Consider the Freshwater Crisis in America: Supply, Consumption & Fracking

by Duane Nichols on June 22, 2012

Earth Thirst: Solving the Freshwater Crisis

Scientific American has developed a web-site with a number of important articles dealing with the water crisis here in the United States. New approaches help keep our water supplies safe, but much remains to be done.

One of these articles is entitled “How can we cope with the dirty water from fracking?” The proposed methods include advanced membranes, unusual solvents and new drilling processes involving processing and recycling much of the contaminated water.

Of great concern is the disposal of contaminated water via deep-well injection.  This involves pumping large volumes of water under very high pressures down into the rock strata in various states.  Ohio has been taking incredible volumes of wastewater from Pennsylvania and West Virginia.  Some earthquakes have been caused by these methods.  But, there are other problems with this method.

Scientific American reports the following on deep-well injection:

More than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid deep into the earth, using broad expanses of the nation’s geology as an invisible dumping ground. Records from disparate corners of the United States show that wells drilled to bury this waste deep beneath the ground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals and waste gurgling to the surface or, on occasion, seeping into shallow aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation’s drinking water.

In 2010, contaminants from such a well bubbled up in a west Los Angeles dog park. Within the past three years, similar fountains of oil and gas drilling waste have appeared in Oklahoma and Louisiana. In South Florida, 20 of the nation’s most stringently regulated disposal wells failed in the early 1990s, releasing partly treated sewage into aquifers that may one day be needed to supply Miami’s drinking water.

There are more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells nationwide, more than 150,000 of which shoot industrial fluids thousands of feet below the surface. Scientists and federal regulators acknowledge they do not know how many of the sites are leaking.

Several key experts acknowledged that the idea that injection is safe rests on science that has not kept pace with reality, and on oversight that doesn’t always work. “In 10 to 100 years we are going to find out that most of our groundwater is polluted,” said Mario Salazar, an engineer who worked for 25 years as a technical expert with the EPA’s underground injection program in Washington. “A lot of people are going to get sick, and a lot of people may die.”

“There is no certainty at all in any of this, and whoever tells you the opposite is not telling you the truth,’ said Stefan Finsterle, a leading hydrogeologist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory who specializes in understanding the properties of rock layers and modeling how fluid flows through them. “You have changed the system with pressure and temperature and fracturing, so you don’t know how it will behave.”

A ProPublica review of well records, case histories and government summaries of more than 220,000 well inspections found that structural failures inside injection wells are routine. From late 2007 to late 2010, one well integrity violation was issued for every six deep injection wells examined — more than 17,000 violations nationally. More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking. Records also show wells are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations and under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.

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