Pennsylvania’s path to pollution: a radioactive legacy or hope for the future?

“The health of our waters is the principle measure of how we live on the land.”- Luna Leopold

By 2012, white trucks with Texas and Oklahoma license plates were ubiquitous throughout the streets of Morgantown, West Virginia.  I was soon competing for a seat at my favorite restaurant bar with long term hotel residents from the natural gas industry.  Having already taken the State of Pennsylvania by storm, they were now moving south.  Companies were closing in on Morgantown located less than ten miles from the Pennsylvania border.

Many recognize West Virginia as having a heritage deeply rooted in the coal mining industry.  With laissez faire regulations, the state was considered to be friendly towards the extraction industry.  One would not have to travel far before spotting a “friends of coal” bumper sticker affixed to a vehicle.  As West Virginian’s witnessed the boom blunders and successes of their neighbor to the north, many were curious whether their industry friendly legacy would evolve into a resilient adaptive management strategy for hydraulic fracturing in their state.

Wastewater trucks line up for delivery
Wastewater trucks line up for delivery

Arguably one of the biggest oversights in Pennsylvania’s short and explosive (no pun intended) hydraulic fracturing history was their treatment of wastewater.  There are few “reflections from the watering hole” more appropriate for a blog dedicated to exploring the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on safety of our drinking water than this. While deep well injection (discussed in last week’s blog) is a common treatment for fracturing wastewater, the State of Pennsylvania banned this method due to their geologic substrate and seismic concerns.  Instead they truck a portion of it to Ohio, while treating the remainder at municipal wastewater facilities.   It is at these facilities where lessons about fracturing wastewater treatment can be learned.

Pennsylvania experienced one of the most dramatic increases of drilling with active gas wells doubling from 36,000 in 2000 to 71,000 in 2011.  Driven by regional hydrology, approximately 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater was produced from 2008 – 2011 with radioactivity levels between 100 and 1000 times the maximum allowed by the federal drinking water standards.  With injection wells off the table, regulators turned to wastewater treatment plants to process the waste, theorizing that the toxic material would settle during the treatment and the remainder would be diluted when mixed into the waterways.

Fragmented Pennsylvania landscape © 2010 J. Henry Fair
Fragmented Pennsylvania landscape © 2010 J. Henry Fair

There were red flags with this strategy very early on in the process, with many utilities downstream complaining that the river water was beginning to eat away at their machines.  At the same time it was documented that the plants were accepting wastewater that contained radioactive levels as high as 2,122 times the drinking-water standard.  This was far greater than the levels considered safe by federal regulators for treatment plants to process.   Because the facilities were not equipped to handle these levels, they were discharging partially treated water into the Monongahela River and Susquehanna River, which together provide drinking water to nearly 7 million people.

Contamination levels from hydraulic fracturing wells
Contamination levels from hydraulic fracturing wells

Until recently, most sewage treatment plants were not required to test for radioactivity and those that did allowed several years to pass between testing.  A hydraulic fracturing expose’ by the New York Times in 2011 helped reveal the issue in Pennsylvania. In addition to testing wastewater treatment discharge, they collected data from nearly 200 wells in the state.  The adjacent maps indicate the location and concentration of four key compounds of concern (3 of 4 are radioactive elements), radium, uranium, gross alpha, and benzene that were found in hydraulic fracturing wells.  At least 116 of the wells reported levels of radium 100 times greater than the federal drinking water standards and 15 other wells were more than 1000 times the standard.  From a current science perspective, it should be noted that exposure to these contaminants through the fracturing process are only realized through spills, well leaks, or improper wastewater treatment management procedures.

Recently a Duke University study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, confirmed that sediment downstream of  Brine Treatment Facility on Blacklick Creek contained concentrations 200 times higher than background levels. They also found chloride and bromide levels that were 2 to 10 times greater than normal. While bromide is not toxic, when combined with disinfectants used to treat our drinking water, it can produce cancer-causing compounds.   Not only did this study lead to drinking water treatment plants changing their methods, but caused many wastewater facilities to stop accepting fluids from hydraulic fracturing operations.

At the time that these studies were released the natural gas industry was making great strides in alternative treatments to wastewater.  Many companies were beginning to recycle wastewater, reusing it to “frack” additional wells. A growing percentage of wasterwater recycling has been realized in Pennsylvania, up from 1% in 2011 to nearly 17% in 2012.   Chesapeake Energy Company has begun recycling 100% of the water it retrieves from wells in northern Pennsylvania. The process of recycling hydraulic fracturing wastewater involves clotting and destabilizing suspended matter in the water. As the contaminants pass through electrocoagulation cells, positively charged pollutants bind to the negatively charged ions and rise to the surface in the form of gas bubbles.  The process is highlighted in the graphic below.

Hydraulic fracturing wastewater recycling process
Hydraulic fracturing wastewater recycling process

While the water cannot be cleaned to a level safe for drinking or agricultural use, it has the potential to significantly reduce the amount of fresh water needed for fracturing operations.  This is especially critical in water starved areas of the West.  Another upside of the recycling is the reduction of trucks used to transport wastewater to outside facilities.  Beyond the obvious benefits of reduced transportation (air quality, less fossil fuels, etc.), spills during transport remain one of the biggest risks to our drinking water supply so recycling would help mitigate risks by reducing the amount of transport required.

So why is not every company recycling fracturing wastewater?   As often is the case, the decision is based on policy and economics. Recycling is not required and many companies are still finding it cheaper to deep well inject wastewater instead of cleaning it.  However, many experts believe this will change as hydraulic fracturing grows. Schlumberger, a major participant in the energy industry, believes it will no longer be “just an environmental issue – it has to be an issue of strategic importance” as millions of wells are predicted to be fracked by 2053.   Ecologix, a leading recycling company, now claims its service can cost up to 80% less than deep well injection.  They are currently building new facilities in West Texas to purify 31,000 barrels of wastewater a day.  Might we see wastewater recycling bring the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing to an acceptable level for sustainable energy production?

There are many lessons we can learn from the case in Pennsylvania, which highlights the necessity of applying adaptive management strategies to the natural gas industry.  Given the inherent environmental and social uncertainty, the evolution of industry practices can be improved through learning and adjustment based on new scientific and socio-economic information. System monitoring is necessary to reduce this uncertainty over time and is a key to successful adaptive management practice. The Pennsylvania case reveals a breakdown of adaptive management when monitoring is not considered.  It is important that traditional practices evolve as new inputs from the natural gas industry are interjected into the system.  It is through monitoring for which this can be achieved.  If we continue to operate at status quo we risk the legacy of hydraulic fracturing being one of the most serious environmental and public health tragedies rather than one of greatest energy engineering achievements.

2 thoughts on “Pennsylvania’s path to pollution: a radioactive legacy or hope for the future?

  1. ndurham925 December 3, 2013 / 8:27 am

    Angie – I like how clearly and eloquently you write. Also, each of your posts I read pull in good information and insight.

    I hope that more fracking companies embrace the idea of reusing wastewater. Do these companies reuse reuse and reuse – I guess what I’m wondering is, how efficient is the treatment process if water is recycled more than once? And after a few times of reuse, then where does it go? I”m envisioning wastewater on steroids.

    Also, I think the view on how to deal with fracking wastewater from an engineering standpoint is a really good one, instead of getting lost in the battle between poor management of the status quo and those in extreme opposition of the industry. A lot can be learned from discoveries on extracting dangerous chemicals and radioactive material from water.

  2. ka13946 December 3, 2013 / 11:17 am

    Interesting story. I’m from the eastern half of Pennsylvania (which any person from eastern PA will tell you is the more civilized of the two halves). Historically, PA has been characterized as a state with a dichotomous political structure. The western and central portions occupy the conservative end of the spectrum while the urban centers of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia have been represented by predominantly liberal interests. It would be interesting to see if the developments around fracking and environmental quality have provided a common ground for the two political groups to voice concerns. The opposite is possible as well, have these developments further exacerbated political arguments based on ideological foundations.

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