Scientists find evidence that deep water injections can pollute ground water

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Evidence of ground water contamination caused by unconventional oil and gas production was found by scientists near an underground injection well near Fayetteville, West Virginia, according to two recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, University of Missouri, and Duke University.

The two studies, entitled: “Wastewater Disposal from Unconventional Oil and Gas Development Degrades Stream Quality at a West Virginia Injection Facility,” with Denise Akob as the lead author and “Endocrine Disrupting Activities of Surface Water Associated with a West Virginia Oil and Gas Industry Wastewater Disposal Site,” with Duke University scientist Christopher Kassotis as the lead author, were published in Environmental Science and Technology and Science of the Total Environment and can be found here.

The studies are the first to demonstrate water-quality impacts to a surface stream due to activities at an unconventional oil and gas wastewater deep well injection disposal site. The studies did not assess how the wastewaters were able to migrate from the disposal site to the surface stream. The unconventional oil and gas wastewater that was injected in the site came from coalbed methane and shale gas wells.

“Deep well injection is widely used by industry for the disposal of wastewaters produced during unconventional oil and gas extraction,” said USGS scientist Akob. “Our results demonstrate that activities at disposal facilities can potentially impact the quality of adjacent surface waters.”

The scientists collected water and sediment samples both upstream and downstream from the disposal site. Waters and sediments collected downstream were elevated in constituents that are known markers of UOG wastewater, including sodium, chloride, strontium, lithium and radium, providing indications of wastewater-associated impacts in the stream.

“We found endocrine disrupting activity in surface water at levels that previous studies have shown are high enough to block some hormone receptors and potentially lead to adverse health effects in aquatic organisms,” said Susan C. Nagel, director of the EDC study and associate professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health at University of Missouri.

Scientists analyzed the microbial communities in sediments downstream. These microbes play an important role in ecosystems’ food webs.

“These initial findings will help us design further research at this and similar sites to determine whether changes in microbial communities and water quality may adversely impact biota and important ecological processes,” said Akob.

Currently deep water injections are the EPA-approved method of disposing large volumes of wastewater produced by the hydraulic fracturing process in the U.S. According to the EPA, more than 36,000 of these disposal wells are currently in operation across the United States and the volume of unconventional oil and gas wastewater requiring disposal has continued to grow despite a slowing in drilling and production.

“Considering how many wastewater disposal wells are in operation across the country, it’s critical to know what impacts they may have on the surrounding environment,” said Kassotis, the lead author on one of the studies. “These studies are an important first step in that process.”

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