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Thursday, June 12, 2014

SWPA groundwater contaminated from leaking frackwater impoundment

A leaking impoundment of stored natural gas drilling wastewater has contaminated soil and - ominously -  groundwater in Amwell Township, Washington County (PA).

This story from the Washington Observer-Reporter provides the details. One statement in it, however, is a bit simplistic.  It says that the impoundment was used to store brine water - the salty water that is produced when a well is drilled and fracked - "but no other materials or chemicals."

That's highly unlikely.  If the water resulted from a frack job, it contained not only brines, but some amount of the chemicals injected as part of the fracking process, AND naturally occurring radioactive materials, AND heavy metals that reside in the shale, AND connate water, which can be really nasty stuff.  

Frackwater storage in open containments is a very risky practice. Leaks present risks to soil and groundwater, as the residents of Amwell Township have painfully discovered. The chemicals from these containments volatilize and give rise to local air pollution and the nosebleeds, headaches, rashes, and other illnesses that are disturbingly reported from the gas fields. And wildlife tend to be attracted to these man-made lakes of waste water, and have a disturbing tendency to die after drinking from them or just coming in contact with them.

So why are they used? Because they're cheap to construct. But are they really? If they leak, then the companies that use them face bills for excavating and landfilling (in a hazardous waste facility) thousands of tons of contaminated soil, and a potentially staggering bill to clean up contaminated groundwater (if it can be done at all).  Plus all of the other risks - and potential costs - that I've described.

Open impoundments are simply big financial and reputational risks to the natgas industry. Recognizing those risks and accounting for them when making development decisions are part of what I've argued - over and over - should be the business case for sustainable (read better-regulated and much better practiced) shale gas development. 

But those risks must also be recognized in regulation. Because after all, when something goes wrong, affected communities are left holding the bag, their citizens wondering about the safety of their groundwater for a long time to come.

The Amwell contamination incident is inexcusable and preventable. Pennsylvania and other shale gas producing states must require closed-loop, closed-container systems to handle all drilling-related fluids.

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