Recycling Frack Flowback: A Reality Check

It takes 4.5 to 6 million gallons of fresh water to hydrofrack a single natural gas well. There are  more than 30,000 permits awaiting approval in Pennsylvania over the next 10 years. In addition to the 6,755 frack wells currently operating, that equals 165 BILLION GALLONS OF FRESH WATER FROM PENNSYLVANIA largely from the Special Protection Waters of the Delaware River Watershed Region, destined to become toxic, often radioactive, frack “flowback.” And, by the way, that’s much more water than we actually have.

Our municipal water treatment facilities, which were designed to handle the bio solids of sewage not the RADIOACTIVE COMPOUNDS contained in frack flowback, cannot handle the current volume of frack waste produced in the state. Philadelphia Water Department Chairperson, Chris Crockett, is worried about his intakes.

At first blush, recycling frack flowback – both onsite and at regional treatment plants – seems like a grand idea. Indeed, there is now a seemingly endless list of companies who want to sell or lease their services to Gas Drillers, along with their glorified mobile distillation equipment. But this, too, poses many problems and raises even more questions about regulation.

Frack Flowback Recycling involves taking tens of thousands of gallons of initial flowback and distilling it down to a concentrated, salty “brine.” Frack brine is then sold (at $.05 a gallon) to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation to spray on our roads for de-icing in winter, and something called “dust suppression.” Seriously, dust suppression. So now this stuff is on my jogging shoes and the wheels of my kids’ bikes? What’s more, we are paying for it with our tax dollars! Spring rains, like the soaker we’re having today, carry these toxic compounds into rivers and streams, lacing our fresh waterways with: barium, radium, strontium, and a range other radionuclides – sometimes even uranium. (Yes, there’s uranium down there, too.) Flowback also contains: sodium and calcium salts, iron, oil, numerous heavy metals and soaps.

Recycled frack brine, however, accounts for only about 20-30% of the total frack flowback waste currently produced in the state. Out of 680 million gallons of frack waste produced in 2010, 320 gallons were reportedly recycled, but 260 million gallons were sent to area water treatment plants, like the one in Williamsport PA. The rest is a highly toxic and radioactive sludge that is either transported by fleets of tanker trucks out of state, or injected back into the ground into Pennsylvania’s handful of injection wells, which are underground toxic waste reservoirs. At least 50 million additional gallons of frack flowback went unaccounted for in 2010, according to state records.

At the same time, Cabot Oil & Gas was caught illegally discharging tens of thousands of gallons of waste into the Nockamixon Creek over a nine month period spanning 2009-2010. Residents in Haddon Township, NJ were also exposed to a massive illegal, partially treated frack water discharge in their drinking water system, and while NJ Authorities initially told residents that everything was fine, they were later informed that it was worse than officials had initially determined. Even when properly capped, managed and regulated, a hydrofacked gas well can continue to ooze for several decades, with the amount of flowback decreasing over time, like a gargantuan zit poisoning the surrounding area.

It would appear, at the gubernatorial level, Pennsylvania’s plan is to use 165 billion gallons of our Special Protection Waters to pump a frightful array of carcinogens, endocrine disruptors and other pollutants, plus loads of sand, down deep into the land, and when it blasts back up at extremely high pressure, we’re gonna capture, store, dispose of and process 100% of it with machines from companies like Seimans, Aquatech, AquaPure, Rolco and the like, and then we’re gonna recycle it back into the public water system. I’d vote “NO” to that plan!

Clearly, I’m not the only one who loves a genuinely clean tubby, heated by a renewable source that truly sustains my water purity (like solar or hydro). We need a statewide referendum on our fresh water protection measures. Even if we don’t all realize it yet, everyone needs Fresh Water Security, and because we once had robust Safe Drinking Water laws, we tend to expect it from our government. Recycled frack brine or not, Pennsylvania is arguably in the throws of the world’s second largest fossil fuel pickle.


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