Study Shows Frack Water Impact

Researchers find potentially hazardous materials entering waterways

Washington PA Observer-Reporter - 20 January 2015
by Emily Petsko, Staff writer

Potentially hazardous contaminants are entering Pennsylvania waterways through the disposal of oil and natural gas drilling wastewater, according to new environmental research.

The peer-reviewed study found high levels of ammonium, iodide and bromide in drilling wastewater that had been discharged or spilled into waterways in Pennsylvania and West Virginia. The study, titled “Iodide, Bromide and Ammonium in Hydraulic Fracturing and Oil and Gas Wastewaters: Environmental Implications,” was funded by the Park Foundation and National Science Foundation.

Researchers from Duke University, Dartmouth College and Stanford University took samples of produced water from conventional oil and gas wells and flowback water from hydraulically fractured wells. They also analyzed treated wastewater that was directly discharged into streams and rivers at three disposal sites in Pennsylvania and a spill site in West Virginia. One of the Pennsylvania sites is in the northwestern part of the state. The other two are east of Pittsburgh.

Between 3,000 and 5,000 million liters of wastewater were generated in Pennsylvania per year in 2011 and 2012, according to a 2013 study. Drilling wastewater used to be treated at publicly owned treatment works and municipal treatment plants until those procedures were terminated in 2011. Now, brine treatment facilities treat the wastewater and are “exempt from the salinity and water quality restrictions for discharged effluents” set by the Environmental Protection Agency, researchers said.

Brine treatment removes metals like barium and radium, but not halides such as chloride, bromide and iodide. Avner Vengosh, researcher and professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University, said these chemical compounds are naturally occurring in deep shale formations, but can be harmful to aquatic life and even humans if they enter drinking water.

“It’s unacceptable that today we still see this type of water being released into the environment,” Vengosh said. “The treatment that is conducted is totally inadequate.”

Vengosh said this study, which was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, was the first to find high levels of ammonium and iodide in oil and gas wastewater, but previous studies found high levels of bromide and chloride. Researchers said they found no difference between frack water and wastewater produced in conventional gas wells, revealing that the contaminants were natural.

Ammonium can turn into ammonia when it is dissolved in water, which can have a “devastating effect on the environment and the ecosystem” and can lead to fish kills, Vengosh said. Researchers found ammonium levels of up to 100 milligrams per liter in samples taken at wastewater discharge sites, which is 50 times higher than the EPA’s standards for protecting freshwater organisms.

When iodide mixes with chlorine used to disinfect water at municipal treatment plants located downstream from discharge sites, it can create toxic byproducts in drinking water that are not monitored by state or federal agencies, researchers said.

Vengosh said ammonium and iodide contamination has likely existed in Pennsylvania long before the Marcellus Shale drilling boom, but said the oil and gas industry and insufficient water treatment facilities in Pennsylvania keep contributing to the problem.