Fracking Up The Water

It’s still astounding to me that we are rushing headlong into widespread fracking without truly understanding what its environmental implications are. It’s a classic example of our inverted approach to technology in which a technology is accepted until someone proves it is dangerous, instead of having the wisdom to hold off on a technology until it is (reasonably) demonstrated that it is safe.

Anyhow, this sort of finding illustrates why this inverted approach is perhaps unwise:

In the state of Pennsylvania, home to the lucrative Marcellus Shale formation, 74 facilities treat wastewater from the process of hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. “fracking”) for natural gas and release it into streams. There’s no national set of standards that guides this treatment process—the EPA notes that the Clean Water Act’s guidelines were developed before fracking even existed, and that many of the processing plants “are not properly equipped to treat this type of wastewater”—and scientists have conducted relatively little assessment of the wastewater to ensure it’s safe after being treated.

Recently, a group of Duke University scientists decided to do some testing. They contacted the owners of one treatment plant, the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility on Blacklick Creek in Indiana County, Pennsylvania, but, “when we tried to work with them, it was very difficult getting ahold of the right person,” says Avner Vengosh, an Earth scientist from Duke. “Eventually, we just went and tested water right from a public area downstream.”

Their analyses, made on water and sediment samples collected repeatedly over the course of two years, were even more concerning than we’d feared. As published today in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, they found elevated concentrations of the element radium, a highly radioactive substance. The concentrations within sediments in particular were roughly 200 times higher than background levels. In addition,  amounts of chloride and bromide in the water were two to ten times greater than normal.

This may or may not turn out to be clear proof of how misguided our assessment of fracking turns out to be. But it is clear proof that we should do more to assess fracking’s full implications before pumping fracking fluid into every underground formation that contains the slightest whiff of shale oil.