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Industry underplays health risks of barging shale gas wastewater

The opinion piece “Industry responds to wastewater site concerns” that appeared in The Marietta Times on May 27 contained many inaccuracies and omissions. The most egregious of these came from local oil and gas officials regarding the toxicity of the wastewater to be barged on the Ohio River.

The industry is proposing seven docking facilities on local rivers for offloading barged wastewater from shale gas operations, which will then be disposed of in class II injection wells. Two of these facilities are very close to Marietta. This gas wastewater does include brine, the ancient sea water present in the shale formations. But it is disingenuous for the industry to say that all the barges are carrying is brine and that the brine is harmless.

The brine has been percolating deep in the earth for an exceptionally long time and is polluted with heavy metals, including radionuclides like radium 226 and 228. These heavy metals are water-soluble and travel to the surface with gas wastewater. Once these contaminants are out of the earth, the risks of exposure greatly increase for communities near transportation routes, transfer stations, and disposal sites.

As an example of the health concern, when radium 226 is ingested, your body may mistake it for calcium and accumulate it in your bones. Radium dust or gas breathed into the lungs may remain there for months, but it will gradually enter the blood stream and be carried to all parts of the body, with a portion accumulating in the bones. This may result in an increased risk of some types of cancer, particularly lung and bone cancer.

The EPA classifies oil and gas production wastes as radioactive. However, since the 1970s, with an additional loophole in the 2005 energy bill that exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act, the oil and gas industry has been given a free pass from many of the environmental protections afforded by the seven major federal environmental laws. For more information on radioactive wastewater from shale gas development, Google “Justin Nobel” and “America’s Radioactive Secret.”

In addition to the ancient brine and other water-soluble materials in the shale, the wastewater includes the water, sand, and chemicals the drilling company put down the bore in order to frack the well. By law, the industry must disclose what they put down the bore hole, which is neither trivial nor free from toxics as suggested. Toxic chemicals, such as benzene and toluene, are typically used in this process. Even more concerning, the driller is not obliged to test the wastewater to disclose what came up from the shale formation.

As noted in chapter 9 of the EPA’s Identification and Hazard Evaluation of Chemicals across the Hydraulic Fracturing Water Cycle, health impacts associated with long-term exposure to chemicals in the wastewater that have been studied for human toxicity include cancer, immune system effects, changes in body weight, changes in blood chemistry, cardiotoxicity, neurotoxicity, liver and kidney toxicity, and reproductive and developmental toxicity.

The EPA also notes that inorganic substances in the wastewater originating in the shale–including chloride, bromine, iodine, and ammonium–can contribute to the formation of disinfection byproducts during wastewater treatment that impact drinking water sources. Long-term exposure to these products can result in an increased risk of cancer, anemia, liver and kidney problems, and central nervous system issues.

Many of these chemicals disrupt endocrine or hormone function in the body and may have significant health impacts at very low doses. Particularly at risk are fetuses and children as their bodies are growing and changing rapidly, which is crucially dependent on receiving the right hormones at the right time.

Lastly, only a small portion of the chemicals found in gas wastewater have undergone any testing for human toxicity, which adds an additional level of concern.

Barging this waste on the rivers to get it to the injection wells is putting at risk both public health and the precious water resource we need to protect. When we want to know if something may be harmful to our health, we ask a public health professional or a medical provider, not the industry that is to benefit.

Ben Hunkler, Organizer, Concerned Ohio River Residents

Alison L. Steele, Executive Director, Environmental Health Project

Leatra Harper, Managing Director, FreshWater Accountability Project

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