Above Ground, Marcellus Salts Put Water at Risk

They're often found in seawater, but bromides are now making it into Pittsburgh's rivers, courtesy of Marcellus Shale fracking water. These salts are usually safe for people--until they flow into a water treatment plant. The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier looks at why the state wants to keep these usually benign salts out of our taps.

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HOST: Every week, about 30 new natural gas wells are drilled using hydraulic fracturing--AKA fracking--in Pennsylvania. The water that comes out of wells after drilling is dirty and salty, and poses a risk to public drinking water. So state environmental officials have asked drillers to stop sending this water to treatment plants, where it threatens rivers and streams. It set a deadline of next week to do this. The Allegheny Front's Reid Frazier breaks down the science behind the afterlife of fracking water.

FRAZIER: First, let's start with a primer on some Marcellus Shale lingo. You may know about fracking. That's shooting water at high pressure into rocks well below the ground. You break the rock up, and collect the gas. But once the water goes down the well, it's gotta come back up. The water that comes back out goes by many names....wastewater, brine, and often ìflowback.î And this water is a bit of a hot potatoóno-one really wants it. It contains lots of things found deep underground that can make us sick if we ingest them--things like metals and salts.

Drillers can't just dump this stuff into the nearest stream. They have to take it to waste treatment plants to remove heavy metals. But municipal and private treatment plants here weren't designed to deal with as much brine as they've seen during the Marcellus Shale boom. So they've been releasing more pollutants into rivers and streams.

SOUND OF RUSHING WATER

FRAZIER: Outside the Pennsylvania Brine treatment plant in the village of Josephine, an hour east of Pittsburgh, water rushes from an eight-inch pipe into Black Lick Creek. It's a tributary of the Allegheny River, one of Pittsburgh's key sources of drinking water. The water has a rich, acrid smell. And its milky froth stains the rocks around the discharge pipe a ghostly white.

FERRER: We want to flush our vessel, at least three times and then we'll take our sample after flushing the vessel.

FRAZIER: Kyle Ferrer crouches next to the pipe with a brown glass jar in his hands to collect some of the water. He's a University of Pittsburgh grad student in public health and he's been sampling water here for months. The Josephine plant is allowed to release up to 120,000 gallons of treated oil and gas wastewater a day. Ferrer wants to know what's in the pipe, and how it's affecting the chemistry of the creek. So a little further downstream, he gets into a small kayak.

He drops a sampling device that looks like a small submarine into the water.

FERRER: Fire in the hole.

FRAZIER : He takes more more samples here.

VOLUNTEER: Is there anything else Kyle? I've got a little room in my bag. Is there anything not fitting?

FRAZIER: Previous studies showed elevated levels of several minerals and chemicals used in fracking fluid.

FRAZIER: At the end of the day, Ferrer and a group of volunteers have collected more than 200 bottles of river and brinewater. They'll continue to sample the stream even after the May 19 deadline. That's when the DEP has asked drillers to voluntarily stop sending their flowback to treatment plants. The DEP wouldn't comment on tape for this report, but the state's worries can be boiled down to one word: bromide.

Bromide is a salt usually found in seawater. It's also found deep underground, in the Marcellus Shale. The shale, after all, was once an ancient seabed. Now bromide is usually pretty benign. You've probably swallowed it if you've ever had a mouthful of seawater. It's only a problem when it gets into a water treatment plant that uses chlorine. When that happens, the chlorine reacts with bromide, making it into bromine. And bromine is a hungry sort of atomóit wants to glom onto other atoms and form bigger chains. So to an unattached bromine, the water plant looks like -- a singles bar. Bromine hooks up with other compounds and forms

STATES: Bromoform, dibromochloromethane, dichlorobromomethane...

Stanley States, of the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, ticks off the names of trihalomethanes found in his plant. They cause cancer in lab animals. So for years, the EPA has regulated them at the parts per billion level, an incredibly small amount.

STATES: But all of a sudden we see an unanticipated increase that we can't explain, and one possible explanation for this may be recent increases in bromide levels in the river water.

FRAZIER: These are still small amounts but they could make it hard for his plant to stay within federal drinking water rules, which are about to get stricter.

At the same time as States noticed his water changing, scientists at Carnegie Mellon University noticed something too. They found bromides in the Monongahela were double and triple their normal levels. So last month, the stateís DEP asked drillers to find somewhere else to put wastewater besides treatment plants, and it set a deadline of May 19th. The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, says drillers now recycle the majority of flowback produced at wells. But that still leaves millions of gallons of untreated drilling water to goÖsomewhere. So the question is, where?

Some of it will go to the Nomad. No, this isn't a member of a wandering tribe, but it is designed to be moved around. It's a machine that fits on a flat bed truck, and it's made by a company called Aqua-Pure.

MAGNUS: Weíre oil and gas guys outta Canada.

FRAZIER: That's Aqua-Pure's Richard Magnus. His is one of many companies trying to get in the business of treating oil and gas wastewater in Pennsylvania. His machine--the Nomad--uses a tried and true method to clean the brine.

MAGNUS: It's not a chemical process, it's Mother Nature's method to make distilled wateróit's an evaporation process.

FRAZIER: The treatment purifies about 75 percent of the water, which then can be released back into rivers and streams. That still leaves a fraction of water laced with bromides, and other metals and salts. The best way to deal with the dregs leftover is to truck it to an underground injection well. This isn't perfect, but Magnus says, it beats the alternative.

MAGNUS: Frankly you're still better off to be putting 25 percent down the hole than 100 percent.

FRAZIER: There are 170 of these "holes" in Ohio. With PA's May 19 deadline approaching, Ohio could see even more of this shale water trucked to its deep wells. Bromides and all.

For the Allegheny Front, I'm Reid Frazier.