A recent study investigating the side effects of hydraulic fracturing has found higher than normal levels of radioactivity, along with other contaminants such as salts and metals, in the waters of Blacklick Creek in Western Pennsylvania.
The report, which was published recently in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, analyzed sediments found in river water near a fracking waste water plant, and discovered 200 times more radium than one would expect to find in nature.
Hydraulic fracturing, also known colloquially as ‘fracking’, is a method of extracting oil and gas reserves from underground. It utilises high-pressure jets of water containing up to 600 toxic chemicals to fracture rock and release the valuable hydrocarbons. The process generates a large amount of waste water which remains high in toxic substances such as hydrochloric acid and acetaldehyde, and in which scientists have now found radium. Radium, a radioactive metal which naturally occurs in rock, can cause a variety of harmful health effects including fatal diseases such as leukemia.
The latest study, which was co-authored by Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University, found levels of radioactivity which were comparable to those typically found in radioactive waste dumps. Vengosh said that the amounts found would exceed the minimum threshold used by the federal government to qualify a disposal site as a radioactive dump.
Vengosh suggested that the presence of the radium could pose a genuine threat to health as it is possible for radium to enter the human food chain, first being absorbed by insects and small creatures which are then eaten by larger predators such as fish, and so on.
Test samples were taken from a river near a waste water plant, both from upstream and downstream, and also from the waste water itself. In addition to its radium content, Vengosh said that the waste water had other potentially harmful constituents: for example, at 10 times the level of sea water, the salt content of the water was up to 200 times higher than those allowed by the Clean Water Act. Unfortunately, there are no currently no relevant rules to regulate the treatment process, as the existing ‘Clean Water Act’ pre-dates fracking and therefore the process is exempt from its guidelines. This means that there is no incentive for thorough scientific testing of treated water to ensure its safety.
The research team were sure that the chemicals they found were a by-product of the fracking process as the sediment contained the same chemical elements typically found in the rocks which form the Marcellus Shale Formation, one of the richest seams of fossil fuels in the US, and one which has been heavily plundered by energy companies.
Fracking is a relatively inexpensive form of energy extraction and is therefore being embraced by many countries worldwide to meet the ever-growing needs for fossil fuels, despite the weight of overwhelming scientific evidence which has highlighted multiple areas of concern. Avner Vengosh, Nathaniel R. Warner and colleagues who made up the research team, explained that, despite its financial appeal, disposal of wastewater from the process is a vital consideration which needs to be reviewed, and their report recommended the use of more advanced treatment technologies to remove the potentially harmful material before it was released into the environment.
Some oil and gas companies send their waste to special treatment plants – in Pennsylvania alone there are 74 facilities treating the waste water from fracking – but these are only partially effective. Up to 90% of the more toxic components, such as barium and radium, are removed by the treatment, but it appears that this is not enough to guarantee environmental safety. Radium deposits collected from areas where treated water is discharged into streams and rivers were still found in dangerously high levels according to the report, which stated that the deposits were "200 times greater than upstream and background sediments and above radioactive waste disposal threshold regulations, posing potential environmental risks of radium bioaccumulation in localized areas of shale gas wastewater disposal."
Additionally, the filtering process does not remove other chemicals, including chloride and bromide, which can react with chlorine and ozone to create very toxic by-products; this is particularly concerning as ozone is used to disinfect river water to produce drinking water.
Vengosh suggested that radium and bromide may be present in high enough concentrations to cause harm to human health and the environment, but as the study had not specifically addressed this issue there was no conclusive evidence to support his concerns. The research did suggest that the problem of contamination could be widespread, however, with a high probability of similar contamination occurring at other waste water sites throughout the Marcellus Shale formation.
These latest findings are being taken very seriously in scientific circles as radioactive substances are known to be extremely harmful.
"The occurrence of radium is alarming — this is a radioactive constituent that is likely to increase rates of genetic mutation" and presents "a significant radioactive health hazard for humans," " said William Schlesinger, a researcher and president of the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, in Millbrook, New York.
Waste water seems to be one of the most contentious aspects of the fracking procedure, so some companies have developed alternatives: Gasfrac, based in Calgary and Houston, uses a propane-based gel instead, which, the company states, is more effective and solves the problems associated with water injections.
" Propane has low surface tension – water has about 10 times more surface tension than propane. So customers tend to get significantly more production out of our operations,” explained Jim Hill, Gasfrac’s president and chief executive officer in Calgary." Liquid with lower surface tension slips more easily into the tinier fissures of a fracking operation, helping to open the cracks more, to get at more gas. Propane also allows more gas to flow out to be collected than water does."
Adam Goehner, a technical analyst for the Pembina Institute, an environmental watchdog that works with the energy sector, commented that it was important for such alternatives to be explored, but that propane may not provide the answer at all sites:
“There are a number of alternatives, and I know that companies are exploring them. Propane is one, but it’s not going to be applicable to every single type of [hydraulic] fracture,” he said. “It’s still much cheaper to use fresh water and add additives than to start with saltwater and re-engineer.From a cost perspective water is still the cheapest, so it’s hard to move away.”
If waste water continues to cause serious health problems, then the cost of making the change may become insignificant in comparison to the cost of law suits and compensation payments which may ensue. Governments and energy companies must respond to the evidence now and make the necessary adjustments to the process, before irreversible damage is caused to health and the environment.
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