The extraction of natural gas using hydraulic fracturing (fracking) produces large amounts of liquid and solid waste that can contain a number of harmful pollutants, including salts (sometimes expressed as total dissolved solids or TDS); chemical additives, such as ethylene glycol, naphthalene, and sulfuric acid; metals; organic compounds; and other contaminants. These pollutants include chemical additives in fracking fluid, as well as naturally-occurring contaminants that exist thousands of feet below the surface and are mobilized by the extraction process and come up the well along with drilling muds (used as a lubricant during the drilling process), fracking fluids, and the gas itself. Fracking waste from extraction activities in the Marcellus Shale can also contain naturally-occurring radioactive materials (NORMs) such as radium-226 and radium-228.
Fracking wastewater includes “flowback water” or “flowback fluid” (fracking fluid that returns to the surface after a well is fracked) and “produced water” or “production brine” (wastewater that flows to the surface during well production). The process of drilling a well also produces other waste materials, including drill cuttings (drilled rock) and drilling muds that must be disposed of, if not reused. Waste material may also include sand after it has been injected into a well and used as a proppant during the fracking process. Off-site re-use and disposal methods for fracking waste include road spreading, wastewater treatment, underground injection, and landfill disposal.
With the required approval, production brine from conventional, low-volume fracking in New York State is currently allowed to be spread on roads for de-icing, dust control, and road stabilization purposes. If not properly controlled, this waste can run off into adjoining property and ultimately could contaminate rivers, streams, and underground aquifers that feed local drinking water supplies. Government entities, as well as private companies, that wish to use production brine for road spreading must get permission from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) to use the brine by applying for a Beneficial Use Determination (BUD).
In July 2013, Riverkeeper wrote to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and requested information about one method of handling fracking waste that New York is currently allowing: the use of production brine from conventional, low-volume fracking on New York roads for de-icing, dust control, and road stabilization. Specifically, we asked the agency to provide information regarding its approvals – known as Beneficial Use Determinations or BUDs – of the use of natural gas production brine for road spreading from June 2011 to July 2013.
In its response, NYSDEC indicated that its records did not differentiate between brine from different well types: “The records may reflect brine originating from oil extraction wells as well as natural gas extraction wells.” As a result, even though we only requested information regarding natural gas production brine BUDs, we received BUDs from other sources as well. In all we received copies of nearly 30 BUDs and modifications, 18 of which approve for the use of natural gas brine for road spreading purpose. Of the 18 natural gas brine BUDs, 11 appear to authorize road spreading of brine from natural gas storage facilities, while 7 authorize road spreading of production brine from natural gas wells. Of the remaining approved BUDs, 1 indicated that the brine was from oil wells, while the type of brine for the balance was not identified.
The results were concerning the natural gas well brine BUDs indicated that the road spreading of natural gas production brine has been approved in at least 23 municipalities in 7 western New York counties: Wyoming, Erie, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Genessee, Niagrara and Seneca. Road spreading of natural gas brine from natural gas storage has been approved in at least 10 municipalities in 2 western New York counties: Allegany and Steuben. In addition, the New York State Department of Transportation Region 6 received approval to spread what appears to be brine from natural gas storage on state roads in portions of Steuben, Allegany, Chemung, Schuyler, and Yates Counties.
Riverkeeper also received testing information that was submitted with requests for the BUDs. A review of these brine testing results from both natural gas production brine and brine from natural gas storage facilities showed extremely high levels of chloride. Chloride can corrode infrastructure and negatively affect aquatic life and vegetation. In addition, results submitted with requests for BUDs for brine from natural gas storage facilities revealed the presence of benzene and toluene. Benzene is a carcinogen that has been linked to blood disorders such as anemia, while toluene has been linked to nervous system, kidney, and liver problems. The testing results we received did not include testing for NORMs.
Many of the BUDs included the condition that “[b]rine from Marcellus formation wells may not be used without additional analysis,” although what additional analysis was required was not specified.
2013 Riverkeeper FOIL request:
BUDs and related documents received from NYSDEC, (Download 19MB)
Other information about brine BUDs:
Rochester-based group R-Cause recently received documents from NYSDEC indicating that the New York State Department of Transportation Region 4 has received permission to spread natural gas production brine on state highways in Genessee, Wyoming, Orleans, and Monroe Counties.
For information about brine BUDs issued prior to June 2011:
Toxics Targeting (2011), Documents Regarding DEC-Approved Gas Drilling Wastewater Spreading for Dust Control, Winter De-icing and Roadbed Stabilization.
With the required state and federal permits, fracking wastewater could be disposed of at New York municipal wastewater treatment facilities (sometimes called publicly owned treatment works or POTWs) and privately-owned wastewater treatment facilities. NYSDEC and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency require POTWs to meet certain pre-treatment requirements before receiving approval to accept fracking waste, though it is unknown how many facilities in New York, if any, are currently capable of meeting those requirements. However, given the common constituents of fracking wastewater from the Marcellus Shale, including TDS, chemical additives, and NORMs, POTWs may not have the capability to adequately treat fracking wastewater.
Evidence from Pennsylvania has demonstrated that fracking wastewater can wreak havoc if sent to certain municipal wastewater treatment plants, causing equipment corrosion and water pollution. A 2011 investigative report from The New York Times showed that over a three-year period in Pennsylvania the industry sent more than a billion gallons of fracking wastewater to treatment plants unequipped to handle it, causing the plants to discharge the partially treated wastewater into Pennsylvania’s waterways. A recent study from Duke University examined discharged effluent and downstream water quality from a wastewater treatment facility accepting fracking wastewater in western Pennsylvania. Researchers found increased downstream concentrations of chloride and bromide, and reported that, while NORM concentrations in effluent were largely reduced, they were not eliminated, meaning that NORM could accumulate over time at the point where treated wastewater is discharged. In fact, researchers found that NORM concentrations in sediment at the point of discharge were 200 times higher than upstream sediment concentrations.
In addition to concerns around acceptance of fracking wastewater, there have been media reports that some wastewater treatment facilities are currently receiving leachate (liquid that drains from a landfill and can pick up contaminants contained in the landfill waste) from landfills which accept fracking solid waste. Residents near the Hyland Landfill in Angelica, NY – which accepts fracking waste from Pennsylvania – have expressed concerns regarding the radioactivity of leachate that is shipped from the landfill to wastewater treatment facilities in Wellsville, NY and Bath, NY.
Drill cuttings, sludge, fracking sand, and other waste materials from both conventional, low-volume fracking and high-volume horizontal fracking in Pennsylvania are currently being sent to landfills in New York State for disposal. In addition to the contaminants commonly found in fracking waste, the extraction process can concentrate NORMs in fracking solid waste, leading to higher levels of radioactive contamination.
From 2011 – 2013, the following 6 New York landfills accepted waste from Pennsylvania fracking operations: Hakes C & D Landfill in Painted Post, NY (2011-2013); Chemung County Landfill in Lowman, NY (2011 – 2013); Hyland Landfill in Angelica, NY (2011-2013); Allied Waste Systems in Niagara, NY (2011-2012); Hakes Landfill in Painted Post, NY (2011-2012); and Seneca Meadows Landfill in Waterloo, NY (2011). According to information compiled by FracTracker, the overall waste sent to New York State landfills in 2011, 2012, and the first half of 2013 totaled:
At least 12 New York counties have passed bans on the improper re-use and/or disposal of fracking waste. Ulster, Oneida, Tompkins, and Orange Counties have prohibited road spreading of fracking waste, and Nassau County has prohibited the acceptance of such waste at wastewater treatment facilities. Westchester, Putnam, Rockland, Albany, Erie, Onondaga, Orange, and Suffolk Counties have prohibited both road spreading and acceptance of fracking waste at wastewater treatment plants.
For a link to a particular ban, click on the county name:
Brown, Valerie, published in Environmental Health Perspectives (Feb. 2014), Radionuclides in Fracking Wastewater: Managing a Toxic Blend.
Citizen’s Campaign for the Environment (Jan. 2010), Protecting New York’s Air, Land, Water and People: What’s the Hydro-Fracking Rush?
Environmental Advocates of New York (May 2012), Out of Sight, Out of Mind: New York’s Failure to Track or Treat Fracking Waste.
FracTracker ArcGIS Map, PA Unconventional Drilling Waste Disposal in NYS, 2011-2013.
Mantius, Peter, DC Bureau (Aug. 14, 2013), New York Imports Pennsylvania’s Radioactive Fracking Waste Despite Falsified Water Tests.
Natural Resources Defense Council (May 2012), In Fracking’s Wake: New Rules are Needed to Protect Our Health and Environment from Contaminated Wastewater.
NYSDEC (Sep. 2011), Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement On The Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program, Chapters 5 – 7.
PADEP, PA DEP Oil & Gas Reporting Website. From the site menu, click Waste Reports –> By Waste Facility –> select NY.
Urbina, Ian, New York Times (Feb. 26, 2011), Drilling Down: Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers.
U.S. Department of the Interior & U.S. Geological Survey (2011), Radium Content of Oil- and Gas-Field Produced Waters in the Northern Appalachian Basin (USA): Summary and Discussion of Data.
Warner, Nathaniel; Christie, Cidney; Jackson, Robert; and Vengosh, Avner, Duke University, published in Environmental Science and Technology (Oct. 2013), Impacts of Shale Gas Wastewater Disposal on Water Quality in Western Pennsylvania.