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Fracking cleanup techniques being developed in the private sector

Forbes magazine has an article about a new report that looks at a new market developing for companies that are inventing techniques to clean up the toxic liquid mix recovered from hydrofracking natural gas wells.

The report focuses mostly on the Marcellus Shale, which underlies most of the Appalachian basin under New York, Pennsylvania, and parts of Maryland, Ohio, and West Virginia. The Forbes article notes how — and how much — water gets contaminated by the process:

Since that film debuted last year, a scientific report has linked fracking to methane contamination in nearby aquifers. Pennsylvania officials fined Chesapeake Energy more than $1 million for contaminating the water supply in Bradford County. New York recommended a ban on drilling in the watersheds for New York City and Syracuse. In June Texas became the first state to require disclosure of fracking chemicals, which were previously considered to be intellectual property. Just this month, a federal panel recommended greater disclosure and monitoring of fracking’s environmental effects.

Fracking is a water-intensive process. According to “The Marcellus Effect,” a typical frack well uses about 4 million gallons of fresh water over its lifetime. The fracking process dirties the water both with the proprietary chemicals used and by its exposure to elements deep in the earth that are not found in surface waters. The industry calls its wastewater “produced water.”

According to the report:

“Produced water is often high in naturally occurring total dissolved solids, chloride, sulfate, and metals (such as iron)…. Produced water may also contain naturally occurring radioactive material or petroleum compounds (such as benzene, toluene, and xylene). The produced water might also contain remnants of the fracturing fluids [which contain secret recipes of chemicals]…. An individual well in the Marcellus Shale is estimated to create approximately 15,000 gallons of produced water per year.”

Historically the industry has disposed of produced water by injecting it underground in “disposal wells.” But the Marcellus region’s geology does not permit construction of disposal wells, and its undulating terrain makes it difficult to pipe water long distances. In the Marcellus area, some companies have been recycling wastewater to use again but sell the byproduct, a salty, contaminated sludge, to communities for de-icing roads or suppressing dust. Companies have also paid to haul wastewater to sewage plants, which aren’t designed to adequately treat it. Tainted water is then dumped into rivers, a particularly pernicious problem in Pennsylvania, where the Department of Environmental Protection is beginning to impose more stringent regulations.

Fracking remains unregulated at the federal level because Congress exempted the practice from the application of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005.

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