What's In Frack Water

Delores Broten

Let them drink benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene.Everywhere that the oil and natural gas industry is fracking – using high pressure blasts of fluid, sand, and chemicals pumped underground to extract the remnants of gas and oil from layers of shale, coal, or sand formations  – public concern and protests follow. In some regions, the citizens have had moderate success in restricting the technology. France and Luxembourg have banned the practise. Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador, and Quebec have moratoriums, and many American towns and cities have local prohibitions.
The threat of ground and surface water contamination continues to expand around the world, as we suck up the scattered remnants of ancient life to burn for fuel. The climate implications are enormous.  

The quantities of water used to liberate the gas are also enormous – upward of five million gallons for each well, and the number of wells required in a fracking operation is huge. To fulfill the current amount of export licenses granted by the National Energy Board would require about  70,000 new wells in BC by 2040, according to geologist David Hughes [See also “BC LNG Reality Check,” Watershed Sentinel, March-April 2014].
At each well, tonnes of sand are pumped down to hold the fissures open so the gas can get out of the pockets in the rock.

More Than Water and Sand
But the mysterious aspect of these operations lies in what is added to the fluids and sand – acids, biocides,  anti-corrosion chemicals, friction reducers, gelling agents, etc.  FracFocus.ca, an industry/government website, explains: “The number of chemical additives used in a typical fracture treatment depends on the conditions, such as depth or location, of the specific well being fractured and the characteristics of the formation, such as thickness and type of rock. A typical fracture treatment will use very low concentrations of between three and 12 additive chemicals …. Each component serves a specific, engineered purpose.”

The BC and Alberta gas industry lists the chemicals it uses on a well-by-well basis at www.fracfocus.ca, and fascinating reading it is. There are lots of alcohols, assorted acids, anti-freeze,  and “petroleum distillates” like kerosene, and aromatic hydrocarbons like benzene. You can look up the ingredients by chemical number (Chemical Abstract Service – CAS) to actually identify them. At least one chemical, acetaldehyde, is on Canada’s Toxic Substances List, Schedule One. Of course, as Reach for Unbleached discovered when Anna Tilman used the National Pollution Release Inventory (NPRI) to examine pulp mill effluent and air emissions, just because it is considered a “Toxic Substance” doesn’t mean the government is going to do anything about it (Pulp and Paper Pollution: The Toxic Legacy of Federal Neglect, Reach for Unbleached, October 2008).

What you can’t look up is the material protected by confidentiality agreements for hazardous chemicals, of which there are far too many. However, renowned scientist Theo Colborn’s TEDX, The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, spent years collecting data from a wide variety of American sources, such as state reports, checking the Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs), using the CAS to identify some of the chemicals, and then compiling their known human health impacts. It was a major research effort.

Vast Numbers of Toxic Chemicals
Of the chemicals used for drilling and fracking which they were able to identify (362 – about half), they found that three-quarters are associated with skin, eye or sensory organ effects, respiratory effects and gastrointestinal or liver effects. Gas field workers are particularly at risk.

Over half of the chemicals could harm the brain and nervous system, and  up to half were associated with long-term health effects including cancer, organ damage, and harm to the endocrine system. “Of note is that 47% of the products have the potential to affect the endocrine system, including human and wildlife development and reproduction.… The endocrine system operates at very low concentrations of hormones, often in parts-per-billion or less, making it susceptible to very low levels of exposure, which can impact organisms and their offspring, including humans.”

The Council of Canadian Academies science panel report, Environmental Impacts of Shale Gas Extraction in Canada, released in May, basically said there just wasn’t enough information about long-term or even short-term impacts for the industry to get a green light. “The primary concerns are the degradation of the quality of groundwater and surface water (including the safe disposal of large volumes of wastewater); the risk of increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (including fugitive methane emissions during and after production), thus exacerbating anthropogenic climate change; disruptive effects on communities and land; and adverse effects on human health.”

Well Failures and Leaks
The Canadian panel singled out underground pathways and failing cement well casings for concern: “Information concerning the impacts of leakage of natural gas from poor cement seals on fresh groundwater resources is insufficient. The nature and rate of cement deterioration are poorly understood and there is only minimal or misleading information available in the public domain.” The rate of well barriers and integrity failures ranges from one in 20 to as high as three out of four, according to a 2014 study, “Oil and gas wells and their integrity: Implications for shale and unconventional resource exploitation,” by Richard J. Davies et al.

The Panel pointed its fingers at the chemical brew being injected underground and then pumped back up to the surface: “Information is also required on potentially hazardous chemicals produced down-hole by chemical interactions under high temperature and pressure. This includes information on concentration, mobility, persistence in groundwater and surface water, and bio-accumulation properties….”

Theo Colborn summarized the problem in an interview with Amy Goodman at democracynow.org: “Thirty to seventy per cent of that water that’s injected underground can possibly come back up to the surface. No one knows exactly how much stays underground and how much is going to be coming back up to the surface. So you worry about the long-term effect of that material that’s staying underground, that could appear later coming up in rivers and streams, at people’s well sites, that sort of thing, because we don’t understand the geology underground. But then all that – the rest of that has to come back up.” The water that comes back up is reused, and eventually injected in deep disposal wells, or sometimes left in holding ponds.

Known Water Contamination
We do know there is a big problem. The Americans have been fracking for longer than we have, and in “Surface and Groundwater Contamination Associated with Modern Natural Gas Development, Peer-Reviewed Literature, 2011-2013,” psehealthyenergy.org outlines the smoking gun of water contamination from Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Texas, and Colorado. A jury in Texas recently awarded a couple almost $3 million in damages from neighbouring fracking.

In Alberta, landowner and oil patch consultant scientist Jessica Ernst is suing Encana, the Alberta energy regulator, and the Alberta government over water contamination from fracking, and one of the arguments used by the government was that, if allowed, the case could open liability for many more cases. Author Andrew Nikiforuk reported in thetyee.ca that Crown counsel Neil Boyle argued that “There could be millions or billions of dollars worth of damages.” (Anti-Fracking-Suit, April 18, 2014).

Meanwhile BC boasts that it has the best fracking regulations in the world, pointing out that chemicals are listed on fracfocus.ca and wells must be lined with cement down to 600 metres, to get them below potable groundwater.
Even if that is true, it is not saying much. As environmental researcher and activist Nelle Maxey retorted, “For me the ultimate hypocrisy is the contention that frack wells and produced water storage wells are below impenetrable layers and thus pose no threat to drinking water aquifers. But see, once you poke a hole in the impenetrable layer it is no longer impenetrable.”

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Delores Broten is Editor of the Watershed Sentinel.

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