Tracing Water Contamination to Fracking
November 17, 2011
Yesterday, I attend a hearing hosted by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Water Resources and the Environment. The hearing allowed members of Congress and government bureaucrats to discuss concerns about the potential for water contamination from fracking and the right regulatory regime to prevent it.
The specter of contamination arises out of a concern that the high- pressure injection of a mixture of water, sand, and toxic chemicals might migrate in to underground sources of drinking water.
For this reason, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is undertaking a study of this issue due out in 2014. The important point about this study is that it is designed to look at the entire life cycle of water use in the fracking process- not just the part about injection. The environmental, scientific, and public health communities care just as much about water quantity, flowback, and disposal as the injection itself. After injection, when the fracking fluid returns to the surface, some of it might spill. And even if all the fracking fluid is properly contained, the operators must either re-inject it or dispose of it- often at a municipal water treatment facility. The problem is that most of these publicly owned facilities are not equipped to treat this kind of wastewater. This is why we need the study. EPA is considering guidelines to aid these facilities in the disposal of fracking wastewater as well as assess the other associated risks.
But just for fun, let’s talk about just the injection part. Probably my favorite industry argument is that fracking fluids contain mostly water and only ½% toxics. Since that doesn’t sound like much, it must be harmless. But please consider that when EPA determines the acceptable levels for certain toxins, they often speak in terms of parts per million (ppm) or parts per billion (ppb). By comparison, one-half of one percent is one part in 200. That’s a big difference. So when gas companies use hundreds of thousands of gallons in fracking, ½% of that still means thousands of gallons of chemicals in very dangerous concentrations. This is why we need the study.
My second favorite industry argument is that never in the sixty-year plus history of fracking, has anyone confirmed a case of contamination. This might be especially compelling if only it were true. The real problem is that we lack a sixty-year history of baseline water testing. Without this data, whenever we see methane bubbles in Dimock, PA, or fracking chemicals in water supplies in Pavillion, WY, or combustible tap water in Colorado, industry tells us it’s a seep. Seepage is an industry term for wishful thinking. Since it’s very difficult to prove the precise source of any given contamination, seepage suggests it could be naturally occurring. This is why we need the study.
One good way of getting at this is to use tracers. Sort of like using a little food coloring as a tracking beacon, a variety of benign tracers are routinely used in hydrologic studies. Tracers would definitively distinguish between anthropogenic and naturally occurring causes of water contamination. Acknowledging this point was Yale hydrology professor James Saiers during a Monday morning Q & A hosted by Resources for the Future. Responding to a question by the RAND Corporation’s Nick Berger, Saiers intimated that there is great potential for the use of tracers and his own impression was that industry is not too happy about it. Not happy I guess because industry is also concerned that injecting fracking fluids could contaminate water supplies. This is why we need the study.