October 24, 2014
Inside a government lab near Washington D.C., Denise Akob holds up a glass jar filled with water. At the bottom of the jar is what looks like sand.
“It just looks like mud from any old stream—it’s got this brown color, it’s rocky, the water is still really clear,” says Akob, a microbiologist with the U.S. Geological Survey.
The sediment is from a clean streambed. It’s been inside the bottle for 90 days.
Akob holds up a second bottle with sediment and water in it, but this one’s not so clear. Inside of it is sand a from a stream in West Virginia that was polluted by a leaking oil and gas wastewater impoundment.
“You actually can’t even see through the bottle,” Akob says.
An orange goo coats the sides of the second bottle—iron oxide, or rust. The difference between the two bottles? The iron oxide is the result of a chemical reaction between microbes in the sediment and contaminants in the streambed.
The experiment is part of a research project at the USGS to determine the risk posed by fracking wastewater. The oil and gas industry produces billions of gallons of this waste every year. The waste is the briny liquid that comes out of a well after it’s been hydraulically fractured with millions of gallons of water.
The waste is tainted with chemicals from fracking fluid, and has toxic levels of metals and salts from underground rock formations.
“One of the main things we’re trying to do on this project is identify what the important potential pathways to the environment are,” says Isabelle Cozzarelli, a geochemist leading the team of USGS researchers. “There can be accidental spills, or there can be leaks or spills at waste disposal facilities.”
In North Dakota, a million gallons of brine spilled from a pipeline break earlier this year and killed a swath of vegetation along its 2-mile path.
Cozzarelli’s team is looking closely at one question: What happens when tiny organisms in the soil come in contact with frackwater? They are studying the everyday activities of these bacteria.
This includes how the bugs eat and breathe.
The bacteria the USGS team is studying can eat crude oil and chemicals found in oil and gas waste. In this way, microorganisms can essentially ‘clean up’ oil and chemical spills.
But this process can also create toxic byproducts. These bugs need to breathe more if they’re given a large new food source—like a frack wastewater spill. But underground, there is very little oxygen, so they must find other substances to breathe, like iron compounds.
But the iron in the ground is often attached to arsenic, and when microorganisms use the iron for respiration, the arsenic is released, and becomes water soluble. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen and is tightly regulated in drinking water.
“In these environments, if you have an influx of food, which can be a contaminant, an oil spill, a coal seam, then that reaction is enhanced,” Cozzarelli says. “And you can get more arsenic released into that groundwater.”
That's what it appears happened at an oil spill site in Minnesota. Arsenic levels in groundwater there are 20 times above the EPA limit for drinking water. (Though no one is actually drinking that water.)
So will bacteria help or hurt groundwater quality when frack wastewater gets into the ground? Cozzarelli says they’re just beginning to answer these questions.
“I kind of feel we’re trying to catch up. The industry’s just gone so quick,” Cozzarelli says.
The results of these studies could help in states where frack wastewater spills occur. In Pennsylvania, oil and gas companies have drilled more than 8,500 wells in the Marcellus shale. And state records show that spills or leaks of fracking waste are common.
The mapping website FracTracker analyzed oil and gas violations records from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and found 214 recorded spills in 2014. Of those spills, 53 were for oil and gas wastewater.
Many of these spills are small—only a few gallons—but some are not.
The DEP found Range Resources had leaks at several of its waste ponds in Washington County.
In September, the company agreed to pay a record $4.15 million fine for these discharges.
Range said in a statement it was “deeply disappointed” by the violations but said its new impoundments would surpass current DEP requirements.
“These new practices go above and beyond more comprehensive landfill regulations and newly proposed oil and gas impoundment standards,” the company said. The DEP is also attempting to fine EQT $4.5 million for leaks at a 6-million gallon wastewater impoundment in northern Pennsylvania. The company reported the impoundment’s liner had over 200 holes.
EQT is challenging the fine, calling it “exorbitant.”
Scott Perry, deputy secretary of the DEP’s Office of Oil and Gas Management, says the size of the fines reflects how seriously the state is taking the issue.
“Management of wastewater from oil and gas development is, in my opinion, the most critical environmental issue associated with the activity,” says Perry. “If you can’t manage this waste stream, you can’t drill here.”
Perry says the state is beefing up its rules on impoundments, which could include mandating two liners below each waste pit.
“Because of the double-lined system, we do not believe there’s really any likelihood that groundwater can be affected—and we know this because we have many years of experience using these exact same liner systems in Pennsylvania landfills,” Perry says.
That’s welcome news for residents like Janice Dumont. She lives next to one of the leaky Range Resources impoundments, in Cecil Township, just south of Pittsburgh.
Dumont and her husband signed a lease with the company for a gas lease on their land. But word of a potential leak at the impoundment nearby caused her to worry for the quality of her groundwater. The water has since been tested several times and no contaminants have been found.
“Range tested, the DEP tested it, and there was no impact from the fracking pond,” says Dumont. “ I feel confident it’s still good.”
A steep ravine separates her hill from the impoundment. She says a DEP inspector told her the ravine might act as barrier between any pollution from the waste pond and her groundwater.
“We were lucky that we didn’t have any problems," she says. "Because our well water is so good. It’s delicious, it’s cold—and there’s no water bills!”
Range Resources will keep testing the groundwater, and will submit a closure plan for the waste pond by the end of the month. Dumont says she won’t miss the impoundment when it’s gone.