While fracking has revitalized many small town economies, a deadly side-effect is being blamed on the fracking process demand for water. The already environmentally controversial gas process is under new attacks as some towns in Texas are on the verge of literally drying up.
In this drought-plagued state, some families are witnessing their wells going dry, cattle on ranches are dying from lack of water and farms are becoming little more than dust fields. Suffering from a three-year drought, some Texans believe their prized water supply is being sucked out from underneath their feet.
In August 2013, The Guardian reported that people in Barnhart, Texas were finding sand in their toilets instead of water. Many residents believe the water depletion is the direct result of increased fracking demands. The town was without water for several days and unless some measures are taken, most believe it could be permanent. The local fracking operations require massive amounts of water for the process of forcing the gas from shale rocks. (1)
What the Frack Is Going On in Texas?
Citizens of other small towns throughout the southwest live in fear of being next in discovering their underground water supplies have been siphoned off like Barnhart. Texas is no stranger to overtaxed water reservoirs and underground aquifers.
The economic boom created by fracking has compounded the need for water. The number of fracking gas operations has nearly doubled over the past four to five years and in some areas it has more than tripled. Some Texans fear they are on the brink of self-destruction.
In fact, the 2011 drought was called, “the most severe one-year drought in Texas history” in the 2011- 2012 Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) report. (2)
Yet, according to the Railroad Commission responsible for Texas water rights, “Hydraulic fracturing and total mining water use represent less than 1 percent of statewide water consumption, although percentages can be larger in some localized areas”. The amount of water used for “hydraulic fracturing is relatively small, compared to water uses in agriculture, manufacturing, and municipal water supplies,” according to the Railroad Commission. (2)
Still, fracking requires vast amounts of water in order to inject pressurized sand and chemicals into the shale rock to break it apart and force the sought after gas to release. In Texas, monitoring agencies report that out of the thousands of groundwater contamination cases, none have been attributed to hydraulic fracturing.
Rivers in Pennsylvania Contaminated with Radioactive Waste from Fracking Facilities
Unfortunately, the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility east of Pittsburgh and a western Pennsylvania facility can’t say the same thing. Water contamination has been reported as a result of both plants.
In October 2013, USA Today reported that fracking facilities in western Pennsylvania contaminated a river with radioactive fluids that had been discharged as wastewater during the natural gas extraction process.
This claim was verified by a Duke University study that cited “wastewater wasn’t adequately treated before being released into the Pennsylvania river”. (3)
The radium levels were measured to be 200 times greater in sediment samples taken from the facility area discharge than those sediment samples taken upstream. That level is beyond the “safe disposal” threshold for radioactive waste. Samples were also taken from Blacklick Creek between August 2010 and November 2012. The creek is located by the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility. The samples revealed high levels of “salinity and radioactivity”. (3)
Drinking Water Wells at Residences Found Contaminated with Methane
Scientific American reported in September 2013 that Duke also tested wells within one mile of fracking sites. The wells were found to be higher in methane gas than wells located farther away from the facility. These drinking water wells were only a few hundred feet deep and are the main water supply for individual residents. (4)
Although methane can be naturally emitted from Marcellus Shale via rock fissures, the 115 contaminated wells (out of 141 wells tested) are still being studied in an effort to determine whether or not the cause is natural or the result of fracking. The study did cite that the wells showed six times higher traces of isotopes and ethane than wells located farther away. The scientists stated that these levels indicate that heat and pressure were responsible for the methane. These conditions are found in fracking operations.
Critics accused the Duke study of being biased and outdated. In fact, the EPA reported that after fines for discharge violations were brought against the companies and $30 million in upgrades enforced, that the facilities had ceased discharges in September 2011. However, Duke University stated that their samples were collected in 2012, indicating that the discharge was still ongoing.
Potential Health Risks from Fracking-Related Air Pollution
The Texas Observer cites potential health risks from fracking-related air pollution. Residents near fracking sites complain of “fatigue, nasal irritation, throat problems, burning eyes, joint pain, severe headaches, dry eyes and nosebleeds”. (5)
In 2012, TCEQ inspectors found on two separate occasions “concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs)—a class of chemicals that includes the carcinogen benzene”. Another time, inspectors using infrared cameras recorded plumes of “emissions from site storage tanks”. The fracking The company eventually reported that the tanks had vented VOCs of:
–> 514 times above maximum allowable rates of benzene and toluene
–> 112 times the allowable rate of hydrogen sulfide
These incidences are just a sampling of what is occurring in areas where fracking is underway. Some experts believe these issues can be resolved by establishing industry standards for the entire country. Presently, standards are set by each state. Monitoring and managing fracking companies and processes is another heated issue where industry consistency is often lacking.
Could national standards and adequate monitoring alleviate much of the contamination issues currently being reviewed, researched and reported? Many critics believe that fracking risks have not been properly assessed and that environmental damage and health risks may potentially be greater than what is currently recognized.
References & Image Credits:
(1) The Guardian
(3) USA Today
(4) Scientific American
(5) Texas Observer
(6) Wikipedia: Frac Job in Progress
(7) Wikipedia: HydroFrac Diagram
(8) Wikipedia: Fracking Water Tanks