Hydraulic fracturing’s huge output of polluted wastewater is putting drinking water supplies, rivers, streams, and groundwater at risk, primarily because state and federal regulations have not kept pace with the industry boom, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council report.
The study, “In Fracking’s Wake: New Rules are Needed to Protect Our Health and Environment from Contaminated Wastewater,” says none of the current methods used to treat and dispose of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing are safe enough.
For the report, the NRDC collected data from the Marcellus region on the effects of known pollutants, potential environmental and health impacts, and treatment options. The pollutants, ranging from salts, oil and grease, inorganic and organic additives, and naturally occurring radioactive materials, can be toxic to humans and aquatic life, corrosive and damaging to ecosystems. They can also react with chemicals used at drinking water plants, forming cancer-causing chemicals, the NRDC said.
NRDC found two significant priorities for policy change. The first priority, NRDC says, is to close a legal loophole that exempts hazardous oil and gas waste from treatment, storage, and disposal requirements required for other hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
A second priority is improving regulatory standards for wastewater treatment facilities and the level of treatment required before discharge to water bodies. The existing federal and state regulatory programs are not adequately protective, and several have exemptions for shale gas wastewater – or exemptions for oil and gas wastewater of all kinds, the report said.
For example, the Clean Water Act, which regulates and issues permits through state authorities for wastewater pretreatment, specifically has no requirements for shale gas wastewater.
NRDC also sees the need of more oversight and regulations on treatment and discharge of wastewater to water bodies; handling, storage, and transport prior to disposal; reuse of fluid for additional hydraulic fracturing; impoundments and tanks; and residual waste.
The report outlines more than 15 specific policy recommendations, including:
- Ban or more strictly regulate the discharge of shale gas wastewater to publicly owned treatment works.
- Update pollution control standards for centralized wastewater treatment that accepts shale gas wastewater.
- Develop water quality criteria for all chemicals in shale gas wastewater.
- Identify water bodies impaired by pollutants in shale gas wastewater, or with a reasonable risk to become impaired.