Demand for natural gas has ballooned in the United States in recent years, and as a result, hydraulic fracturing rapidly became a widespread practice. Unfortunately, the extent of its potential for water pollution is still unknown, though alarm bells are now sounding. Fracking came into Americans’ lives swiftly and ubiquitously. Much like a fashion trend that’s all over runways as well as your local coffee hang out, suddenly fracking was everywhere — in areas with large deposits of natural gas, in our job market, and quickly enough, in our news cycle. Largely, this was because natural gas became de rigeur during the Obama administration as a cleaner-burning alternative to carbon-based coal, which in many ways, is a bit of a misnomer. Though fracking causes less air pollution than burning coal, the process of extracting natural gas through fracking may be forcing us to sacrifice our water quality for our air quality.
Concerns about hydraulic fracturing are a relatively recent issue, as it’s only become a widespread practice in the last decade. We don’t yet know its full environmental impacts, but early studies have provided warnings that the impact is not good. And the area that hydraulic fracturing most affects is our drinking water.
How exactly does fracking affect drinking water? It uses literal tons of our old pal H2O, because water is a major component of the hydraulic fracturing process. After all, you can’t spell “hydraulic” without “hydro." In fact, water is involved in every stage of the fracking cycle.
It starts with water acquisition. Oil and gas companies draw water from the local water supply in massive quantities to be used for fracturing underground shale rock. Next, that water is mixed with various chemical additives that will help it break up that rock. Then that mixture is injected into the production well to target the shale formation containing natural gas. Finally, that mixture of water and chemicals (adorably called “frack fluid”) becomes toxic waste. At that point, companies must answer the question of how to safely dispose of it after it has completed its job.
Frack Fluid and the Water Supply
The hydraulic fracturing process not only involves tapping (and often draining) local water supplies at cost to the local community, but the wastewater that’s created is permanently lost to the water supply. Environment America reported in 2013 that fracking, “turns clean water into toxic waste, much of which must be permanently disposed of, taking billions of gallons out of the water supply.” Now that might make someone sit back and say, “But at least the toxic water is kept out of what’s left of the clean water.” However, removing significant amounts of water from circulation actually increases the concentration of pollutants in the remaining freshwater.
On top of all of this, that sneaky fracking wastewater finds ways to join back up with its former buddy, clean water. They mingle together thanks to any number of circumstances, like fracking wells that are dug to only 2000 feet which puts them handily within distance of groundwater, leaving aquifers vulnerable to chemicals that migrate through fissures in well walls.
A recent study revealed that 50 percent of hydraulic fracking wells are within 2 kilometers of domestic wells.
This is particularly concerning, considering that another study showed that fracking contamination can move horizontally underground up to 3 kilometers. The worry about fracking and water quality becomes even greater when paired with the statistic that one in seven Americans draws their water from domestic wells, which receive no treatment from a municipality.
Other times, the question is simply: where can you even safely dispose of or store this stuff? Often wastewater is held in open pits that — guess what! — can also leak into groundwater aquifers. I wish I was done with this list, but there are more disturbing methods companies have employed to dispose of toxic wastewater. In some cases, it’s sprayed on roads and fields, while in others it’s blatantly dumped into rivers.
Whether the oil and gas industry wants to admit it, their toxic wastewater is finding its way into our freshwater supplies. The EPA reported that there were, “457 spills related to fracking in 11 states between 2006 and 2012. In 324 of those cases, the EPA said spills reached soil, surface water or groundwater.”
Additionally, fracking could potentially have widespread effects on drinking water.
Unstudied Chemicals, Unstudied Effects
Another troubling aspect of water pollution caused by fracking is that the Environmental Protection Agency’s labs aren’t suited to testing for fracking chemicals and compounds, many of which are water soluble. Most of EPA’s labs were set up for testing chemicals at Superfund sites. One of the chemicals created in the fracking process is methanol, which can cause blindness and nerve damage if a person is exposed to it in significant amounts. Other substances often in fracking fluid are hydrochloric acid, ammonium persulfate, polyol, borax, and the sodium compound Biocide — and that list is only about half of them.
In 2011, EPA tested a Wyoming aquifer near a fracking site in the town of Pavillion after local residents raised concerns about the water quality and community health. Their test of a monitoring well indeed revealed benzene, diesel, and other chemicals. According to the Scientific American, the state of Wyoming had done some well testing of its own and found 19 troubling chemicals. The state assured its residents that only two of the chemicals were present in amounts large enough to be harmful, but it took the EPA to point out that, “nearly half those chemicals are unstudied, scientists don’t know the safe level of exposure.” Compounding this are newly emerging reports that pregnant women who live within one kilometer of a fracking site have higher incidences of giving birth to underweight infants. Granted, scientists have yet to determine if that’s the result of water or air pollution, but it’s troubling just the same. In truth, it’s going to be hard to know what chemicals exactly are in that frack fluid. When Obama was in office, he required companies to disclose their chemical grocery lists. In 2017, the Trump administration rescinded these rules for oil and gas drilling.
Preliminary evidence also suggests that conventional water treatment may not be the best course of action for returning fracking fluid to a potable state.
One issue is that the shale rock containing the gas has not been disturbed since Jurassic times, but it mixes with the fracking fluid as it comes back to the earth’s surface. Add those naturally occurring chemicals from the Jurassic period mixed with frack fluid to water treatment chemicals that are used to treat bacteria in water, and the mixture forms new chemicals that are even more toxic than the original fracking waste. Scientists studying the problem suggest that filtering fracking wastewater may be the better option than chemical treatment, but municipal water systems aren’t currently equipped for that.
Leave the Frack Fluid Out of Your Water Pitcher
In many cases, the pros and cons of fracking are unclear because by all measures, its effects are understudied. That doesn’t mean, however, that citizens have to stand by as oil and gas companies do whatever they want with the local water supply. Contact your elected representatives at both the local and national levels and press them for stronger regulation of natural gas extraction. Ask them to make companies pay the real costs for the water they’re permanently removing from local watersheds. Push your reps to support further studies of the environmental damage caused by hydraulic fracturing, and donate to independent environmental organizations, especially if they’re conducting studies of the effects of fracking.
Perhaps the place where we have the greatest degree of control is within our own homes. So, another reasonable option is to filter your water. Many of the contaminants in frack fluid have not even been studied closely, and that means no authority is completely sure what they do or don’t do to the human body. So protect your family and remove 95% of that potential water pollution altogether.