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One of the live oaks that bless my home

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Frac water versus all water in Pennsylvania

In Part II of his work, "Wastewater Recycling No Cure-All in Gas Process," published by NYT on March 1, 2011, Mr. Ian Urbina states that 
[I]n the year and a half that ended in December 2010, well operators reported recycling at least 320 million gallons. But at least 260 million gallons of wastewater were sent to plants that discharge their treated waste into rivers, out of a total of more than 680 million gallons of wastewater produced, according to state data posted Tuesday.
First, 320+260=580, not 680, as Mr. Urbina writes, but that's a minor problem.  Second, let's do the arithmetic:

580 million gallons of wastewater over 1.5 years is equal to 580/1.5/365=1.06 million gallons of wastewater per day, on the average.  Out of this volume of water, 320/1.5/365=0.58 million gallons of water per day was recycled, and the remaining 0.48 million gallons of water per day was sent to water purification plants for processing and discharge into rivers.

Now, let's compare 0.42 million gallons of treated wastewater with daily withdrawal volumes of surface water in Pennsylvania in 1995 (water withdrawal volumes change very slowly and usually grow):
  • In the Ohio River Basin (the west 3/8 of Pennsylvania), 1,450 million gallons of water.
  • In the Susquehanna River Basin (the middle 1/2 of Pennsylvania), 508 million gallons of water.
  • In the Delaware River Basin (the east 1/8 of Pennsylvania), 905 million gallons of water.
So if all fracturing (I'll leave the spelling "fracking" to English majors who don't know any better) wastewater after treatment were discharged to any of these basins, it would be
  • 0.48/1,450 =  0.03 percent or 3 parts in 10,000
  • 0.48/508    =  0.08 percent or 9 parts in 10,000
  • 0.48/905    =  0.05 percent or 5 parts in 10,000
If the fracturing wastewater were discharged uniformly into surface water, it would be
  • 0.48/(1450+508+905) = 0.017 percent or 1.7 part in 10,000.
Now, statistics lie and the wastewater discharge would not be uniform, but one can see that water use for hydrofracturing and the subsequent discharge of some of this water into rivers are minuscule.   One could also compare this discharge with the public water supply in Pennsylvania of 1,550 million gallons of water per day, but the conclusions would be the same.

Over 17,000 golf courses in the USA irrigate about 1.3 million acres, constituting 1.5% of all water use; that's 1.5 parts in 100 on the average, or about 100 times more water than that used for hydrofracturing gas wells in Pennsylvania.  Golf courses are also notorious sources of toxic herbicide and pesticide runoff, atrazine for example, a well-known endocrine disruptor.  This runoff ends up directly in the rivers and public water supply sources. 

Since most of the alpha-radioactivity in the treated discharged hydrofracturing water is radon, a short-lived gas, most of it would bubble into the air away from humans and mix with a much larger supply of radon from soil.  If the maximum measured concentrations of radium and uranium in wastewater were diluted only 1,000 times, not 10,000 times, they would be below the drinking water limit.

Thus, as I warned in my previous post, the real danger to water consumers in Pennsylvania is well water which may contain many times the maximum "safe" radon concentration of 300 pCi/L.  That water however does not come into contact with the produced hydrofracturing water.

But never mind the common sense, I have also waded through an orgy of the deeply-felt hatred towards the oil and gas industry, expressed in at least 352 reader comments on Mr. Urbina's prose.

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