Hydraulic fracturing has enabled a domestic oil and gas boom in the U.S., but its rapid growth has raised questions about what to do with the billions of gallons of wastewater that result. Researchers now report that treating the wastewater and releasing it into surface waters has led to the contamination of a Pennsylvania watershed with radioactive material and endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The study appears in ACS’ journal Environmental Science & Technology.
In 2015, the unconventional oil and gas extraction method known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” accounted for more than one-half of oil production and two-thirds of gas production in America, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The method’s market share is likely to increase even further.
Although the technique has resulted in a shift away from coal, which could reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it produces large amounts of wastewater containing radioactive material, salts, metals, endocrine-disrupting chemicals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons that could pose risks to the environment and human health.
A Pennsylvania report estimates that in 2015, 10 000 unconventional oil and gas wells in the Marcellus Shale produced 1.7 billion gallons of wastewater. The facilities that collect the water provide only limited treatment before releasing it into surface waters. Bill Burgos and colleagues at Penn State, Colorado State and Dartmouth wanted to see what impact this strategy of treating and releasing fracking wastewater might be having.
The researchers sampled sediments and porewaters from a lake downstream from two facilities that treat fracking wastewater in Pennsylvania.
Their analysis detected that peak concentrations of radium, alkaline earth metals, salts and organic chemicals all occurred in the same sediment layer.
The two major classes of organic contaminants included nonylphenol ethoxylates, which are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are carcinogens.
The highest concentrations coincided with sediment layers deposited five to 10 years ago during a peak period of fracking wastewater disposal.
Elevated levels of radium were also found as far as 19 km (12 miles) downstream of the treatment plants.
The researchers say that the potential risks associated with this contamination are unknown, but they suggest tighter regulations of wastewater disposal could help protect the environment and human health.
Source: American Chemical Society
Watershed-Scale Impacts from Surface Water Disposal of Oil and Gas Wastewater in Western Pennsylvania – William D. Burgos et al. – Environmental Science & Technology – July 12, 2017 – DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b01696
Combining horizontal drilling with high volume hydraulic fracturing has increased extraction of hydrocarbons from low-permeability oil and gas (O&G) formations across the United States; accompanied by increased wastewater production. Surface water discharges of O&G wastewater by centralized waste treatment (CWT) plants pose risks to aquatic and human health. We evaluated the impact of surface water disposal of O&G wastewater from CWT plants upstream of the Conemaugh River Lake (dam controlled reservoir) in western Pennsylvania. Regulatory compliance data were collected to calculate annual contaminant loads (Ba, Cl, total dissolved solids (TDS)) to document historical industrial activity. In this study, two CWT plants 10 and 19 km upstream of a reservoir left geochemical signatures in sediments and porewaters corresponding to peak industrial activity that occurred 5 to 10 years earlier. Sediment cores were sectioned for the collection of paired samples of sediment and porewater, and analyzed for analytes to identify unconventional O&G wastewater disposal. Sediment layers corresponding to the years of maximum O&G wastewater disposal contained higher concentrations of salts, alkaline earth metals, and organic chemicals. Isotopic ratios of 226Ra/228Ra and 87Sr/86Sr identified that peak concentrations of Ra and Sr were likely sourced from wastewaters that originated from the Marcellus Shale formation.
Featured image: An aerial view of the Mahantango Creek watershed near Klingerstown, PA. The combination of land use, soil properties, and hydrogeology largely determine the vulnerability of surface and groundwater contamination by agricultural activities. USDA photo by Scott Bauer.