CTV: ‘Fracking’ fluid pitch stirs Great Lakes pollution fears

Clean water advocates worry that pollutants could stream into the Great Lakes if a proposal to treat chemical wastewater at a New York state sewage plant is approved.

The Niagara Falls Water Board (NFWB) is reviewing a plan to treat ‘fracking’ water — fluid waste from a gas extraction procedure — at a facility sitting on the Niagara River, which joins up with Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

Early drafts of the plan propose trucking the liquid waste to the plant to be treated before returning it to wells for reuse, though some oil and gas companies have discharged the fluid into waterways, according to a Buffalo News report.

Environmentalists fear a spill or the possibility of the treated fluid being released back into a main water supply could threaten drinking water in the area and nearby cities such as Buffalo and Toronto.

“If discharged into waterways, the wastewater flowback puts the drinking water of communities in the region at risk,” Council of Canadians member Emma Sui wrote in an open letter to the NFWB.

The Great Lakes hold 95 per cent of North America’s freshwater and provide drinking water to 40 million people in surrounding communities, according to the social justice group.

NFWB spokesperson Earl Wells wouldn’t confirm details on the agency’s potential contingency plans for the discharging the wastewater, saying the proposal review is still in the early stages.

“One could make the leap that if you’re going to treat it you’re going to discharge it,” he told CTVNews.ca. “But we’re not even at the discussion point about discharging. The alternative could be just recycling the water.”

Recycling the wastewater, said Wells, would mean companies truck the fluid to the treatment plant and then take it back to reuse in the gas extraction process.

Wells added that the entire project will need to be rubber-stamped by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

“All we have said is we’re looking at the potential possibility of treating wastewater from the drilling process,” he said in a phone interview from Niagara Falls, NY.

The chemical cocktail

Fracking fluid is a byproduct of hydro-fracking, a controversial drilling method used to exploit deposits of shale gas. The so-called cleaner fossil fuel is found inside densely-packed rock beds around the globe.

During the procedure, a high-pressure cocktail of water, sand and chemicals is pumped deep underground with the intention of blasting the rock open and freeing the gas within.

Chemicals such as methanol, ethylene glycol and sodium hydroxide are listed as commonly used hydro-fracking substances in a report prepared for the United States’ House of Representatives last April.

Environmentalists also take issue with the hydro-fracking process itself, worried that natural gas and wastewater will contaminate groundwater during extraction.

Like Quebec, New York state currently has a drilling moratorium in place on the state’s shale gas deposits.

Wells said he wouldn’t address environmental concerns, but pointed out that treating fracking fluid in Niagara Falls, N.Y. could be an economic boon to the area. (this comment concerns me the most. What about after the money is spent and the oil is gone? – M)

“It’s a poor city. It continues to see residents leave and revenue leave,” he said. “The cost of maintaining the water and the wastewater continue to put a burden on the ratepayers. It could generate jobs, mitigate rates.”  (It could. Lots of things ::could:: happen. – M)

Old fracking fluid from shale gas operations is typically stored in manmade lagoons with thick liners or reused by oil and gas companies. (It can also potentially contain NORM, or naturally occuring radioactive material which get carried by produced water (fracking fluid) to the surface. The most hazardous elements found in NORM are Radium 226, 228 and Radon 222 and daughter products from these radionuclides. The elements are referred to as “bone seekers” which when inside the body migrate to the bone tissue and concentrate. This exposure can cause bone cancers and other bone abnormalities. -Mickie)

Wells said the NFWB’s treatment plant is underutilized and one of only two facilities in New York State equipped to treat the type of contaminants found in fracking fluid.

But it may be costly and difficult to strip the chemicals from fracking fluid, warns a University of Windsor geology professor.

“Taking those chemicals from the water does not sound like an easy thing to me,” Frank Simpson told CTVNews.ca. “This is an amazing cocktail of substances not found in the natural environment.”

While Simpson said the vast majority of fracking fluid is made up of water, he said the chemicals in fracking fluid shouldn’t be overlooked.

Oil and gas operators in Canada aren’t required to disclose the chemicals used in hydro-fracking, according to an analyst from the David Suzuki Foundation.

Ingredients in fracking fluid differ from operation to operation (proprietary secret? from Environment Canada? What’s wrong with this picture here? – Mickie) but remain a major concern, said Simpson.

“If you took each one of those ingredients and did a web search you’d find links to undesirable human conditions,” said Simpson. “They’re bad for people if ingested in certain amounts.”

If the NFWB does decide to move forward with plans to treat fracking fluid, Simpson advises the group to tread carefully.

This fluid is made up of artificial substances created by people to solve problems like corrosion and substance build-up,” he said. “It’s not the type of thing you want to come into contact with.”

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