How Much Do We Need to Worry About Contamination from Fracking Wastewater?

In the process of hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” drillers blast a stream of high-pressure water deep underground. Only the “water” isn’t just water: it’s called “fracking fluid,” and it’s laced with dozens of secret chemicals and known toxins. Over a million gallons of this fluid may be used in a single operation.

Here’s how it’s supposed to work: the fluid violently shatters a layer of shale rock deep underground. Natural gas trapped beneath the rock bubbles upward into pipes. The pipes channel the gas toward the surface. Because the fracking fluid has been injected below the natural water table, it will mostly remain trapped underground. A little bit of the fluid will flow back upward in the gas pipes, like a froth of soda carried upward by bubbles of gas. The drilling company is prepared for this, however: it traps the “return water” and recycles it properly while collecting and storing the natural gas.

If you believe that’s how it really works, you’re living in a fantasy land. There is a critical environmental danger now posed by fracking wastewater in Pennsylvania.

What’s the big deal? It’s only water—isn’t it?

Remember, the original fracking fluid contains some chemicals that are known to cause cancer or be poisonous to people and wildlife. The returned wastewater now contains additional contaminants from deep underground—toxic heavy metals, radioactive isotopes, sulfur and hydrocarbon compounds, and other dangerous additives. Tens of thousands of gallons of this noxious brew gush back to the surface.

Water treatment plants do not have the equipment to recycle used fracking fluid. It’s illegal to discharge the fluid into Pennsylvania lakes and streams. In other states, energy companies have tried digging deep wells and injecting fracking fluid underground, but that practice seems to cause earthquakes.

So the question of the day is how to dispose of fracking fluid runoff.

According to Pennsylvania Attorney General Kathleen Kane, industry has been solving that problem by ignoring the law and dumping fracking fluid wastewater into the Commonwealth’s waterways. Recently, she directed state prosecutors to bring criminal charges against XTO Energy, a subsidiary of Exxon, for dumping more than 50,000 gallons of fracking wastewater in Lycoming County in 2010. This is the first criminal prosecution of an energy company for alleged illegal actions taken while fracking in the Marcellus Shale. In fact, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has been extraordinarily lax in letting companies get away with violating the law; according to a 2011 audit, fewer than eight percent of complaints against energy company violations result in DEP fines.

XTO Energy is fighting back against the charges. It has said that the charges are “unwarranted and legally baseless,” and warns that prosecution may discourage good environmental practices by punishing companies for a small release of fracking wastewater.

But it’s the company’s claim that there has been “no lasting environmental impact” that has stirred the most outrage. Because the industry considers the formulas for fracking fluids to be trade secrets, energy companies refuse to disclose what they contain. Commonwealth law permits the companies to demand doctors to sign nondisclosure agreements concerning the health risks from fracking contamination.

Criminal prosecution isn’t the only way

Of course, bringing criminal charges against energy companies isn’t the only way to hold fracking firms accountable. If you have been harmed by the actions of an energy company or its employees in Pennsylvania, you may be eligible for compensation in a fracking injury lawsuit.

To get your questions answered and a confidential evaluation of your case, contact Ostroff Injury Law, the Frackcident™ injury law firm, at (855) 880-6667. It is vital that you speak with an attorney and learn about your rights BEFORE you talk to the lawyers or insurance claims agents who represent the energy firm, so call us today. We work on a contingency basis for all injury claims, which means you will not be billed for our legal services unless we are able to get you a settlement or damages award.