The natural gas boom continues to sound in what have become the northern gas fields of West Virginia. State lawmakers are working on ways to take maximum advantage of the economic benefits that are coming with it. The other byproduct authorities are grappling with is an excess of waste products, which, without proper disposal, can threaten public health.
The Horizontal Well Control Act of 2011 allocated funding to study the impacts of horizontal drilling. Legislators reached out to West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute. Director Paul Ziemkiewicz managed a study that looked at liquid and solid waste streams.
Horizontal wells produce two kinds of wastewater: flowback, and what’s referred to as “produced water.” Ziemkiewicz explains, once a well is fracked—meaning once operators take fracking fluid (5 million gallons of water mixed with sand and additives) and blast it deep into this hard, black, non-porous rock called Marcellus shale—the pressure is released and the first thing that happens is a regurgitation of some of that fluid.
“The stuff that comes out over the initial 60 days or so is called flowback,” Ziemkiewicz explains. “You have to get that flowback out of the system before you can start producing gas. You start producing a little bit of gas as soon as you release the pressure but when it gets to the point where you can start commercially producing gas you switch over to something called ‘produced water.'"
Ziemkiewicz goes on to explain that the longer the fracking fluid mingles with the rock formation the more stuff from that formation flows back out with the fluid like organic compounds, lots of salts, and yes, radioactive material.
“Sodium chloride, bromide, mainly chloride salts of one kind or another,” Ziemkiewicz says. “Strontium chloride, barium chloride. These things start pushing back up out of the hole and the concentration of those salts almost everything, including radioactivity starts to go up during the flowback cycle. So the longer you go into flowback and then produced water the higher the concentrations get.”
Ziemkiewicz adds that while many people seemed to be very concerned with the initial fracking fluid being injected into the wells, he is much more concerned with the produced water that comes up afterward.
“The stuff that comes back out is almost always more concentrated,” he says.
Ziemkiewicz says in some cases this briny water produced a concentration of about 250,000 milligrams per liter of dissolved solids--which he explains is essentially 25 percent solid.
Where does it go from there?
Well Ziemkiewicz says about 25 percent of the fluid is pumped back into deep wells classified as injection waste disposal wells, while the other 75 percent of flowback is being recycled. That recycled portion has to be processed. Solids like clays, metals, and rock are filtered and precipitated out, leaving cakes behind. These cakes are then dumped into solid waste landfills, the same place that the mud and rock produced during the drilling process are dumped.
Under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) hazardous waste is differentiated from industrial solid waste based on tests that determine chemical properties. Interestingly, federal laws exempt drilling waste from regulation as hazardous waste. But the WV Department of Environmental Protection is proceeding with some caution, nevertheless.
Scott Mandirola Director of the DEP’s Division of Water and Waste Management explains horizontal well operators were just sort of spreading this waste on properties, or dumping it, burying it, whatever, wherever. By all estimations, a bad idea. The Horizontal Well Control Act of 2011 specified that instead the waste should be disposed of in appropriate landfills. That's when municipal landfills started accepting the waste. And we’re talking about a lot of waste.
So DEP Cabinet Secretary Randy Huffman sent a memo out to solid waste landfill operators in July of last year saying that they could continue accepting waste if they took one of two actions: apply to expand their operation, or construct separate cells specifically for these waste products.
Bill Hughes is the chairman of the Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority. He’s concerned about new practices.
“Wetzel County which is legally permitted for up to 9,999 tons, round it off to 10, times 12, 120,000 tons per year? Our landfill last year took in about 330,000 tons. Of that, about a quarter million tons was drill waste, drill cuttings.”
Mandirola says Wetzel County—one of the most heavily drilled counties in the state—has seen one of the largest influxes of waste because of its proximity to so many well sites. This concerns residents for reasons such as the amount of space available in landfills, and also because there’s still so little known about the chemical characterization of the waste.
Enter Paul Ziemkiewicz, who, again, was tasked to look into that.
“I don’t think we’ve characterized this material adequately enough to determine whether or not it really belongs in solid waste landfills or whether it belongs in a higher standard landfill,” Ziemkiewicz says.
Ziemkiewicz did look at drilling mud. But he explains that a combination of bad luck, low response times from companies and the WV Department of Environmental Protection, bad weather, and an aggressive timeframe to report results contributed to the lack of access to drilling samples from the actual rock formation where Marcellus gas exists—the shale. So unfortunately, it’s still something of a mystery.
“They’re black shales,” Ziemkiewicz explains. “And black shales tend to accumulate uranium. Uranium breaks down into radium.”
While Ziemkiewicz wasn’t able to test drill muds from the Marcellus itself, he says the tests results from drilling samples of vertical sections turned up exceeding amounts of toxins considered safe by federal drinking water standards.
“Whether or not [comparing to federal drinking water standards] was the right approach I’m still not sure. Nevertheless, a lot of these drill cuttings and muds came out being well excess of drinking water standards.”
Ziemkiewicz is calling for an additional study to test these solid waste streams.
“By the time this stuff gets to the landfill and is diluted it may or may not even be a problem," he says. "It may be that we’re focusing on radioactivity when that’s not a problem at all, but the real problem is organic contamination like benzene.”
Ziemkiewicz’s other recommendations include what he calls common sense measures like proper containment of drill sites to guard against spills, and thorough inspection and enforcement by well-trained authorities. He also suggests tracking liquid wastes to have clear knowledge of where it ends up.
Ziemkiewicz and other experts say it’s hard to predict the future of oil and gas development, but everyone seems certain that significantly more drilling is the most likely scenario, and therefore, more insight into the science and practices of the industry is the best course of action to safeguard not only communities, but also employees and first responders.