The release of “treated” wastewater from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations in Pennsylvania has led to regional watersheds being contaminated with radioactive materials, endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and heavy metals, according to a new study from researchers at Penn State, Colorado State, and Dartmouth.
To be more specific, the analysis of sediments and porewaters from a lake downstream from two facilities that treat fracking wastewater in Pennsylvania led to the detection of highly elevated levels of radium, alkaline earth metals, salts, and organic chemicals — all of which reach peak concentrations in the same sediment layer. This sediment layer of peak concentrations correlates with a local peak of fracking wastewater disposal between 5 and 10 years ago.
Here’s more, from the press release: “The researchers sampled sediments and porewaters from a lake downstream from two facilities that treat fracking wastewater in Pennsylvania. Their analysis detected that peak concentrations of radium, alkaline earth metals, salts and organic chemicals all occurred in the same sediment layer. The two major classes of organic contaminants included nonylphenol ethoxylates, which are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogens. The highest concentrations coincided with sediment layers deposited 5 to 10 years ago during a peak period of fracking wastewater disposal.”
Notably, elevated levels of radium were found as far as 12 miles downstream from the treatment plants. It’s not completely clear what effect the elevated levels of radium, and also the above mentioned chemicals, will have on human health — particularly over the long term — but the researchers note that it might be prudent to tighten wastewater disposal regulations.
To provide a better understanding of the scale of fracking wastewater disposal in Pennsylvania, I’ll draw attention here to a 2015 report that estimated that the 10,000 unconventional oil and gas wells operating in the Marcellus Shale around that time produced around 1.7 billion gallons of wastewater a year.
That wastewater is being released into the environment with only very minimal treatment beforehand.
The findings of the new study are detailed in a paper published in the ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology.