Fracking Wastewater another Natural Gas Drilling Hazard

Over the past several days, we’ve been writing about the issues surrounding the wastewater produced as a result of hydraulic fracturing. How the toxic wastewater left over from the natural gas drilling technique is disposed of raises serious questions about the overall environmental safety of fracking.

Frackers can send this wastewater to sewage treatment plants. But the huge problems with that disposal method were recently detailed by a New York Times expose that we discussed here. Another way to get rid of fracking wastewater is to inject it into disposal wells underground, but as we explained in an earlier article, concerns have recently been raised that such injections of fracking wastewater could cause earthquakes.

Now, the New York Times is reporting that the natural gas drilling industry is making much ado about its ability to recycle fracking wastewater. Range Resources, a major natural gas driller in the Marcellus shale, calls the recycling and reuse of fracking wastewater “a win-win,” according to the Times.

But is the recycling of fracking wastewater the big advance drillers claim it to be? Well not if they’re not doing much of it, which seems to be the case. According to the Times, in Pennsylvania, less than half of the wastewater produced by drillers there was recycled in the past 18 months.

Even worse, the Times says recycling wastewater doesn’t make the environmental hazards disappear. Often, after the waste is reused, a toxic and sometimes radioactive sludge is left behind. Such sludge is either taken to landfills, or sent to injection disposal wells.

Even an executive for a company that recycles fracking wastewater – who firmly believes in the benefits of doing so – told the Times it’s not a “cure all,” adding that even then, the wastewater contains barium, strontium and radioactive elements that need to be removed.

According to the Times, in addition to recycling, some states like Pennsylvania and West Virginia allow the salty wastewater – brine – to be used to melt ice on roads. It’s likely toxic, and may even contain radioactive substances, but a West Virginia official told the Times that melting snow and rain water would dilute the brine, making it less of a threat. The same official also said only brine from shallow wells is used, reducing the chance that it would be radioactive.

But from what the Times found, that’s not always the case. Its investigation found that thousands of gallons of such wastewater sent by a drilling company called Ultra Resources to nine towns in Pennsylvania for the purposes of dust suppression in 2009 contained radium at almost 700 times the levels allowed in drinking water.

Unfortunately, fracking waste, like so much about the industry, is not regulated by the federal government, and natural gas drillers want to keep it that way. As the Times points out, were fracking to come under the auspices of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, drilling companies would probably have to spend a great deal of money testing their wastewater for toxicity.

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