Universities monitoring river water for shale pollution

December 27, 2012
Shale Play


Shale Play

WHEELING, W.Va. - Saying they want to prevent carcinogenic trihalomethanes from forming in the region's water supply, officials with West Virginia University and Wheeling Jesuit University are checking major rivers for pollution.

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Wheeling Jesuit biology professor Ben Stout joined others in Pittsburgh last week to take a sampling of the Ohio and Allegheny rivers as part of the Three Rivers QUEST, a federally funded program designed to monitor water quality in these rivers, as well as the Monongahela River.

The Allegheny meets with the Monongahela River in the heart of Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River, which flows southward through the upper Ohio Valley.

Even though he admits that bromide - the chemical whose presence can lead to trihalomethanes - can occur naturally, Stout said bromide is commonly found in rivers near areas that have heavy Marcellus Shale natural gas activity.

He said officials want to collect data from various points along all three rivers every two weeks for one year to see how much the region's gas drilling is impacting the water supply.

"We need to see exactly what is getting into our water. That way, we can take action now before it is too late," Stout said.

In addition to cancer, exposure to trihalomethanes can cause liver damage or decrease nervous system activity, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Wheeling-based Liquid Assets Disposal dumped briny wastewater from gas drilling sites at the Center Wheeling pollution plant from January 2009 to February 2010. This resulted in the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection issuing a $414,000 fine, due in part to the presence of trihalomethanes.

After gas drillers pump millions of gallons of fracking fluid - consisting mostly of water and sand, but also including different chemical combinations that vary per the choice of the driller - into a production well, much of this substance flushes back up through the well. The fracking fluid combines with minerals and mud from the earth to create the briny wastewater that contains bromide.

Gas drillers also have been known to use ethylene glycol, a substance found in antifreeze, in their fracking fluid. Some others have used formaldehyde, which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration identifies as "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

Although some drillers are able to recycle or reuse much of the chemical-laced frack water, the remainder of the substance must be discarded. Because governments have cracked down on allowing the water to be pumped into public water treatment systems such as Wheeling's, underground injection wells are the preferred disposal method for many drillers.

There are several underground injection wells in Ohio, including one in the Kirkwood Heights area near Bridgeport, most of which have taken water used for fracking in Pennsylvania.

"There could be some night dumping going on, but most of the problems would probably come from materials migrating to the rivers," Stout said.



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