Pennsylvania residents worried about the state’s hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, boom, are mainly concerned about water contamination caused by fracking fluid spills and other accidents. Unfortunately, even in the absence of a spill or other accident, fracking pollution still makes its way into state waterways. That’s because Pennsylvania actually allows natural gas driller to dump partially treated fracking wastewater into the stateâ€™s lakes, streams and rivers.
According to a report in the Associated Press, most states require drillers to dispose of fracking wastewater – which can contain large amounts of salt, as well as toxins like barium and strontium – by injecting it into shafts located deep underground. But Pennsylvania, the state at the center of the Marcellus shale natural gas boom, stands alone in allowing drillers to dump that toxic water into its waterways.
State regulators did tighten disposal rules this past year, but existing drilling operations are being allowed to continue their polluting ways. According to the Associated Press, during the 12 months ending June 30, Pennsylvania drillers sent more than 3.6 million barrels of fracking waste to treatment plants that ultimately empty out into a waterway.
Scientists don’t even know how much damage this fracking pollution might be doing to the state’s environment. That’s frightening, because much of the fracking waste will eventually make its way into the states Monongahela and Allegheny rivers, which communities in Western Pennsylvania rely on for drinking water.
Of course, the drilling industry insists there is no need to worry, that existing safeguards will ensure the safety of Pennsylvaniaâ€™s waterways. But as the Associated Press points out, there is evidence that those “safeguards” might not be working well enough. For example, because of a weakness in the state’s reporting system, regulators were unable to account for the disposal method of about one-fifth 0f roughly 6 million barrels of well liquids produced in a 12-month period examined by the Associated Press.
What’s more, some public water utilities downstream from big gas wastewater treatment plants have struggled to stay under the federal maximum for contaminants known as trihalomethanes, which can cause cancer if swallowed over a long period. While trihalomethanes aren’t found in fracking waste, they can occur when bromide in the waste reacts with the chlorine disinfectants used by water authorities to treat drinking water, the Associated Press said.
The state’s biggest drillers did tell the Associated Press that they are taking steps to reduce or eliminate the amount of wastewater they dump into Pennsylvania’s lakes, streams and rivers. For example, Atlas Resources, which produced nearly 2.3 million barrels of wastewater in the Associated Press review period, said it now recycles all water from its wells in their first 30 days of operation, when the flowback is heaviest. John Hanger, secretary of Pennsylvania’s DDepartment of Environmental Protection, said he believed that the amount of drilling wastewater being recycled is now about 70 percent.
Despite these claims, the operators of the largest of the 16 treatment plants most commonly used by Pennsylvania drillers told the Associated Press they haven’t lost much business. Records verifying drilling industry claims won’t be available until later this year.
The wastewater could be contaminating water supplies far from areas where fracking is taking place. According to the Associated Press, fracking waste that makes it into the Monongahela and Allegheny rivers will eventually flow past 20 public drinking-water intakes, past Pittsburgh’s drinking water plants, and all the way to the Tri-County Joint Municipal Authority on the Monongahela in Fredericktown, 20 miles from West Virginia.