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Researchers Say Fracking Results in Ammonium and Iodide Contamination in Local Waterways

Jan 16, 2015

A new study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology has found that Pennsylvania and West Virginia waterways are being polluted with ammonium and iodide as a result of fracking and other drilling activities. Duke University researchers say that the hazardous substances, which have never before been known as industry pollutants, stem from both conventional drilling and hydraulic fracturing operations. Ammonium and iodide can have detrimental effects on fish, ecosystems and possibly human health.

According to the researchers, the substances are extracted from geological formations during fracking and conventional drilling. The contamination occurs both accidentally and from intentional release by treatment plants who were never equipped to deal with the ammonium and iodide pollutants.

Fracking is already a subject of great concern among environmentalists, who say that operations can contaminate water supplies, cause earthquakes and other devastating consequences. This study only lends support to the argument that stricter regulations are needed.

Ammonium and iodide are both naturally occurring, dangerous chemicals that are essentially unregulated in oil and gas wastewater. Ammonium breaks down into ammonia when dissolved in water, exposing aquatic life to a highly toxic chemical. Ammonium levels in streams and rivers from energy wastewater outflows were at levels 50 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's water-quality threshold, the researchers found.

"As far as we are aware, iodide and ammonium are not regulated, nor monitored in any of the [oil and gas] operations in the United States," the authors stated.

Avner Vengosh, study co-author and professor of water quality and geochemistry at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, said "We are releasing this wastewater into the environment and it is causing direct contamination and human health risks," according to Scientific American. "It should be regulated and it should be stopped. That's not even science; it's common sense."

To conduct the study, researchers collected and analyzed 44 samples of wastewater produced from conventional oil and gas wells in New York and Pennsylvania. They also took 31 samples of "flowback" from shale gas wells in Pennsylvania and Arkansas. Flowback is the polluted and highly saline fluid that flows back to the surface during and after fracking, according to Scientific American. Additionally, samples from three disposal sites in Pennsylvania and a spill site in West Virginia were taken to analyze oil and gas effluents being directly released into streams.

"There are significant environmental and ecosystem impacts of current [oil and gas wastewater] disposal practices in the U.S.," the researchers wrote, "Regulatory action is needed to address these concerns." States who have long used conventional drilling, such as Texas and Oklahoma, normally dispose of oil and gas wastewater by injecting them deep underground. These sites are much less common in Pennsylvania, where fracking activity is substantial. Some wastewater is treated at commercially operated industrial brine treatment plants, but these facilities are not equipped to remove ammonium and iodide. After treatment, the wastewater is released into waterways.

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