According to an article published Monday by the Chemical & Engineering News, sewage treatment plants are having trouble keeping up with the increasing volume of wastewater produced by fracking. Not only are the treatment plants unable to handle the sheer amount of wastewater, but they have also discovered that they are not able to properly treat the water due to the high level of chemicals found in it.
In May of 2011, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental protection told the state’s treatment plants to stop treating the fracking wastewater, answering the public’s concerns about elevated bromide levels in the Pennsylvania Monongahela River watershed where some wastewater was treated.
“Scientists hadn’t definitively pinpointed fracking waste as the source of this pollution. In general, researchers haven’t studied how fracking wastewater affects the quality of water leaving sewage plants,” states the CEN article, but Kyle J. Ferrar, a graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh, along with his fellow colleagues, has begun the process.
Taking water samples from one private and two public facilities in the state that treated water from the Marcellus Shale region, Ferrar has tested samples that came from both before and after the department’s request to stop treating fracking water, measuring the level of chemicals found in the water at all three sample sites. His tests have discovered that the treatment of wastewater actually did more harm than good.
“Although levels of these chemicals varied widely among the three treatment plants, in general, concentrations dropped significantly after the plants stopped taking the fracking waste,” Ferrar told CEN. “For example, at a municipal plant in Greene County, average barium concentrations fell from 5.99 to 0.14 mg/L.” Levels of several other chemicals – such as barium and strontium – also exceeded the drinking water standards set by the Environmental Protection Agency.
However, Bucknell University geology professor Carl Kirby also studies the environmental impact of Marcellus Shale gas production, and believes that the human health impact of elevated contaminant levels from processed fracking water is still unclear because the water that Ferrar’s team sampled is not used directly as drinking water. Kirby still believes wastewater could reach larger water systems used for drinking water, though it would be diluted.
While Ferrar and Kirby agree that there is no immediate public health concern over pollutant levels, the public has often taken jugs of the cloudy brown water with them in protest of shale drilling and its effects on the public and the environment, forcing the state to look further into the matter.
In January, Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale began an audit of the wastewater issue caused by shale drilling, evaluating the Department of Environmental Protection’s water regulation, testing and enforcement program, along with the DEP’s performance in monitoring, testing, and tracking the handling, treatment, and disposal of shale gas drilling waste. The audit will cover 2009-2012 and will take up to a year to complete.
"Job creation and reducing our dependency on foreign energy sources are good reasons to develop the gas in the Marcellus Shale, but there are a lot of concerns, too," DePasquale told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "We need to make sure our water resources are protected."
In outlining the objectives of his audit, DePasquale has said that he hopes it will determine the “adequacy and effectiveness of DEP's monitoring of water quality as potentially impacted by shale gas development activities, including but not limited to systems and procedures for testing, screening, reporting and response to adverse impact such as contamination."
DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday delivered the DEP’s response to the audit, saying that, “DEP is well-versed and experienced at protecting the state's waters, and that is a priority for the Corbett administration, DEP and all of its hard-working employees." John Hanger, who headed the DEP during the Rendell administration, has backed the audit.