Fracking Waste
12:12 pm
Mon April 28, 2014

What Connecticut Stands to Gain (and Lose) From Fracking

Understanding what's in fracking waste could be tricky.

Connecticut lawmakers are considering a ban of waste from “fracking,” the controversial method of obtaining natural gas cheaply. This comes less than a year after the state approved a major expansion of its natural gas infrastructure to capitalize on production in nearby states. Now, some are wondering whether Connecticut can avoid the environmental risks of the fracking boom.

Natural gas is obtained through hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” which produces water filled with naturally occurring chemicals and radioactive elements. Connecticut can’t frack for gas, but the waste produced out of state needs to get treated or stored somewhere.

The state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said to the best of their knowledge, there is no fracking waste currently being stored in Connecticut, but lawmakers are still considering an outright ban. They’re also weighing a two year ban — a moratorium, so they can study what’s in the waste.

Speaking on WNPR's Where We Live on Monday, Governor Malloy voiced his strong support for a temporary ban. "We want to stop, right now, fracturing waste at the borders of the state," he said, "at least with respect to a moratorium, until we have time to understand what's in it."

Understanding what's in that waste could be tricky. That’s because of an executive order during the Bush administration in 2005 that made all shale gas and hydraulic fracturing exempt from the Clean Water Act.

 

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Avner Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry at Duke University, said there’s no federal oversight on chemicals injected into fracking wells, or the waste that comes back out.

One other complication: fracking fluids are often protected as trade secrets, which means the feds have largely left oversight up to the states.

"We are drilling many more wells," Vengosh said. "The amount of water per well is higher than the conventional oil and gas. As a result, we end up with a much higher volume of waste water. The question is if the sites for deep-well injection will be sufficient to capture this."

Class V deep wells -- the only kind currently permissible in Connecticut -- are used to dispose of non-hazardous waste.
Credit Al Granberg/ProPublica / Creative Commons

Deep-well injection means burying the waste far underground in places like Ohio. It can also be treated at wastewater plants, which Vengosh said can be done. "The technology is available," he said. "It’s only a matter of awareness and cost. And that’s something that we need to take into the equation when we talk about the cost of natural gas."

But is Connecticut willing to share in that cost?

 

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"Connecticut, like many other states, hopes to benefit from the relatively cheap and comparatively clean burning natural gas that’s made available by hydraulic fracturing," said Jim Saiers, professor of hydrology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. "And so it’s not unreasonable to expect that with those benefits perhaps the state of Connecticut should bear part of those risks."

Governor Malloy disagrees. He told WNPR's John Dankosky, "We have no obligation at all to accept waste from other states." Listen to more of his remarks below:

Fracking waste includes a lot of salt, as well as naturally-occurring radioactive elements.

The bottom line is this: the environmental risks of fracking waste can be hidden from lawmakers and regulators. Remember that whole trade secret thing?

Still, scientists do have a general sense of what’s in fracking waste. "The principal components by mass include stuff that occur naturally," explained Saiers. "[It's] typically in much lower concentrations, like calcium, magnesium, potassium. It also includes bromide. These are salts."

In some cases, it includes a lot of salt. Saiers said concentrations can exceed seawater by a factor of ten. Then there are the naturally-occurring radioactive elements, like radium and uranium. "That’s not injected down the well, but the shales tend to scavenge these radioactive materials," Saiers said. "That’s brought up in water that’s called flowback or produced water."

Of course, there are those trade secret chemicals that scientists don’t know anything about. But even if lawmakers ban the storage of fracking waste, Saiers said there are still risks on our highways. "So if tanker trucks wreck they could leak," he said. "This could leak in the soils, [and] contaminate soils. If there are streams, [it would] contaminate streams, so that’s an issue."

The legislature has until May 7 to vote on the fracking waste proposals.

Listen to the full story.