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New Fears Over Fracking Groundwater Contamination

By Professor Chris Rhodes | Tue, 01 January 2013 00:00 | 8

It is found that high concentrations of salts, including those of radium and barium, are present in the flowback waters from late-end fracking operations, lending fears over potential groundwater contamination. The amounts of the various salts are greater than those in the water-mix used in the fracking operation, and their specific concentrations are consistent as having arisen from an underground aquifer that was set-down during the Paleozoic era. Hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") is the process whereby gas and oil is made to flow from impermeable rock, which is broken-open with water containing various salts and other materials, under high pressures, sometimes as much as 15,000 psi (i.e. one thousand times atmospheric pressure).

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania http://live.psu.edu/story/63286 analysed samples taken principally from four different sources. These were brines recovered from 40 conventional oil and gas wells in the state; flowback waters from 22 Marcellus gas wells, collected by the Pennsylvania Bureau of Oil and Gas Management; two more samples of Marcellus flowback waters from a previous study; and similar waters from 8 horizontal wells taken by the Marcellus Shale Coalition.

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The results showed that the flowback waters contained a very high degree of salinity, which is inconsistent with the concentrations of salts contained in the waters used for the fracking operations. Rathermore, it appears that these additional elements stem from the Paleozoic era, which was the earliest of three geologic eras of the Phanerozoic eon, and lasted from around 541 - 252 million years B.P. The Paleozoic is subdivided into six geologic periods, which in decreasing order of age are: the Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous and Permian. The Paleozoic was a period of dramatic geological, climatic, and evolutionary change, and it follows the Neoproterozoic Era of the Proterozoic Eon, and leads-on to the Mesozoic Era.

Specifically the study examined fluids that were brought to the surface within 90 days of fracking. While a fluid equal in volume to one quarter of that used for the fracking operation was recovered, it was found to contain high amounts of a range of elements, most disturbingly radium and barium, which were washed up from some 8,000 feet below the surface. The latter observation might appear to run counter to the view that groundwater contamination is impossible because of the great depths at which fracking is done, and well below the water table.

Attention and concern has so far been given mainly to the chemicals, including corrosive salts and benzene, that are present in the fracking fluid; however, this investigation raises issues over the exhumation of other toxic materials that had previously remained sequestered in the rock over millions of years. The measured levels of radium and barium are significantly greater than those deemed acceptable in drinking water, and so the necessity to dispose properly of the waters from fracking operations is once more stressed, and that account should be taken of the kind of materials that may be washed up from deep underground, as well as the intrinsic composition of the fracking fluid that is injected into the wells in the first place. If the waters are disposed of incautiously, there may be a real risk of water supplies becoming contaminated by substances that are naturally occurring, but nonetheless highly dangerous.

By. Professor Chris Rhodes

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  • Norman on January 02 2013 said:
    This seems to confirm that old adage about "coming back to bite you in the -ss". Considering the water flows there on the east coast, contamination is a real possibility. Also, the fact that corners are cut, (and they are), disposing of the flow back safely, is of the utmost priority. Poisoning the water supply to get at the oil &/or gas, sure doesn't point to any great smarts on behalf of the industry.
  • Steve Gregory on January 03 2013 said:
    Greedy businessmen don't care a whip for the environment, just money. They're destroying the purity of the water table.
  • Ray Bar on January 04 2013 said:
    Unfortunately, the "Industry" doesn't give a damn! They are interested in one thing and only one thing and that's the bottom line. They don't even tell their employees how dangerous this garbage is........
  • Mary Rahall on January 04 2013 said:
    Gas Companies are exterminating kids and families all over the place and our state officials are allowing it to happen. They have the authority to ban Fracking, but they won't.

    The WVDEP thinks it's just fine that there is an injection well in Oak Hill, WV that doesn't get inspected and is known to leak. This incredibly toxic frack fluid is brought in from a variety of states and sits in a settlement pond. Later, it is injected into a well that is connected to our drinking water supply.

    Take a look at this article - http://www.fayettetribune.com/local/x2108297524/Local-injection-wells-accepting-Nicholas-wells-fracking-fluid.

    I've never been in favor of guns and have never owned one, but I'm thinking about it now.
  • Marianne Waldow on January 07 2013 said:
    Thanks to Professor Rhodes for reporting on yet another scientific study showing that the questionable nature of the gas industry claim of the safety of fracking. If you read this and want those in power of saving or destroying our environment to know, e-mail it to them, making a trail of their receipt of the knowledge. Call their offices, show up when they have press conferences or speaking engagements. Do not let them run away from the truth.
  • Beth Kelley on January 08 2013 said:
    Dear Professor,

    You say that "the necessity to dispose properly of the waters from fracking operations is once more stressed."

    I ask, in complete seriousness, what do you think "proper disposal" is? We are talking about billions of gallons of toxic water. We know the problems with injection wells-- they can lubricate faults, causing earthquakes, and their safety is dependent on well casings, which we know fail. We know that pit liners fail and that open pits put the toxicity into the air and land. We know there is no way to filter out most of the dangerous elements. We know dilution is not the answer. The industry talks about "recycling" the water, but then the concentrations are increased it ultimately still needs disposal.

    Thank you for any insights.
  • Sandra Givigliano on January 12 2013 said:
    We have to find a way to get the message across to big oil. There has been one mining disaster after another in Colorado, rivers and ground water contaminated. If we have not come up with mining methods that do not contaminate water, fracking should not be done. Water is absolutely necessary to human survival, oil is not. I can't for the life of me understand how using a necessary resource to mine a non-essential resource is good business. I was born and raised in Colorado and earthquakes were unheard of. They are now pretty common in southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. I can't help but wonder if fracking is creating the problem. How can we get the message across that a majority of people seem opposed to fracking? Why are our leaders not listening. I sent an e-mail to one of Colorado's senators and the response was in favor of fracking. Is he in office to represent the people of Colorado or not? It is up to us to figure out how to get the message across. The silent majority has to speak up on this topic.
  • Chris Rhodes on January 21 2013 said:
    Dear Beth,

    I was taking a neutral stance here, and my remark as you quote it should be read as "and all that this implies".

    My point is that, not only must all that is present in the original fracking fluid be considered, but what else might be drawn-up from the depths.

    Agreed, there are many potential problems here, especially if the rate of drilling increases as planned.

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