Pennsylvania

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Study: Treated fracking wastewater could still threaten drinking water

A worker collects a water sample at a natural gas wastewater recycling plant in Susquehanna County.

Susan Phillips / StateImpact Pennsylvania

A worker collects a water sample at a natural gas wastewater recycling plant in Susquehanna County. At this facility, the wastewater reused in oil and gas drilling, and the solids that contain salts are sent to a landfill.

A new study shows how treated wastewater from oil and gas operations, when discharged into rivers and streams that travel toward drinking water intakes, can produce dangerous toxins. The research confirms what scientists have been warning about for some time. The high concentrations of salty brine, which flows up from deep underground once a well is fracked, are difficult to remove from the wastewater without the aid of an expensive technique called reverse osmosis or a cheaper method known as thermal distillation. If the wastewater is treated conventionally, which does not remove the bromides, chlorides or iodides, then it can be combined with chlorine at a drinking water facility, and create carcinogens such as bromines and iodines.

The peer-reviewed research was published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, and conducted by a team from both Duke University and Stanford University. Researchers from Duke University, who recently published a study on the impact of faulty well casings, had water samples from Pennsylvania and Arkansas frack sites, which they shared with the Stanford researchers. In the lab the researchers diluted the fracking wastewater with water samples from the Allegheny and Ohio rivers. What they found was that just .01 percent per volume of fracking wastewater, when combined with the disinfectant chlorine used by drinking water facilities, created trihalomethanes. The EPA limits the amount of these compounds in drinking water because of their link to kidney, liver and bladder cancer.

The low level of dilution that created the toxic compounds surprised the researchers. “The drinking water facilities should be aware of this,” said Bill Mitch, a lead researcher on the study and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University. “You need a lot of dilution to make these discharges no longer matter.”

In 2011 the Department of Environmental Protection asked Marcellus Shale drillers to voluntarily stop sending their wastewater to conventional treatment facilities. The industry group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition pledged to stop. It’s unclear whether or not all of them are still complying with that request. The Department of Environmental Protection did not respond to our questions. But Mitch says that even if all of the Marcellus Shale drillers have stopped using these facilities, wastewater from the smaller, conventional drillers could still have the same impact.

Comments

  • AlSever

    Who are these “Experts”? The Frac water is no worst than discharges from Pharmaceutical plants or from Landfills. Salt is a fact of life. Why are we NOT dying from the vast tons of salt put on highways each winter that wasghes into our water supplies? Try reading the Pennsylvania Bulletin for PERMITTED effluent limits from other industries and you will find many wastewaters being discharged that are similar to Frac Wastewater.

    • BobSchmetzer

      PenDot said coal ash put on roads is toxic. The black shales are Uranium veins that decay and vent radon gas. The second highest cause of lung cancer. Do you trust the government for everything ?

      • AlSever

        There are hundreds of drinking water wells drilled in the Marcellus shale in Montour, Union, & Lycoming Counties. Private water wells are not regulated and no one checks what contaminants are present except for Fecal Coliform.
        Use a wood stove? Read about the Radiation levels of wood ash in the August 10, 1991 issue of Science News.

        • BobSchmetzer

          Read the New York times, about the radioactivity levels from fracked wells. Radium 226 & 228. Benzene which is forbidden. Marcellus and other black shale’s are uranium. The radioactivity is dangerous and being ignored. Brine is a carrier of the radioactive alpha, Beta, and Gamma rays. Quit acting as if we have another planet to go to.

          • AlSever

            As long as we still pay taxes to build Nukes , I’m not worried about a little natural radioactivity. Sooner or later, someone is going to push the buttons. Maybe Nuclear Winter will negate Climate Change.

          • BobSchmetzer

            Avoiding the dangers will not make them go away. Downplaying the threat to human health will only promote business for hospitals and funeral homes. Do you work for either ?

          • AlSever

            Nope–worked for 35 years as an Engineer for Pa Dep. Wrote hundreds of NPDES permits that assigned WQ limits and Toxicity limits for discharges, Nothing wrong with discharging treated frac water to waterways that have the assimilative capacity to handle the load and flow. No worst than wastewater from a Kosher Poultry Processing plant or a pharmaceutical plant –now check those discharges for Salt!

          • Tim Ruggiero

            Are you actualy saying that drilling waste water is only salt?

          • AlSever

            No, but Salt or better yet, TDS, is the most difficult parameter to remove in this wastewater. If you get the salt concentration down, you have basically treated most other parameters. That is why Coal Mine discharges do not place limits on the 13 toxic parameters associated with such discharges, only Iron, Manganese, PH. If you meet parameters for those, it is assumed you have removed the Toxics.
            Another example–local newspaper had an article about the Cattle herd quarantined in Tioga County for drinking Frac water with Strontium in it, yet did not mention you can go into any Health food store and buy Strontium pills with much higher concentrations.
            I have personally seen hundreds of lab samples of Frac Wastewater and have yet to see any sample with a concentration of anything that would adversely affect a Public water supply if discharged into a waterway with sufficient flow to assimilate the discharge.
            Are you assuming someone is going to just dump Frac wastewater untreated into an intake pipe for a public water supply?

          • MartinWork

            “it’s ASSUMED” we have removed toxic compounds from what eventually makes it to out drinking water supply. Care to take that analogy on a bet and coming up with snake eyes on your first throw of the dice? What is it about the West Virginia river waters that were made toxic just a while back? Wasn’t that created by man and the GAS/OIL industries gross negligence in storing toxic materials at the West Virginia’s riverside and eventual drinking water for the State? Aren’t we now beyond man ASSUMING all is right with the world, when it’s not?

          • MartinWork

            SO, you’ve been bought by the GAS/OIL industry for more than 3 decades on a technology that is now being tested for consequences and toxic waste you spent a life time IGNORING? Aren’t you a bit predjudiced in your ancient assessment of water management that took decades to find out about TODAY?

          • MartinWork

            THEN, there may come the time when paying your taxes is no longer needed or used as a substitute for clean water. Maybe you should start up NOW and hoard the bottled water market and use that to pay off your next tax payment.

          • AlSever

            Bottled water??? Of course you know the Bottled water industry is self regulated? They sample their water, not a gov’t agency. .West Va water pollution was caused by leaking chemical storage tanks, not a fracking operation.
            Any quick thoughts on Ebola? Must be OK since it is natural and not man made chemical.

          • MartinWork

            How many more DISTRACTIONS and DISTORTIONS do you have in that bag of yours. AND, didn’t the same chemical storage failure achieve the same result of human contamination of it’s own drinking water, much like the current FRACKING conversation is based on? When is the GAS/OIL industry going to identify the toxic ingredients they use in fracking industry still say is an industry secret and not for public consumption and INDEPENDENT inspection? Isn’t man still on the cutting edge of destroying it own kind? I’m looking for answers not excuses.

          • AlSever

            Go back to original Article–”Frac wastewater might be toxic if combined with Chlorine in drinking water”—-why not just do away with Chlorine? Are you aware that American Chicken can NOT be sold in Europe due to washing of Carcasses in Chlorine water bath? I am not aware of any Gas company that will not give you or anyone else a list of ALL items in their Frac water/wastewater. Just what do you think they are hiding?

          • MartinWork

            Isn’t this as much the DISTRACTION you intended it to be. Haven’t you been following King George County Virginia’s repeated request for the identity of the toxic chemicals from Gas/Oil. What bothers me most is your admission and caveat to this exchange that you ar “not aware of any Gas company that will not give me or anyone else a list of ALL items in THEIR items for fracking.” You’re playing with word manipulation when you exchange fracking chemicals used in hydralic fracking with “Frac water/wastewater.” They are not one in the same and have yet to be disclosed to the public as anything more than proprietary information and not for public inquiry. What have you to say for yourself other than being a Gas/Oil operative willing to dance around the gamble that continues to be associated with fracking and the use of unidentified toxic chemicals?

  • JimBarth

    #1. “If the wastewater is treated conventionally, which does not remove the bromides, chlorides or iodides, then it can be combined with chlorine at a drinking water facility, and create carcinogens such as bromines and iodines.”

    #2. “What they found was that just .01 percent per volume of fracking wastewater, when combined with the disinfectant chlorine used by drinking water facilities, created trihalomethanes. The EPA limits the amount of these compounds in drinking water because of their link to kidney, liver and bladder cancer.”

    #3. “The peer-reviewed research was published this week in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, and conducted by a team from both Duke University and Stanford University.”

    #4. “In 2011 the Department of Environmental Protection asked Marcellus Shale drillers to VOLUNTARILY (my emphasis added) stop sending their wastewater to conventional treatment facilities.”

    #5. “Mitch says that even if all of the Marcellus Shale drillers have stopped using these facilities, wastewater from the smaller, conventional drillers could still have the same impact.”

    Then, there are the faulty well casings we recently read about in StateImpact Pennsylvania, then, there are the impoundments that hold this minimally treated flowback wastewater, for which Range Resources, to pick just one gas extraction company in PA, was fined over $4 million for causing contamination.

    It is beyond belief that Corbett and the republican Pennsylvania Legislature, along with their puppet PA DEP, allow these open air impoundments, which in 2013, according to Sky Truth, numbered 529 in PA, and were an average size of 1.87 acres. How do you spell intolerable?

    • rlewis

      All of these arguments about fracking, what’s in the fluids, etc are irrelevant. We all know deep down its not good! It destroys the landscape, contaminates land/water. It doesn’t take a study to see that things are never the same once drilling has been done. We need to simply think of the basics. We NEED clean food/air/water. We don’t NEED oil/gas to live, it just allows us to continue to live excessively and makes oil/gas companies obscene amounts of money! Heck, even our national forests aren’t protected anymore! Justify, justify, justify, when we should be protecting, protecting, protecting our incredible natural resources. It’s pretty simple really,

  • DoryHippauf

    In 2011 the Department of Environmental Protection asked Marcellus Shale drillers to voluntarily stop sending their wastewater to conventional treatment facilities. The industry group, the Marcellus Shale Coalition pledged to stop. It’s unclear whether or not all of them are still complying with that request.

    They haven’t complied with the request….. 3 years later….September 2014: Pennsylvania Plant Agrees to Stop Dumping Partially-Treated Fracking Wastewater in River After Lengthy Lawsuit
    http://www.desmogblog.com/2014/09/16/pennsylvania-wastewater-treatment-plant-agrees-stop-dumping-partially-treated-fracking-wastewater-river-after-year

  • http://www.water-research.net/ Brian Oram

    What happens when treated sewage was reacted with chlorine? Created trihalomethanes. Creation in wastewater stream does not equal drinking water. Cleaning dishes – react with chlorine creates trihalomethanes.

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