Turning 1M households' water into toxic waste

We are all well familiar with the "fracking" debate- why we need hydraulic fracturing, and why it is terrible.  First, did you know 9 out of 10 natural gas wells in the U.S. now use fracturing?

Without having to engage in whether the chemicals do or don't pollute drinking water, it is clear that fracturing uses billions of gallons of water annually.  The EPA estimates that it requires between 70-140 billion gallons of water per year.  If it is 100 billion gallons (the mid-low estimate), that is the amount that  1,000,000 domestic households use over an entire year.

Use it to water your grass!  From Energy from Shale
And before it is justified by saying that power plants or irrigation use far more water-- this water "used" by fracturing is not turned into steam like in power plants, it is turned into hazardous sludge never to be used again.  There is no current process for treating this water and recovering it back for use anywhere, let alone drinking water.  There are also concerns about where and when the water is impounded.  If it is taken from a stream in a dry season, it could devastate an area.

There is a pretty painted picture from the industry for the "slickwater" used- the mostly water and sand and the small percentages of chemical additives you see in everyday products (lipstick, ice cream... antifreeze and paint thinner!).  But what you don't see is that these percentages are the minimum percentages used, that the chemicals are the best of the chemicals used, and that the water no longer resembles water at all- it is a viscous goop with toxic fumes.  If the average well uses 4.7 million gallons of water, even 0.3% chemicals represents 11,000 pounds of chemicals.  Some wells use almost a million pounds of chemicals and over 10 million gallons of water.

They would touch anything in those days without protection.  From USGS report
Usually, only about 5-15% of the slickwater comes back up out of the drill site.  It brings with it salts (6x more salty than seawater), radionuclides and other compounds including probably portions of the radioactive tracers used, and heavy metals, making it more dangerous than before it was mixed with tens of thousands of pounds of chemicals.  Sometimes it is reused for future drill sites, and sometimes, hopefully rarely, it is illicitly dumped.  In New York, and in some other areas, it is used for "road maintenance".  Usually, however, it is then placed into a "flowback pit", with the slurry-- I'm not kidding-- sprayed into the air continuously to increase evaporation... and emitting VOCs and creating ozone.  Once enough of it evaporates, it is treated as solid waste and disposed of.  In the past, the fluid has sometimes gone to public water treatment plants, who do not have the facilities to treat the material, and for that matter, do not even know what chemicals and metals are in the fluid.

Fracturing slurry "flowback pit" from Time article on industrial pollution photos


Sprayer near Wyoming farmer's house.
No doubt the worst offenses come from the bad actors.  But what incentive is there to be a good kid?  What if there was an Nuclear Regulatory Commission equivalent- a neutral government regulator which review permits, procedures, and chemicals at each site, and then having an NRC worker onsite at all times making sure that spills, dumping, and dangerous chemicals were not used, or other unsafe practices.  Thankfully, the EPA just released in April 2012 some air protection standards.  But it is not right that there is little guidance on what water can be impounded, no federal requirement for a permit to inject whatever they want into the ground, wherever they want, and no provisions on what should be done with the waste left afterward.
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2 comments

  1. If you worked in the nuclear industry, you wouldn't glowingly want any other industry under that kind of mess. Common sense is thrown out the window on a whim and there's no one to tell the NRC how dumb some of their rules are. I understand the need for regulation, but why can't we use logic and common sense instead of 'what if' world?
    But I digress, all the procedures in the world are as good as toilet paper if you don't hire people who will follow them.

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    1. It's a good point, and believe you us, we have worked in the industry and with dozens of nuclear industry executives who have made clear what a mess the NRC can be. INPO really does a remarkable job for industry self-regulation and in many cases, the NRC slows or stops progress. However, we mentioned it here in a very positive light to point out to non-industry people just what a higher standard nuclear is held to.

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