Hydrofracking and Water: What is the cost in contaminating our water?

By Penelope Randall
Environmental Specialist, US Nuclear

Reposted with permission from
US Nuclear Corp

What is the cost in contaminating our water?

Hydrofracking demands for water use is up 770 percent since 2011 according to a 2018 peer reviewed study out of Duke University. The use of millions of gallons of water and sand infused with up to 1,000 different toxic chemicals is used to fracture shale rock and release the trapped gas or oil.

The wastewater, brine, and sludge are then returned to the surface and in need of disposal. Unfortunately, there is not yet a clear and safe method of disposal or storage. In many places this wastewater is reinjected into deep underground wastewater wells. There is mounting evidence that this method of disposal may be responsible for earthquakes and pollution of groundwater in some locations. The exponential growth of the hydrofracking industry and its practices constitutes a growing problem.

Among these chemicals are radioactive isotopes which wastewater treatment plants are not equipped to either detect or clean up. The rush to establish hydrofracking and in turn cashing in on the enormous profits to be made has collided with a distinct lack of regulation in protecting industry workers, the public, and the environment. The oil and gas industry were exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2004 and from the Energy Policy Act of 2005. It explicitly excluded hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act’s regulations of underground injection wells.

Some steps are now being undertaken to close these loopholes, currently it is left up to the individual state’s discretion of what is a regulated or acceptable. In 2015 the Congressional Research Service (CRS) submitted ‘The rapid growth in the use of fracturing has raised concerns over its potential impacts on groundwater and drinking water resources and has led to calls for more state and/or federal oversight of this activity.’ House Bill 3604, titled ‘To amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to require testing of underground sources of drinking water in connection with hydraulic fracturing operations, and for other purposes’ was introduced June 28, 2019 and referred to the House Energy and Commerce committee.

Among the radioactive materials mobilized by hydrofracking are uranium, radium, barium, and thorium. These are naturally occurring in the earth’s rock formations. Fracking disturbs and activates movement of these metals by breaking up the rocks containing these radioactive metals. The metals dissolve into the water and fracking fluid. Fracking the rock is like shaking a carbonated beverage. When shaking the drink, the carbonated gas forms bubbles expanding and rising to the surface of the liquid.

Rocks containing Radium slowly release Radon gas naturally over a long period of time.

When Radium 224 and -226 with a half-life of 1,600 years decays in this way it forms the gas Radon-222. Fracking rapidly accelerates this natural process by breaking them and shaking them up releasing radon gas to the surface. This means shale gas transported to homes via pipelines contain the radioactive gas Radon-222 exposing people to a known carcinogen. The maximum of 5 picocuries of Radium per liter of drinking water is allowed by the EPA. Produced water (hydrofracking wastewater) has been found to contain Radium levels as high as 9,000 picocuries per liter.

The oil and gas industries are not regulated regarding radionuclides as are nuclear power plants. Drinking water is infrequently monitored for radioactive contamination and as such discovery of such a public health threat may go unnoticed for an undetermined period of time. Disposal issues are becoming more of a problem as hydrofracking escalates. Transporting wastewater, sludge, and brine for storage and disposal poses a significant health issue. Pollution of surface water and air is already being noted in locations where hydrofracking is going full speed ahead.

One disposal solution the hydrofracking oil and gas industry favors is injecting these tens of millions of gallons of contaminated water into ‘injection wells’, meaning holes in the earth. 20 million tons of waste is currently produced annually. At this time neither Ohio nor Pennsylvania measure radiation levels in fracking wastewater. A USGS report found that millions of gallons of wastewater from unconventional wells in Pennsylvania and conventional wells in New York to be 2,609 time more radioactive than the federal limit for drinking water and 300 times the limit determined for industrial discharge by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

A current potential solution considered in Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania is to send it by barge to waste treatment plants. The Coast Guard is currently considering the pros and cons of such a method of transportation of tens of thousands of gallons of toxic waste. The industry feels it will be safer and less expensive than using trucks for transport to waste treatment. The Coast Guard is seriously considering the level of risk to workers due to the build up, known as bathtub ring, of radioactive contaminants in barge holds.

The carcinogenic chemicals linked with hydrofracking wastewater, brine, flowback, and sludge are becoming increasingly well documented and as such awareness with the general public is expanding. However, understanding of the radioactive elements generated by hydrofracking; contaminating the environment and in turn the public remains elusive and appears to be suppressed critical information.

About Technical Associates, a division of US Nuclear Corp: For 67 years Technical Associates (TA) has developed and provided radiation measurement and monitoring instrumentation to diverse industries utilizing radiation/nuclear technology.

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