Friday, February 11, 2011

A Closer Look at EPA's Proposed Frack Study

Weighing in at 140 pages, the new EPA study asks for data on everything from water acquisition through the mixing of chemicals and actual fracturing to the post-fracturing stage. The study also includes the management of flowback and produced fluids and its ultimate treatment and disposal.

EPA estimated that 35,000 wells in the US are fracked each year. That’s between 70 and 140 billion gallons – enough water to supply 40 to 80 small cities (population 50,000). What happens when that much water is withdrawn? According to EPA, large volume water withdrawals can lower water tables, decrease stream flow and reduce the amount of water in surface reservoirs. Lower water levels can affect the solubility and mobility of chemicals and lead to surface subsidence.

The study proposal raises questions about impacts of surface spills of hydraulic fracturing chemicals. Even though the total concentration of chemical additives to fracking fluid is small – only 0.5 to 2 percent of the total volume –that translates into 15,000 to 60,000 gallons of chemicals injected into a well, says EPA. After citing the incomplete lists of frack chemicals in their report, EPA says they need more information on the “frequency, quantity and concentration of the chemicals used, which is important when considering the toxic effects of hydraulic fracturing additives.”

The American Petroleum Institute provided a description of industry practices relating to transportation, storage and handling of chemicals. “However,” writes EPA, “the extent to which these practices are followed in the industry … is unclear.”

In addition to determining toxicity and health effects associated with the chemicals used in fracking, the study will take a closer look at the casing and cementing practices used to contain frack fluids and gases in the wellbore. EPA’s concerns include: improper well construction, abandoned wells, drinking water wells, production wells, underground injection wells, mines, and “fluid leak” through natural fractures and faults. EPA is also concerned about the impact of repeated fracturing over the lifetime of a well but, with no interested partners to help investigate, it looks as though those questions will have to be left for another time.

EPA proposes to study all aspects of waste fluid treatment and disposal. Publicly owed treatment plants are not designed to treat hydraulic fracturing waste fluids, are not equipped to treat waste fluids containing radioactive elements and, in the process of treatment, may produce brominated byproducts that are associated with significant health concerns.

In addition to the lab and field studies, EPA proposed three to five case studies in communities with possible drinking water contamination due to fracking operations. Two of those on the short list are located in the Marcellus. EPA also plans to study two or three locations where they can conduct baseline studies prior to drilling, and then monitor key aspects of the fracturing process.


  1. I'm very glad to see this study happening, but it is also my impression that the study is restricted to water-born transport and leakage and eventual disposal of the residual waste waters, but not the gaseous release of many of the waste chemicals. Is that right? I think that a number of noxious and toxic components are evaporated from the returned fracking water in the condensation tanks on-site at drilling locations and released into the local atmosphere. Its not clear to me if this issue is part of the EPAs study, but I think it might be a very important health issue for local residents around fracking facilities. Is this somehow outside their mandate because it is effectively removed from the water?

  2. The EPA is clear in their study plan that they are not addressing emissions. They also make it clear that there are things they WANT to study but, due to limitations, won't be able to - like what happens to cement casings after multiple fracks?

  3. I don't think there really is anything off limit. Comments need to address the air emissions and surface water effects as well as drinking. Remember, the Science Advisory Board is taking public comments and will then recommend to EPA any adjustments to the study. I suggest to tie these emissions/discharges to potential surface water drinking supplies such as NYCs. Surface water contamination and air emissions would then be covered by Congress' study mandate. Any thoughts?