Fracking Waste Could Be Headed Here
14 January 2014
By Carrie Blackmore Smith
What could be in frack wastewater?
High levels of total dissolved solids consist of calcium,
chlorides, nitrate, phosphorus, iron, sulfur and other particles
mixed with silt and clay particles, plankton, algae, fine organic
debris and other particulate matter.
“An organism placed in water with a high concentration of solids
will shrink somewhat because the water in its cells will tend to
move out. This will in turn affect the organism’s ability to
maintain the proper cell density .... [The aquatic organism] might
float up or sink down to a depth to which it is not adapted, and
it might not survive.... Higher levels of solids can also clog
irrigation devices and might become so high that irrigated plant
roots will lose water rather than gain it. A high concentration of
total solids will make drinking water unpalatable and might have
an adverse effect on people who are not used to drinking such
water. Levels of total solids that are too high or too low can
also reduce the efficiency of wastewater treatment plants, as well
as the operation of industrial processes that use raw water. Total
solids also affect water clarity. Higher solids decrease the
passage of light through water, thereby slowing photosynthesis by
aquatic plants. Water will heat up more rapidly and hold more
heat; this, in turn, might adversely affect aquatic life that has
adapted to a lower temperature regime.”
• Fracturing fluid additives, chemicals.
• Naturally occurring radioactive materials, many of which are
known to cause cancer at high concentrations, including uranium,
thorium, radium and lead-210.
Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
In coming weeks, the U.S. Coast Guard will decide whether to allow
wastewater from the hydraulic fracturing industry to be shipped
along federal waterways – including the Ohio River – and how
strict those rules governing the shipments should be.
The federal agency released its proposed guidelines in November
after repeated requests from the oil and gas industry to move the
waste by barge – evoking more than 1,000 public comments, many
demanding stricter controls on the potential shipments, which
could carry upwards of 75 tanker truckloads of the wastewaterCQ.
The briny, chemical-laced liquid comes out of the ground during
hydraulic fracturing, known commonly as “fracking.” In the
process, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is forced into
shale deposits in the earth to extract natural gas and oil.
A byproduct of the industry is the wastewater that comes back up
in the process, which has sparked heated debate about how the
waste should be handled, including how it is shipped. With the
number of wells on the rise in Ohio, companies want to ship the
waste over water, a cheaper option than trucking, to areas where
they can dispose of it through injection wells.
A spill of this material into the river near a water treatment
facility could threaten clean water supplies, according to water
utility companies like Greater Cincinnati Water Works and the
Northern Kentucky Water District, which has asked that the
wastewater never be shipped over water.
If transport on the Ohio River is allowed, water treatment
officials argue they must know, in detail, the contents of each
shipment. As the Coast Guard policy stands, however, the various
mixtures of chemicals in the wastewater are considered trade
secrets and would not be disclosed.
“Our goal is to know what is in a spill – and know about it ahead
of time,” said Bruce Whitteberry, assistant superintendent of
Cincinnati Water Works. “That gives us the best shot to make sure
all of our customers stay protected.”
Coast Guard officials say these and other concerns will be
considered in its final determination of regulations.
The proposal has grabbed the attention of others as well,
including a group called Confluence, which, with the support of
the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Small Business
Administration, has been working to make Cincinnati a hub for the
global water technology industry – work that depends on, or is at
least affected by, the quality of our water.
Utilities may not have enough time, details to deal with spill
The Ohio River basin is home to roughly 10 percent of the U.S.
population and provides drinking water to roughly 5 million people
as well as habitat for countless plants, fish and animals – all
important to the overall health of our environment.
In general, regulations are strict when it comes to spills of any
material on the Ohio River, said Jerry G. Schulte, manager of
source water protection and emergency response for the Ohio River
Valley Water Sanitation Commission, an interstate agency that has
helped to control and abate pollution in the Ohio River since
1948. According to federal law, even a few drops of oil is a
reportable spill, Schulte said, and a big part of his job is
helping water utilities know what is coming so the utility can
figure out how to respond.
Under the Coast Guard’s proposed guidelines, the potential threats
of a fracking wastewater spill would be difficult to determine,
Schulte said, because the custom mix of chemicals that goes into
the ground is considered a trade secret and therefore the mixture
coming out is as well. While the Coast Guard will know what
chemical mixture the companies use, such details would not be
available to Schulte or other local authorities.
Schulte and others are demanding that each shipment be analyzed.
“There is always the potential for an accident,” Schulte said,
“and depending on where an accident or a release may occur of any
materials, whether it’s frack water or any other material that is
shipped on the Ohio River ... it could compromise the water
The dense liquid would sink, potentially harming or killing plants
and animals at the bottom of the river, which could have wider
effects on the entire ecosystem, but the greatest impact – or at
least the one with the greatest threat to the public – would be on
water utilities, Schulte said.
As things stand, the Coast Guard’s policy letter is guidance on
how the oil, gas and barge companies should handle such waste, but
“it doesn’t bind the company that ships the waste or the Coast
Guard employee that signs off on the barge (to follow the
guidelines),” said James O’Reilly, a University of Cincinnati
professor of public health and law who wrote a textbook on
administrative rule-making. He is pressing the Coast Guard to
propose more stringent rules.
The Coast Guard should complete an environmental impact statement,
O’Reilly and others say, which would analyze the potential effects
of a spill on the environment, and then issue rules the industry
must follow as well as defined consequences when they don’t.
Shipments could contain a myriad of chemicals
When something harmful spills into the river, proximity plays a
The river is large, and spills dilute quickly, but a spill near a
treatment facility’s intakes would be the worst-case scenario,
said Mary Carol Wagner, water quality manager at the Northern
Kentucky Water District.
Local utilities do one of two things in the event of a spill, she
said: close the river intakes and let the material float by or
treat the water with extra chemicals.
While large spills are rare (the last one affecting the region
occurred more than 25 years ago), small spills – usually oil or
gas – cause the Northern Kentucky Water District to close its
intakes a couple times a year, Wagner said.
She and other water-utility leaders aren’t sure how, under the
current Coast Guard proposal, they would know how to treat
fracking wastewater properly. “If we know what chemical it is, we
can prepare ahead of time for the most part,” Wagner said.
Each wastewater shipment would contain a unique mixture of
possibly dozens of chemicals used in the fracking process,
however, along with organic and naturally occurring radioactive
materials, all at varying concentrations, said Whitteberry of
Cincinnati Water Works. That’s why they, too, are asking that
every shipment be tested and those results shared.
“There could be so many chemicals in the mix, there’s the
potential of many unknowns,” Whitteberry said. “A lot of any one
thing could be an issue.”
It could also be very expensive to treat, Whitteberry said.
A large portion of the fluid is what is known as “total dissolved
solids” – a mixture of chemical and organic elements completely
dissolved in the water – that are directly related to water
purity. Conventional treatment facilities aren’t designed to treat
large amounts of it, but they do so with granulated activated
carbon, “one of our largest treatment chemical costs,” Whitteberry
“We’re getting smarter – the quality of the river reflects that,”
Whitteberry said, but that’s why, he said, stiff regulations are
Treating the waste could be lucrative for entrepreneurs
Concerns held by water treatment officials are valid and should be
addressed, said Alan Vicory, president of the board at Confluence
– the collaborative working to establish the region as a global
leader in sustainable environmental technology innovation – but
the fracking wastewater must go somewhere.
“A lot of people are trying to figure out proper techniques” for
treating the water, Vicory said. “Buttressed by a marketplace, it
inherently attracts entrepreneurs, research and development.”
A new mode of transportation for the waste could create
opportunity for the wastewater to be treated here, he said;
unregulated, the potential for negative impacts on the local
economy may be greater, said Vicory, who is also a former
executive director of the Ohio River Valley Water Sanitation
Commission and an international leader on water quality.
Erin Haynes, an assistant professor in environmental health at the
University of Cincinnati who recently began studying air quality
around fracking sites, agrees that now is the time to prepare for
“Look at West Virginia, dealing with (an industrial chemical)
spill right now ... It’s a potentially similar situation we could
face if we don’t prepare for emergency response to something like
this,” Haynes said. “Many of the compounds (in fracking
wastewater) could be carcinogens, and the Ohio River is our
primary drinking source.”
Members of the oil and gas industry argue this is a safer mode of
transportation than trucks or trains, which may be true, Vicory
said, but there are still many questions that need to be answered.
“If it does nothing else, (transport on the river) will provide
one additional driver for seeking effective treatments for this,”
Vicory said. “The best solution at the end of the day ... is not
having to barge it at all, but to treat it on site.”
He suggests the the Coast Guard start by regulating fracking
wastewater the same way it does the transportation of oil and gas.
“We’re going to assume ... it’s high hazard – and one of the
reasons is (companies) aren’t telling us what’s in it,” Vicory
said. “Let’s let disclosure and science back us down to less