Tom Joseph, Public News Service-PA
HARRISBURG, Pa. – Research about naturally occurring chemicals, some radioactive, coming out of fracking wells suggests concerns for Pennsylvanians.
Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University, has studied the salty water that comes to the surface when Marcellus shale is fracked.
He says the brine contains things such as bromide and radium, which is naturally radioactive – and, he notes, the levels of bromide in Marcellus brine are very high.
Bromide is typically of little concern, but Vengosh says it combines in a dangerous way with the chlorine used to sterilize drinking water.
"This combination can generate a very toxic organic compound, could be very toxic if consumed by the people that use this water, from this utility," he explains.
Vengosh adds the oil and gas industries are exempted from the federal Clean Water Act – otherwise they'd have to clean up the brine before it gets into surface or groundwater.
Vengosh explains that radium in the brine ordinarily contains a very low level of radioactivity – but he has found it can accumulate in the sediment at water treatment facilities.
And he says there are reasons to think it may also bio-accumulate – or build up as organisms feed on each other, and even end up in the fish that people eat.
"It could move from bugs in the sediments into higher organism, higher-order organism and eventually end up with fish," he says.
The industry maintains it is recycling more of the fluids it uses, and insists it isn't harming water quality.
Vengosh agrees that more is being recycled, but he says the brine is very loosely regulated, and in many states its chemical content isn't even monitored.
He says the good news is that the brine can be treated and cleaned up.
"And it's doable,” he stresses. “There's no need for technological breakthroughs. All those technologies are available. The only question is the cost."