Report: Fracking Wastewater Disposal Methods Leave Environment, Public Health at Risk

New report from NRDC shows national implications for Pennsylvania's risky fracking wastewater practices

A report released Wednesday from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) shows that the five main ways of dealing with wastewater from fracking leave public health and the environment in jeapordy.

Let Them Drink

The report, co-authored by NRDC and an independent scientist, investigates the fracking wastewater disposal practices in Pennsylvania. It notes that of some of the fracking additives, "significant concern has been raised" regarding their nature, "with 29 identified as of particular concern for human health and 13 identified as probable or known human carcinogens. Among the most notable are 2-butoxyethanol (2BE), naphthalene, benzene, and polyacrylamide."

"Contaminated wastewater has long been one of our biggest concerns about fracking, and this report confirms that current practices put both the environment and public health at risk," said NRDC attorney Rebecca Hammer. "Americans shouldn't have to trade their safe drinking water for fuel. We need strong safeguards on the books to ensure oil and gas companies aren't polluting our rivers, contaminating our drinking water or even risking man-made earthquakes when they come to frack in our communities."

The report finds that better federal and state protections are needed to help protect human health and the environment.

"Pennsylvania and the entire Marcellus Shale region have geological limitations that make wastewater disposal a particularly vexing problem for the area," said Kate Sinding, senior attorney at NRDC. "But the lessons learned there are applicable nationwide. It is critical states in this region that are already fracking clean up their act fast. And states like New York, where gas companies are still knocking on the door, must not let them in until they get this right."

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NRDC: Report: Five Primary Disposal Methods for Fracking Wastewater All Fail to Protect Public Health and Environment

The five most common disposal options for fracking wastewater currently in use are: recycling for additional fracking, treatment and discharge to surface waters, underground injection, storage in open air pits, and spreading on roads for ice or dust control. All of these options present significant risks of harm to public health or the environment. And there are not sufficient rules in place to ensure any of them will not harm people or ecosystems.

Some of these methods present such great threats that they should be banned immediately. These methods include treatment at municipal sewage treatment plants and subsequent discharge into surface waters, storage in open air pits, and road spreading.

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When this wastewater is sent to municipal sewage facilities, harmful chemicals and other pollutants are merely diluted, rather than removed, and then released into surface waters, posing serious threats to the state's rivers, lakes and streams, as well as drinking water supplies. Industrial facilities, too, are often not designed to treat the contents of the wastewater, and can also release it into waterways or send it for reuse, after it is processed. Complete information about where industrial facilities sent processed wastewater in Pennsylvania last year was not made available by the state.

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The problem of what to do with this byproduct is growing as the volume of wastewater continues to increase rapidly with the expansion of fracking in the Marcellus Shale formation and nationwide. In Pennsylvania alone, total reported wastewater volumes more than doubled from the first half of 2011 to the second half.

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Wastewater contains a variety of potentially harmful pollutants that can be toxic to humans and aquatic life, radioactive, or corrosive if they are released into the environment or if people are exposed to them. They can damage ecosystem health by depleting oxygen or causing algae blooms, or interact with disinfectants at drinking water plants to form cancer-causing chemicals. These pollutants include salts, oil, grease, metals, naturally occurring radioactive material, and a cocktail of chemicals used in fracking.

Fracking involves using blasting high volumes of water and sand, mixed with undisclosed chemicals, into the ground to break apart rock and release previously inaccessible pockets of natural gas. Wastewater is created when that water mixture returns to the surface immediately after fracking, and continues to emerge from the well after production begins along with polluted water contained naturally within the underground rock formation.

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