The National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), working with an independent scientist has released a report entitled “In Fracking’s Wake: New Rules Are Needed to Protect Our Health and Environment from Contaminated Wastewater.” The report states that the current options available for handling wastewater from fracking operations are inadequate to safeguard both human health and the natural environment. In Pennsylvania alone, the report details that more than 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater were disposed of in 2011, oftentimes in manners the report describes as insufficient or dangerous. The report also states that stronger federal and state protections could provide a better barrier against threats posed by fracking operations. Overall, the report has been described as one of the most comprehensive examinations of the Fracking industry to date, particularly in regard to wastewater disposal.
In regards to wastewater disposal, the NRDC has stated that contaminated wastewater is one of the biggest concerns with fracking. Rebecca Hammer, an attorney for the NRDC has stated that companies should be held to task for other detrimental effects associated with fracking, including other forms of pollution and man-made earthquakes. There are five commons disposal options in relation to wastewater from fracking: treatment and discharge, storage in open air pits, spreading on roads for ice and dust control, recycling for additional fracking and underground injection. All five of these have accompanying risks, and all exist in a system with few sufficient rules to protect humanity or the environment. In fact, some of these methods are dangerous enough that certain parties have called for their immediate banning; these methods include treatment at municipal sewage plants, road spreading, and storage in pits. Road spreading in particular can eventually lead to the contamination of water sources when wastewater combines with rain or snow. In regards to the dust control manner of wastewater disposal, an unknown quantity was applied to roadways in 2011. Currently, the recycling method remains one of the most promising in terms of environmental protection, and could potentially provide fracking operators a way to avoid damaging the environment if strong administrative rules are in place.
In 2011, Pennsylvania experienced a large discharge of wastewater into local bodies of water, including drinking water supplies. A majority of fracking water was sent to treatment plants – either locally managed municipal sewage plants or industrial facilities. Ten percent of the wastewater sent to those plants (about 84 million gallons), was sent to state-exempted facilities, which do not have to meet current water pollution limits. The result of this is the distinct possibility that water disposed of at those facilities released a higher level of contaminants back into the local water system. A complete list of information related to where industrial facilities sent their treated wastewater in 2011 in Pennsylvania has not been released by Pennsylvania. Furthermore, about a third of Pennsylvania fracking wastewater in 2011 was reused for fracking. Of that number, ten percent was dealt with through underground injection in Ohio primarily. The remaining quantity of wastewater was reported to have been stored and pending treatment.
The increase of business in the fracking industry has definitely led to the creation of larger volumes of wastewater. In the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania, for example, increased fracking activity has caused wastewater volumes to double from the first half of 2011 to the second half alone. The wastewater disposal methods utilized in Pennsylvania also are typically different than those used elsewhere in the United States, with producers often having to ship water to disposal sites because of the insufficient geology of Pennysylvania for injection. Of the volume of wastewater created nationally, 90% is typically disposed of through injection.
Lastly, governmental administration could potentially improve provide strong safeguards against pollution from fracking wastewater. Some of these improvements could result from treating such wastewater and other byproducts of fracking as hazardous wastes, improving wastewater treatment standards for treatment facilities, and demanding greater regulation of fracking in states that have not yet developed a fracking industry. In places where fracking is already doing business, new environmental and health standards, coupled with active enforcement, could potentially lead to a change in the negative effects that have been seen from exposure to wastewater. Wastewater often contains a cadre of potentially harmful and carcinogenic pollutants, including oil, salts, grease, radioactive materials, metals and other chemicals used in fracking.