“Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink” is paraphrased from the Rime of the Ancient Mariner — and it infers that you are surrounded by water (in the Mariner’s case, the ocean) but you can’t drink any of it.
The regrettable reality is that it may well be coming true for water itself worldwide.
According to one young scholar, only 2 percent of the Earth’s surface water is drinkable, and half of that is polluted — leaving 1 percent for 7 billion of us humans, not counting the plants and animals.
We’ll limit the discussion here to frac sand mining and its effect on water.
Mines created by hydraulic fracturing technique (fracking) are vertical or can be made to go horizontally through shale rock, where natural gas and oil exist from compression over millions of years. The first “frac job” was performed in 1947. The current fracking method was first used in the 1990s for the Barnett Shale field in Texas. A recent University of Texas study outlined the environmental impacts of each aspect of the fracking process.
These include drill pad construction and operation; the construction, integrity and performance of the wellbores; the injection of fluid once it is underground; the backflow of the fluid and other byproducts towards the surface; blowouts (often unreported) spewing frac fluid and other byproducts across surrounding area; integrity of other pipelines involved; and the disposal of the flow back products and water.
The study listed groundwater contamination, blowouts and health effects as problems associated with fracking.
The sand itself is used during the injection to prop open the fractures as a permeable and permanent filler for the void made by fracking. The injected fluid slurry is 98 to 99 percent water, with some added chemicals to facilitate the cracking and protect the well.
In addition, radioactive tracer substances are added to the fluid to track the well’s progress somehow.
One reference lists more than 30 gamma-emitting isotopes, not all used at once. Iodine-131 was listed more than the others.
The initial well drilling may consume 6,000 to 600,000 gallons of frac fluid. The well’s life use requires 5 million more gallons. Some arid areas of the world have banned fracking because of water scarcity.
Chemical additives in frac fluids are only 2 percent by weight, with widely varying toxicities. A 2011 study identified 632 chemicals used in natural gas mining. Only 353 are well described in the literature.
It recommended the chemicals’ Safe Drinking Water Act exemption for fracking be rescinded. A 2011 U.S. House of Representatives report on frac chemicals showed 750 compounds. “More than 650 were products containing chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as hazardous pollutants.”
Many chemicals were listed as proprietary or trade secrets and therefore not subject to regulation. Most companies in the study wouldn’t reveal the compositions.
Groundwater contamination with chemicals and radiation has been documented near large drilling areas in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Colorado. Wells near Pavillion, Wyo., tested positive for gasoline, diesel fuel, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene — all used in frac fluid.
In 2009, 13 water wells in Dimock, Penn., were contaminated with methane from the gas, and one exploded. The movie “Gasland,” shown at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival highlighted these issues and was criticized by the oil and gas industry.
In February 2011, The New York Times reported wastewater at 116 of 179 deep gas wells in Pennsylvania contained high levels of radiation, but the effects on public water supplies wasn’t known due to lack of regular testing. After 44,000 barrels of frac wastewater from Cabot Oil and Gas Co. were discharged from a treatment facility into the Neshaminy Creek at a Philadelphia suburb in 2009 and 2010, the EPA found elevated iodine-131 amounts in Philadelphia’s drinking water.
Can we defer the small earthquakes and methane greenhouse gases for another time? Like most problems, where there is smoke/gas, there is fire/contamination.
Only a tiny bit of information is presented here. The Halliburton Co. of Iraq infamy invented the fracking technique. Does it make you question whether they are doing a “frac job” on our water? Maybe frac deserves more flack.
Frank Bures is a Winona dermatologist.