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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.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Wendell Berry

My dear friend, poet, writer, farmer, and a sterling human being, Wendell Berry, was just recognized with the 2010 National Humanities Medal.  This medal could not have gone to a better person.

But do not take my word for it, please read Wendell's books, including the latest one on economics. Here is the forward to this book, "What Matters?" by Herman Daly, one of a handful of economists, who actually know what they are talking about without hiding behind gobbledygook, senseless non-physical equations, and meaningless quasi-religious ideology.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Natural gas versus coal

You and I use a lot of energy. Every second of each day and night we devour 100 times more energy than we need to live.  If I were to eat that much energy as food, I would be a 50-foot long bull sperm whale, weighing 40 tons.  There are 300,000 sperm whales worldwide, half of them bulls (females are much smaller), and 300,000,000 Americans (females are about the same in size).  Our Earth cannot feed and protect 300,000,000 male sperm whales.  She is simply too small.

Our voracious appetite for energy must be either extinguished or quenched with local sources of energy (and, no, wind turbines and PV cells are too small to provide even single ample energy meal per day).

So here are some of the choices we have:  We can drill and hydrofracture deep gas wells, and produce natural gas closer to where we live, or we can go after coal leftovers. We can also opt not to use fossil fuels and live differently, more Amish-like. For example, we can opt to live in the well-insulated houses that are 400 square feet, not in cheap, drafty, 4,000 square foot Mac-Mansions.  We can opt to eat 2,000 kilo calories per day from vegetables and fruit, not from meat and processed food-like edible substances.  We can opt to heat our shower water with the sun, not electricity or natural gas.  We can opt to drive a bicycle, motorcycle or a tiny car, not a monster truck or SUV.  We can opt to turn down our heaters, and not use air conditioners. We can opt to recycle aluminum and plastic bottles, instead of tossing them mindlessly into trash bins. But most of us cannot opt to live and shop two miles from home.  Most of us cannot opt to use light rail, metro, or train to get to where we want. In short, it will be quite difficult to live Amish-style in Manhattan or Philadelphia.

Short of becoming neo-Amish people, here is how it looks when they drill a natural gas well in your neighborhood. The owner of the house behind the pit claimed that his water well got polluted by the drilling, but he never measured water composition in his well. 

This is how this well might  look later on, after the drilling equipment is gone.

And this is how your neighborhood might look like when they blow it up to recover coal from mountaintops.

In which of these two neighborhoods would you rather live?

Here is how Kurt Vonnegut described what happened in West Virginia:

"The surface of the State had been demolished by men and machinery and explosives in order to yield up its coal.  The coal is mostly gone now. It had been turned into heat.

The surface of West Virginia, with its coal and trees and topsoil gone, was rearranging what was left of itself in conformity with the laws of gravity.  It was collapsing into all the holes which had been dug into it.  Its mountains, which once found it easy to stand by themselves, were sliding into valleys now.

The demolition of West Virginia had taken place with the approval of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the State Government, which drew their power from the people.

Here and there an inhabited dwelling still stood."

("Breakfast of Champions," Chapter 14, p. 123)

There are only 190 miles from Philadelphia in Pennsylvania to Morgantown in West Virginia, but the ravaged mountaintops in West Virginia may as well be on the moon.

Once we burn the coal obtained from blowing up one neighborhood, we may then flood another one with coal ash sludge. Natural gas does not do such things.

By the way, did I mention Kentucky?

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Radioactivity in water and natural gas fracing

In this post I attempt to provide a context for an article in NYT, Drilling Down: Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers by IAN URBINA, published on February 26, 2011.  The article seems to imply that much of the potentially deadly radioactive contamination of drinking water supply in Pennsylvania comes from "frac water" produced after hydrofracturing the deep natural gas wells there.  Such an assertion is not supported by facts, and here is why.

The raw data from the NYT spreadsheet, emailed to me by Mr. Urbina, are plotted here.  In the spreadsheet, there are up to five different measurements of radioactivity in the water produced from each of 212 natural gas wells in Pennsylvania.  Total alpha radiation refers to all alpha-particle-emitting radioisotopes present in the produced water.  In some wells there were additional measurements of alpha-radioactivity from two isotopes of radium and two isotopes of uranium.  By subtraction, the difference of between the total alpha radioactivity and those of the other radio-isotopes can be attributed mostly to radon.

Drinking groundwater can have trace quantities of dozens of  the naturally occurring radioactive elements. Radon 222 is a ubiquitous naturally occurring radioactive gas that is water-soluble. Radon's decay in air or water is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L). The fast-decaying radon is produced during radioactive decay of uranium 238 and thorium 232 that have been in the earth's crust since the earth was formed.

A picocurie per liter is 0.037 radon atoms giving out radiation in one second in one liter of water, or 1 atom of radon giving out radiation in 1 second in 27 liters of water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 10,000 pCi/L of radon in water translates to about 1 pCi/L of radon in air.

The maximum total alpha-particle (mostly from radon, but in some wells also from radium-226 and -228, and uranium- 235 and -238) emissions measured in water produced from two natural gas wells in Pennsylvania were 32,360 pCi/L and 40,880 pCi/L, respectively. I will address the much smaller radium and uranium radioactivity in the produced water  and the dilution factors in a later post.

The current "action level" for airborne radon is 4 pCi/L. The EPA recommends that action be taken to lower airborne radon if it exceeds 4 pCi/L in your home. While there are no EPA standards for radon in water now, a maximum contaminant level (MCL) of 300 pCi/L and an Alternative Maximum Contaminant Level (AMCL) of 4,000 pCi/L for public water supplies have been proposed.

Water directly out of the tap contains about 0.01 pCi/L each of uranium, radium, and radioactive lead. It may also contain between 100 and 400 pCi/L of radioactive hydrogen, between 100 and 500 pCi/L of radioactive carbon, between 10 and 30 pCi/L of radioactive beryllium, as well as a variety of other radioactive elements such as aluminum, chlorine, silicon, lead, bismuth, polonium, and argon. It can contain several hundred to several thousand pCi/L of radon gas, particularly if you get your drinking water from a well.

We have about 120,000 picocuries of radioactivity in our bodies from all sources. These naturally-occurring radioactive substances expose our bodies to about 25 "millirem" per year, abbreviated as "mrem/yr". (Millirem measures energy of radiation, like heat.)  If you live in Denver, you are exposed to 50 millirems per year. A single CT-scan test exposes you to up to 1,000 mrems of radiation.  CT radiation alone contributes 1/4 of U.S. population's radiation exposure!

Public groundwater supplies seem to have the highest radon levels in places where the water flows through granites in the Piedmont. (The Piedmont is a plateau region located in the eastern United States between the Atlantic Coastal Plain and the main Appalachian Mountains, stretching from New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the north to central Alabama in the south.)

The highest readings there have been well over 10,000 pCi/L. The lowest concentrations occur in the coastal plain region, where many readings are below 100 pCi/L. Concentrations from about 500 to 10,000 pCi/L occur in groundwater water samples drawn from metamorphic rocks, such as the gneisses and schists found in the piedmont and mountain regions.  Both types of rock are used as building materials. 

In conclusion, the two highest radon concentrations measured in frac water back-produced from natural gas wells in Pennsylvania are in line with some groundwater samples in the region.

A high concentration of radon in the groundwater in your area does not necessarily mean that there will be a high concentration of radon in your drinking water. Radon escapes harmlessly into the air when water is being treated for use in a municipal system. Also, radon decays into other substances over time while the water is being stored. Municipal systems that mix surface water—a lake or a river—with groundwater will have lower waterborne radon levels. 

High levels of waterborne radon tend to occur in homes on an individual well or a community well system (serving up to about 100 homes) if the groundwater has a high level of radon.  However, a private groundwater well should not receive the produced frac water.

Based on a second 1999 NAS report on radon in drinking water, EPA estimates that radon in drinking water causes about 168 cancer deaths per year, 89 percent from lung cancer caused by breathing in radon released from water, and 11 percent from stomach cancer caused by drinking radon-containing water.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated 52,447 deliberate and 23,237 accidental non-fatal gunshot injuries in the United States during the year 2000. The majority of gun-related deaths in the United States are suicides, with firearms used in 16,907 suicides in the United States during 2004. Thus, an average U.S. resident is almost 1,000 times more likely to shoot him/herself with a gun, than die from stomach cancer caused by drinking radon-contaminated water. By the way, each year there are about 150,000 lung-cancer deaths the U.S. (157,300 in 2010).   It is estimated that about 21,000 of the lung-cancer deaths are caused by breathing airborne radon that seeps into our homes from soil. CT scans alone might lead to 29,000 new cancer cases in the U.S.

In 1994 there were 41,000 deaths in traffic accidents, down to 34,000 in 2009.  In 2007, CDC reported 182,479 deaths and injuries due to accidents in the U.S., including 18,773 homicides and law enforcement-related deaths.

So, please, pick your risks wisely. Otherwise, you will be frightened and distracted by a mere scary-cat. Instead, you should be watching for a brick falling directly onto your head.