WASHINGTON, DC – Toxic fracking wastewater shouldn’t be treated at facilities that can’t handle its hazards, Congressman Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), clean water and public health advocates, and more than 30,000 Americans said today, a day before the public comment period closes for a proposed federal rule to prohibit fracking waste shipments to sewage treatment plants.
“It’s crazy that highly toxic, radioactive wastewater can still be treated at the same place as dirty bath water, then released into the rivers and lakes we drink from,” said Rachel Richardson, director of Environment America’s Stop Drilling program. “Preventing this practice is a critical step toward protecting our water and our health from the dangers of fracking.”
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process by which large volumes of water along with sand and toxic chemicals are injected underground to extract shale gas. Much of this fracking fluid mixture returns to the surface as toxic wastewater, often with radioactive elements.
Municipal water treatment plants, which treat waste and then release it into drinking water supplies, aren’t suited to treat such hazards. The mixture of bromides in wastewater and the chlorine used at sewage treatments plants also can produce a toxin linked to bladder cancer, miscarriages and still-births.
The issue received attention in Pennsylvania in 2011, when fracking chemicals were detected in western rivers, and officials ordered 15 treatment plants to stop accepting and treating fracking waste.
While no known municipal treatment plants now accept fracking waste, federal rules still allow it, and the option could become more attractive to drillers as standards tighten on other waste disposal methods.
Advocates said today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s rule to prevent future discharges is essential to mitigating fracking’s harms.
"Clean drinking water is essential to human health," said Katie Huffling, a registered nurse and director of programs for the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments. "Fracking wastewater is highly radioactive and contains heavy metals and salts that form toxic byproducts during the treatment process. These chemicals do not belong in our drinking water supply.”
Even if EPA’s rule is finalized as proposed, fracking wastewater disposal still presents a conundrum for public health and safety. Plants designed to treat fracking waste are far from foolproof, as Duke University researchers found in Pennsylvania. Waste often spills into rivers and streams during storage and shipment. And studies show reinjecting the waste deep underground is most likely causing earthquakes.
Rep. Cartwright told reporters in a conference call today he planned to introduce legislation soon to require fracking wastewater to be treated as hazardous waste.
“While this rule does close one important channel through which these toxic materials can enter our drinking water, it will not comprehensively protect us from the dangerous loophole in RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act) that has existed for 27 years,” Rep. Cartwright said. “Congress must pass sensible reforms to ensure that oil and gas companies are responsibly storing, handling and disposing of highly hazardous waste.”
Public health advocates said the proposed EPA rule highlighted the inherent dangers of onshore oil and gas drilling.
“Fracking wastewater is a big problem for which there is simply no adequate solution,” said Richardson. “We applaud EPA for taking this step to protect families on the frontlines of fracking. To fully protect our drinking water and the health of our families, we need to ban this practice altogether and transition to 100 percent clean energy.”