Study Shows Frack Water Impact
Researchers find potentially hazardous materials entering
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.