New research into fracking wastewater

A recent academic report from the United States suggests that, despite soothing statements by politicians and industry, toxic and dangerous substances in fracking wastewater are not being effectively removed by treatment and are entering surface waters (rivers, streams etc.) with potentially serious effects on the health of local people.

This report by the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC) at the Graduate School of Public Health (GSPH), University Of Pittsburgh,focuses on the treatment of UNGD (Unconventional Gas Development) wastewaters by wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs), and the subsequent discharges to surface waters.

In an effort to stop the discharge of Marcellus Shale unconventional natural gas development wastewaters into surface waters, on May 19, 2011 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) requested drilling companies stop disposing their wastewater through wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs). This research includes a chemical analysis of effluents discharged from three WWTPs before and after the request. The WWTPs sampled included two municipal, publically owned treatment works and a commercially operated industrial wastewater treatment plant.

Analyte concentrations were quanitified and then compared to water quality criteria, including U.S. Environmental Protection Agency MCLs and “human health criteria.” Certain analytes including barium, strontium, bromides, chlorides, total dissolved solids, and benzene were measured in the effluent at concentrations above criteria. Analyte concentrations measured in effluent samples before and after the PADEP’s request were compared for each facility. Analyte concentrations in the effluents decreased in the majority of samples after the PADEP’s request. This research provides preliminary evidence that these and similar WWTPs may not be able to provide sufficient treatment for this wastewater stream, and more thorough monitoring is recommended.

The analysis of effluent samples collected prior to the PADEP’s request indicated that concentrations of analytes in effluent were above water quality criteria. Ba, Sr, and bromides are of particular public health concern. The metals strontium and barium both surpassed the federal MCL for drinking water and benzene in WWTP-3 effluent was detected at concentrations above the MCL [maximum concentration level] and EPA human health criteria.

This is a disturbing report which adds to the increasing evidence that the by-products of high volume hydraulic fracturing are not being dealt with safely and effectively. If this is the case in the United States, a country with a comparatively low-density population, it is even more disturbing for the UK and Ireland, where we have little or no margin for error.

Read the full report here.

Photograph from report.