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Hazardous contaminants found in conventional & unconventional wastewater

Scientists at Duke University have recently discovered high levels of ammonium and iodide in wastewater being discharged or spilled into freshwater streams and rivers from oil and gas worksites located in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Ammonium and iodide can be potentially hazardous to the environment and human health.  The levels of contamination were equal to wastewater from conventional oil wells and gas wells as from fracked shale gas wells.

To conduct the study, scientists collected and analyzed 44 samples of wastewaters produced from conventional wells located in New York and Pennsylvania, along with 31 samples of flowback waters from fracked shale gas wells.  The 31 well samples were located in Pennsylvania and Arkansas.  Researchers also collected and analyzed oil and gas effluents that were going directly into streams, rivers and surface waters located at three different disposal sites in Pennsylvania and a spill site in West Virginia.

Professor of Geochemistry and Water Quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment Avner Vengosh commented on the new findings:

This discovery raises new concerns about the environmental and human health impacts of oil and gas wastewater in areas where it is discharged or leaked directly into the environment … Our data clearly show that the current brine treatment practice in Pennsylvania is not sufficient to remove these contaminants.

When ammonium is dissolved in water, it can change to ammonia, which is extremely toxic to aquatic life.  Phys.Org reports the Duke scientist found “ammonium levels of up to 100 milligrams per liter in oil and gas samples they collected at wastewater discharge sites.  These levels are more than 50 times higher than the EPA water-quality threshold for protecting freshwater organisms.”

Related: Expert explains link bewteen seisimic activity and fracking, wastewater injection

Surface water contaminated with elevated levels of iodide can form extremely toxic byproducts in drinking water.  This occurs when the iodide combines with chlorine used to disinfect the water at treatment plants near oil and gas operations.  State and federal agencies do not monitor these types if disinfection byproducts.

The public concern regarding water contaminants revolves around the impact hydraulic fracturing fluids from shale gas exploration are having on drinking water.  However, this study proves that wastewaters from conventional oil and gas operations also contain levels of ammonium and iodide that are equal to fracked wells.

Jennifer S. Harkness, the lead author of the study and a PhD student at Duke’s Nicholas School of Environment, commented on the comparison of fracking fluids and conventional well waste:

By measuring naturally occurring ammonium and iodide in numerous samples from different geological formations in the Appalachian Basin, including flowback waters from shale gas wells in the Marcellus and Fayetteville shale formations, we show that fracking fluids are not much different from conventional oil and gas wastes.

Previous studies and reports have proved than fracking fluids contain high levels of salts, barium and radioactive elements, along with man-made chemicals.

Vengosh expressed how conventional and unconventional wells are exempted from the Clean Water act and will only continue to cause environmental and health issues if a change does not occcur:

Wastewater from both conventional and unconventional oil and gas operations is exempted from the Clean Water Act, which allows their disposal to the environment. This practice is clearly damaging the environment and increases the health risks of people living in these areas, and thus should be stopped.

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