Two hazardous chemicals never before known as oil and gas industry pollutants—ammonium and iodide—are being released and spilled into Pennsylvania and West Virginia waterways from the booming energy operations of the Marcellus shale, a new study shows.
The toxic substances, which can have a devastating impact on fish, ecosystems, and potentially, human health, are extracted from geological formations along with natural gas and oil during both hydraulic fracturing and conventional drilling operations, said Duke University scientists in a study published today in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.
The chemicals then are making their way into streams and rivers, both accidentally and through deliberate release from treatment plants that were never designed to handle these contaminants, the researchers said.
The findings have major implications for whether stronger regulations are needed to curb water pollution from fracking and other oil and gas industry operations. Over the years, the industry has faced questions about unsafe well design that allows methane to seep into drinking water, and about lubricants and other chemicals it adds to frack water. Duke researchers have conducted a number of studies on these problems.
Now add to the list of concerns ammonium and iodide—two naturally occurring, dangerous chemicals that are essentially unregulated in oil and gas wastewater.
“We are releasing this wastewater into the environment and it is causing direct contamination and human health risks,” said study co-author Avner Vengosh, professor of water quality and geochemistry at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. “It should be regulated and it should be stopped. That’s not even science; it’s common sense.”
Industry sources did not respond immediately to word of the new study.
When dissolved in water, ammonium can turn to ammonia, highly toxic to aquatic life. The Duke team found ammonium levels in streams and rivers from energy industry wastewater outflows at levels 50 times higher than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s water-quality threshold. Under a loophole created by Congress in a 2005 energy law, fracking wastewater isn’t regulated under the U.S. Safe Drinking Water Act.
Meanwhile, the Duke scientists found that the iodide contamination from energy operations – while not toxic by itself – promotes the production of disinfection byproducts when it comes in contact with the chlorine that is used to treat most drinking water systems. Previous studies have shown that such disinfection byproducts have toxic and carcinogenic properties, but only a few are regulated.
“As far as we are aware, iodide and ammonium are not regulated, nor monitored in any of the [oil and gas] operations in the United States,” the researchers said in their paper.
Terrence Collins, director of the Institute for Green Science at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, was not involved in the study but said findings of iodide contamination are particularly worrisome, especially if stream or river water is extracted downstream for drinking water.
“Widely practiced chemical treatments to kill pathogens are likely to cause the iodide to become incorporated into organic matter in the drinking water, and I am concerned that this could result in increased incidences of cancer,” he said in an email.
Read more at Scientific American