reserves trapped deep underground to the surface. The technique involves injecting massive amounts of water under tremendous pressure into the ground to force the oil and gas out.

But what goes in is more than just water. Fracking companies can choose from a wide variety of chemicals they believe will expedite the process and produce more gas or oil.

Josh Fox, the producer of the 2010 movie Gasland, writes on his website,

“Fracking fluid is a toxic brew that consists of multiple chemicals. Industry can pick from a menu of up to 600 different kinds. Typically, 5 to 10 chemicals are used in a single frack job, but a well can be fracked multiple times, and each gas play consists of tens to hundreds of thousands of wells – driving up the number of chemicals ultimately used. Many fracking chemicals are protected from disclosure under trade secret exemptions. Studies of fracking waste have identified formaldehyde, acetic acids, and boric acids, among hundreds of others.”

According to the US Energy Information Agency, fracking now accounts for one half of US oil production and two thirds of natural gas production. In Pennsylvania alone, fracking produces about 1.7 billion gallons of polluted waste water every year. That effluent is treated, then released into the environment. But what is in the waste water is a closely guarded industry secret, made possible by the so-called Halliburton Rule rammed down the throats of the American public thanks to former vice president and oil company executive Dick Cheney.

Researchers at Penn State, Colorado State, and Dartmouth College wanted to quantify what impact that waste water has on the local watershed and so the team took core samples downstream from two waste water treatment plants in western Pennsylvania. The team, led by professor Bill Burgos, found elevated concentrations of radium, alkaline earth metals, salt,s and organic chemicals in the sediment samples. The fact that they were found in together in the same strata of the samples suggests they all came from the same source — waste water from fracking operations within the Marcellus Shale formation, which lies partly within western Pennsylvania.

The primary pollutants found were nonylphenol ethoxylates, which are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogens. The highest concentrations coincided with sediment layers deposited five to 10 years ago during a peak period of fracking wastewater disposal. Elevated levels of radium were also found as far as 12 miles downstream of the treatment plants.

Some may read this report and carp that the contaminated sediments were the result of activity a decade ago. But that misses the point. The harm done by fracking and other fossil fuel exploration may not be known for decades. Fracking is a direct threat to human health. Is cheap energy worth the harm it can cause to ourselves, our children, and future generations? For too many Americans, the answer is an enthusiastic “Yes!”

Source and graphic credit: American Chemical Society Journal via Science Daily

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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