Radioactive Fracking Wastewater is Hot, Hot, Hot

Last week new concerns came to light regarding the treatment and disposal of fracking wastewater. First a report by Environment America shows that as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) expands across the US, the sheer amount of wastewater produced in 17 shale states – to the tune of 280 billion gallons in 2012 – is problematic.

Further, a peer-reviewed Duke University study detected high levels of radioactive elements in a stream where fracking wastewater is released from a specialized facility in Indiana County, Pennsylvania after treatment. Over two years the Duke research team, led by the well-recognized duo of Professors Robert Jackson and Avner Vengosh, monitored Blacklick Creek and found that radium-226 – a naturally occurring radioactive material found in rock – appeared in concentrations unsafe for human exposure.

Much of the radium was removed from the wastewater by the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility, yet their operations were not able to completely eliminate the element, resulting in discharges "roughly 200 times higher than background levels." The same went for the removal of heavy metals (like barium and strontium) and salts (like chlorides and bromide) the latter that measured at levels 10 times greater than normal. As test results indicate, the existence of these materials in the treatment facility's "effluents reflect the composition of Marcellus Shale produced waters."

When mixed with water and fracking fluid in the fracturing process, radium along with other heavy metals and salts mix and form a brine. A large percentage of that fluid returns fairly quickly to the surface after injection ("flowback") or during the continued operation of the well ("produced" water). This wastewater is toxic and must be collected and stored; it then must be treated or discharged – or reinjected into a deep disposal well.

While Duke's study points to the problem of one facility’s treatment of hazardous fracking waste, worries about the wastewater treatment and disposal go well beyond that specific site. Similar treatment methods are used elsewhere, as earlier data from the Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection and the US EPA illustrate. Unlike the states of Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio, Pennsylvania's geology precludes the use of deep disposal wells for fracking wastewater. As such, its treatment and release into local waterways are paramount to water and environmental quality.

The wastewater produced by fracking might be just as great, if not greater, an environmental threat than the complications associated with the large water requirements of fracking because of the many damaging pathways wastewater can take. For instance, deep-well disposal has been linked to man-made earthquakes, and wastewater and drilling ponds have broken or flooded, contaminating land and water. Now there is clear evidence that even with specialized treatment of fracking wastewater, it is "just hard to clean up." No wonder there is such opposition to receiving Pennsylvania's wastewater, an idea which New York is against. New Jersey seems to agree, too. Currently, it is Ohio suffering the import of the Pennsylvania wastewater being disposed of in deep wells.

In the end, the managment of fracking wastewater has been identified as a primary problem by reputable organizations such as Pacific Institute and MIT, particularly as stringent oversight is often not applied in states with overstretched resources and insufficient regulations. As both the Duke and Environment America reports make clear, the challenges with fracking wastewater are growing with the use of the technology, putting our water, environment and health at risk if proper measures – and societal care – are not taken in the process. With our genuine, well-placed fears of radioactivity and pollution, fracking wastewater can’t be left too hot to touch.

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