Friday, January 25, 2013

Why the fracking waste problem defies a simple answer Recycling sounds good, but what does it really mean?

High volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF) is the technological centerpiece to a new era of domestic oil and gas production. It’s also central to the controversy over the risks and merits of using unconventional means to extract gas and oil from mantels of bedrock spanning hundreds of thousands of square miles under dozens of states. What once were thought of as mere rocks are now widely promoted as the key to America’s energy future.

So this is nothing new to students of America’s energy dilemma, although fiction and non-fiction films – most notably Gasland, Promised Land, and Frack Nation – reinforce themes of bad guys and good guys in the industry or the movement that is trying to stop it. And then there’s the work of Kirsi Jansa, an independent journalist with a neutral eye and even hand who has created Gas Rush Stories, a series of short films highlighting the perspectives of different stakeholders in Pennsylvania shale gas development. While some of the material Jansa works with is not new – health claims related to dirty water or shale gas as an economic engine – I find her reporting worthwhile, especially when it takes viewers to places they may not have been to yet, such as a Pennsylvania plant that treats flowback. With Jansa’s permission, I have embedded that episode below, and I will talk a little more about why I think it’s a significant contribution to the shale gas discussion later in this post.

First a quick review: HVHF, commonly known as fracking, involves pressurized chemical solutions to crack bedrock along horizontally drilled well bores, some extending a mile or more in various directions from the center of a well pad. Fracking is sometimes confused with drilling, because activists tend to use the word as a hook in their broad condemnation of all aspects of shale gas development. But to be clear, fracking – also called well stimulation -- is one step in a multistep process to retrieve gas from bedrock, and it’s distinctly separate from drilling.

Industry proponents also use the word narrowly to serve their own rhetorical purposes. They like to limit the discussion of fracking to what happens once the fracking fluids pass through the water table and enter the production zone, where they are blasted into bed rock with underground charges that perforate the production lining. The industry’s use of the term tends to discount the vast logistics of getting the water to the site, mixing the chemicals, pumping them into a well bore, or collecting and disposing of millions of gallons of waste – flowback – produced with each well. This waste is a combination of chemicals, many of them toxic, injected into the well with water, and stuff like brine, heavy metals, and radionuclides that flow to the surface after 500 million years trapped in the Devonian Epoch.

There is consensus, if not scientific certainty, that chances are negligible that fracking fluids penetrating bedrock like the Marcellus or Utica shales a mile or more deep in New York and Pennsylvania will migrate into water tables near the surface any time soon. This is something industry representatives like to emphasize. But they seldom acknowledge, much less emphasize, the part of fracking – the logistical part – that involves the greatest risk of polluting fresh water zones. That’s when products and byproducts are trucked, stored, mixed, and handled above the surface and injected into the well, or regurgitated with the brine and collected and shipped off for handling and disposal. When things go awry here problems are blamed on “human error” or “mechanical failure.” From a PR standpoint, that makes sense, because it suggests these things can be controlled or prevented, and things that can be controlled or prevented are less scary than the notion of suspect technology interfacing with poorly understood natural systems.

Every shale well produces several million gallons of waste. There are tens of thousands of wells being produced over the short term in Pennsylvania alone, with similar rates of development targeted for the other dozen or more states over shale reserves. The industry is exempt from federal hazardous waste laws, so it is relatively free to handle and dispose of waste without the restrictive reporting measures that apply to other industries using the same chemicals or producing similar kinds of waste.

Sometimes haulers take waste to treatment plants, where it is diluted and discharged into rivers, an option that has been known to cause problems. With the onset of the Pennsylvania Shale Gas Boom from 2008 through 2010, levels of total dissolved solids – which include chlorides and other constituents of production waste -- spiked in major Pennsylvania watersheds, including the Monongahela and Allegheny river systems. The spikes coincided with the disposal of drilling waste to municipal treatment plants that were not equipped to treat it. After TDS in the Mon hit crises levels, the Pennsylvania DEP drafted new rules, under Chapter 95 of Pennsylvania’s Clean Streams Laws, to discourage the disposal of drilling waste at treatment plants by setting TDS ceilings for incoming shipments. But many plants ended up grandfathered into the old standard, and the industry found other ways around the new rule, and the problem persisted. After repeated calls for the industry to voluntarily stop taking drilling waste to plants ill equipped to handle it, TDS levels have recently dropped dramatically in the Mon River. But they remain a problem in the Alleghany. Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania DEP is scaling back a proposed law to impose tougher water quality standards. Specifically, the DEP has dropped Chapter 93 Water Quality Standards for the discharge of molybdenum, sulfates, chlorides, and 1-4 dioxane, in response to industry complaints that restricting the discharge of these pollutants would hurt business.

There is an alternative to discharging flowback through treatment plants: Disposal wells. Specifically, waste from the burgeoning Marcellus shale in Pennsylvania is being shipped to Ohio and injected into depleted oil and gas cavities deep in the earth. It’s an option with it’s own set of PR and mechanical issues, including questions about seismic tremors and long-term geological stability.

And there is another alternative: Recycling. Recycling is the industry’s simple and promotionally effective answer to a complex problem. But recycling is complicated, starting with the lack of a statutory definition for what it actually is or should be. It is voluntary and unregulated. With no regulatory baseline, it’s a catchy word that projects an air of environmental stewardship, while actually meaning whatever the industry wants it to mean. Very much like the term “all natural” on food products intends to give us a good feeling without really telling us anything about them. Recycling, sometimes called closed loop drilling, suggests that all the flowback is collected in steel tanks and then purified, sometimes on site, for reuse. There is little public explanation of how the process eliminates or neutralizes chemicals that are classified as hazardous material when they are mixed with the water, or how the heavy metals, residuals, and brine that come out of well bores are either rendered harmless in this process or are also recycled and put to good use. The industry typically cites the need to protect trade secrets as an excuse for non-disclosure.

The fact that the process is ill-defined, variable, and obscure does not mean that material coming from the wells is not faithfully and effectively dealt with. But there is no way of independently verifying it. In all cases, we are asked to trust the industry. In more than 20 years of environmental reporting, I have learned that some companies are more trustworthy than others.

This brings us to the work of Kirsi Jansa, a Finnish journalist who has attempted to document the flow of wastewater as part of Gas Rush Stories. In Episode 9, she takes viewers on a tour of Reserved Environmental Services, a Pennsylvania company that handles fracking waste. I find Jansa’s work to be a fair attempt to get answers without building a case for or against the industry, and very different from partisan films such as Gasland and Frack Nation that have gained far more publicity. Jansa asks relevant questions and faithfully documents the answers – in the case of Episode 9 the answers come from her tour guide, plant operator Andy Kicinski. Jansa’s minimalist style lets her sources do the talking while offering viewers little in the way of rhetorical lines with which to connect the informational dots. But her work does raise provoking questions, at least in my mind. Where does the residual waste end up? Why is the finished water non-potable? Why do some haulers bring in waste for disposal rather than recycling, and where does that go?

While reporting for Gannett, I interviewed treatment plant operators and found they were free with information to a point that stopped short of technical specifics. So after viewing Jansa’s film, I followed up to see if I could connect a few of the dots. I was interested, among other things, in how the contaminants removed from the flowback were handled when they were concentrated through the recycling process.

Jansa’s answer from Kicinski squared with my own reporting: Flowback distillate is classified as residual waste, which, unlike hazardous waste, can be disposed of by conventional means. She also explained her futile attempts to document the disposal of another kind of shale waste – tailings that are produced from the drilling process. That includes drilling mud used to lubricate drill bits and float tailings to the surface. It really isn’t mud, but a viscous solution engineered to exacting chemical specifications that contans barium and other toxic chemicals. Jansa’s source had to eventually decline the interview because of a non-disclosure agreement with its customers.

“I've been a journalist for almost 20 years and have never worked on an issue where it is so hard to get information and find answers,” Jansa told me. “But then I've never worked on a topic where so much money is involved either.”

As I have stated in previous posts, I take no side on the merits and risks of shale gas development. But I am all for transparency and full disclosure and I approach the concentration of wealth and power with healthy skepticism. That’s an old-school journalistic ambition that is well served by the work of people like Jansa.


  1. Thanks for raising these points, Michael. The vagueness of the sentence you question, including “lack of certainty” and “anytime soon,” reflects the vagueness in the knowledge base about this issue. Perhaps I could have said it differently. But my intention is not to instill or dispel comfort about the matter. The point I make beyond that is surface water pathways + spills/releases/unregulated disposal = predominant and known risk.

    Appreciate your elaboration on the radionuclides, which also gets back to my point about disposal.

  2. Thanks very much for this informative blog entry--the details of the "recycling" process are something that we should certainly have more information about than we've gotten to date!

    Re fracking fluids penetrating bedrock: Based on the large amount of reading on this issue that I have done in recent years, I agree that, given what is known at this point, contamination of aquifers via fluids that migrate up through layers of rock is a far less likely scenario than contamination that makes its way down into the aquifer from the surface. (Although it's important to recognize that contamination from the ground up is a distinct possibility if there are open pathways to the surface, such as those that may occur when abandoned, unplugged or improperly plugged gas or oil wells exist in the vicinity of a fracked gas well.) But of course, I used the phrase "given what is known at this point" very deliberately, as it is also clear to me that, as you note, there is no scientific certainty about this issue. (My personal opinion is that, given the importance of the aquifers, it would not be wise to just assume that the current consensus on fracking fluid migration is correct!)

  3. Treated waster is non-potable because the treatment is really quite limited. What they remove is some elements from the drilling and the formation water, but few if any chemicals from the fracing. The suspended particles (sand, silt, and clay) are removed in initial settling tank and filters. Making the water more basic causes the dissolved iron to precipitate out. The sodium sulfate precipitates out the barium and strontium. Volatile petroleum evaporates during aeration and liquid petroleum is skimmed off. (Chlorine is added only to kill bacteria so it doesn't grow in the pipes and clog them.) That leaves dozens elements plus all the frac chemicals. As the CEO said, the vast majority is sodium and chlorine (ie salt), which can be over 10% of the solution -- that's a pound of salt per gallon. Distillation or reverse osmosis could remove the salt, but that is not economical. Concentration is so high that the salt limits the use of recycled frac water and requires that it makes up only a small fraction for the next frac job.

    1. Thanks for these details. I am interested in follow-up. Can you contact me at ?

    2. I am wondering how energy-intensive the various treatment options are.

    3. To Mary, above, and Joanne, below: More good questions that I will add to the list. Let me know if you find answers...

  4. I was surprised that there was no mention of treatment for radium in the video. The only NORM listed in a graphic were radon and uranium, but most of the Marcellus well waste locally seems to have much higher radium - both 226 and 228 - than uranium. Radium is a precursor element to radon, so one would expect that it would be a component of the waste water being treated.

    1. There doesn't seem to be much conclusive information about the degree and level of radiation, which seems to vary with hot spots within the formations. The question you raise in an important one.

    2. Just ran across this article today, from a newsite centered near Pittsburgh.

  5. Hi Tom,
    I loved reading this piece! Well written! :)

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