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Fracking North Carolina: What Do We Do With The Waste?

Ed Harris on his farm in Lee County.
Richard Ziglar

The price of natural gas has fallen to all time lows and is replacing dirtier fuels like coal.  So why are environmentalists so concerned about drilling for natural gas here in North Carolina?  The process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, used to release the gas from the surrounding shale rock brings with it its own environmental problems including massive amounts of wastewater. This is the second story in our “Fracking North Carolina” series.

Ed Harris has a farm in Lee County, and he is worried about water. He stands by Little Pocket Creek, which runs through his farm, and says, “I heard twenty, twenty-five years ago that in twenty, twenty-five, years there was going to be as much of a water shortage as there was an oil or gas shortage. World wide, we’re getting to that point.”

He’s also worried about hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract natural gas from the shale buried deep beneath his farm.

“They use a combination of millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals under extreme high pressure to further open fractures made in the rock. [That] lets the gas escape, then they pump this fluid back out of the ground,” Harris explains.

Little Pocket Creek on Ed Harris' farm.
Credit Richard Ziglar
Little Pocket Creek on Ed Harris' farm.

The chemicals, known as fracking fluids, can be quite toxic. During hydraulic fracturing, the water picks up whatever else is present in the shale—including salts and radiological material. It can take 3 to 5 million gallons of water to frack one well, and scientists are unsure how the water might move through naturally occurring fractures found throughout central North Carolina’s geological formations.  Up to a third of the water used in fracking comes back out as wastewater, and its disposal can be a major problem. 

Vickram Rao is a former executive at Halliburton and a member of the Mining and Energy Commission, created by the General Assembly.

“We are all frightened of it because it all appears so new,” he says. “It is just polluted water. There is polluted water that is being created all over the world. And industry knows how to treat it. So the bottom line is this—when we are done with using it for fracturing purposes, we should consider what is the best way to treat it for whatever the community needs at that time. It could be for agriculture or it could be for municipal use.”

Robert Jackson calls that suggestion a “head scratcher.” He’s the Nicholas Professor of Global Environmental Change at Duke University.

“At best it’s naïve and at worst it could even be dangerous,” he says. “There are lots of things in the fracking fluids that we don’t want in the environment around us. There are carcinogens such as benzene. There was a study in West Virginia, which is a state that allows spraying wastewater on land, done by the Forest Service. And what the Forest Service scientists found was that after spraying I think it was about 75,000 gallons of wastewater on an acre of land or so, this was oil and gas waste, they killed half the trees within a year.”

Jackson wants the state to consider deep-well injection to dispose of fracking wastewater, a method that has sparked controversy.

The hydraulic fracturing (fracking) water cycle.
Credit Environmental Protection Agency
The hydraulic fracturing (fracking) water cycle.

Geologists say the coastal plains area is the only part of North Carolina that could accept such waste. And there’s a history of deep-well injection polluting aquifers in eastern North Carolina. Jackson is not suggesting that deep-well injection necessarily take place in this state without further study—he says wastewater might also be shipped to injection wells in another state, like Texas.

But the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources has made it clear that it prefers land application to deep-well injection.

“North Carolina has a fairly robust regulatory program for land application of wastewater,” says Evan Kane, groundwater-planning supervisor for the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources. “We’ve never done this before and it’s a significant engineering hurdle. But ultimately what they put out on the fields, they have to do it in a manner that would protect groundwater, that would not destroy the soil structure, and that would allow for the growth of a plant for some beneficial purpose.”

Many environmentalists wonder if there is any safe disposal method. Therese Vick, a community organizer for Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League, is one.

“You can model anything the way you want to,” she says. “And who’s watching? Who’s monitoring it? Is the testing gonna ever be adequate? Are they ever going to be required to test for every substance?”

She has her own ideas regarding wastewater disposal.

“The politicians and the ones that are serving on the Mining and Energy Commission who think it can be safe, and think the waste can be disposed of safely, need to volunteer their property for waste disposal—whether it be an evaporative pond, a condensate tank or underground injection,” Vick says. “Bet it would be regulated real tough then.”

This is the second story in our series "Fracking North Carolina." The final story will appear tomorrow and asks the question: if your neighbors want to frack their land, should you be forced to frack yours too?  

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