HARRISBURG — State environmental protection officials are studying the wastewater from Pennsylvania’s fast-growing natural gas exploration activity to determine whether it is hazardous to human health.
Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Tom Rathbun said a chemical analysis the agency is doing should be finished this month.
Regardless of what is found, he said, the gas industry must come up with a way to treat the massive amounts of wastewater coming out of wells being drilled into the thick, black rock of the Marcellus Shale formation. The formation, more than a mile under Pennsylvania and several other states, could become the nation’s largest natural gas field.
Exploration companies stress that the solution of chemicals, salts, metals and other components is not hazardous, but biologists and academics are not so sure.
“They don’t have an analysis of what’s in the wastewater they’re pulling out,” said Conrad Dan Volz, who directs the Center for Healthy Environments & Communities at the University of Pittsburgh. “What they’re putting into the wells can chemically change and be added to underground, and no one is saying how much arsenic, manganese, cobalt, chromium and lead is in the stuff. Depending on the concentration, it could be a hazardous waste.”
The companies say much care is taken to shield the solution from contaminating surface water and groundwater near the wells, and in treating it before it is reused or put back into waterways.
“We’re very aware of all the environmental and public concerns, and our mission is to develop the Marcellus Shale as an economic benefit to Pennsylvania and in an environmentally sensitive way,” said Louis D’Amico of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of Pennsylvania.
Drillers inject up to 54 substances into the water they use to break up the shale. Fracturing the rock gets more gas to flow, and some of the chemicals that are injected are intended to reduce friction when the water is pumped down into the well to blast the rock.
In addition, pesticides are added to the water to kill algae in ponds and tanks built next to the drilling pads, since algae can ruin the water pumps.
The drilling companies typically reveal the list of chemicals they add to the water, but they do not discuss how much of each is used.
Among the additives are formaldehyde, which the federal government said may cause cancer in humans, and pesticides that are toxic to fish and other aquatic life. Depending on their concentrations, many of the chemicals can irritate a person’s skin and eyes, and damage kidney, heart, liver and lung function.
Up to 4 million gallons of water might be used in a single gas well, and 20 to 40 percent of the water comes back up after it is blasted into the shale, industry official say.
The DEP has issued more than 500 permits to drill on Marcellus Shale, and drilling activity has taken place at more than 300, Rathbun said.
A couple companies are considering onsite recycling systems. Some of the wastewater is taken to approved municipal sewer authorities and some is taken to one of the state’s six industrial water treatment facilities.
However, state officials say more treatment capacity is needed and have encouraged more companies to use onsite recycling methods. Franklin-based Pennsylvania Brine Treatment Inc., which owns three of the state’s six industrial treatment facilities, wants to build six more.