Duke Study: Rivers Contaminated With Radium and Lead From Thousands of Fracking Wastewater Spills

Say what? Fracking is terrible for the environment and everything on Earth? You don’t say! And here I thought we’d been protesting about the fracking taking place all of the country for nothing.

Thousands of oil and gas industry wastewater spills in North Dakota have caused “widespread” contamination from radioactive materials, heavy metals and corrosive salts, putting the health of people and wildlife at risk, researchers from Duke University concluded in a newly released peer-reviewed study.

North Dakota, Williston—Bakken—Oil and Gas—Missouri River. Photo Credit: EcoFlight
Bakken Oil and Gas in Williston, North Dakota on the Missouri River. Photo Credit: EcoFlight
Some rivers and streams in North Dakota now carry levels of radioactive and toxic materials higher than federal drinking water standards as a result of wastewater spills, the scientists found after testing near spills. Many cities and towns draw their drinking water from rivers and streams, though federal law generally requires drinking water to be treated before it reaches peoples’ homes and the scientists did not test tap water as part of their research.

High levels of lead—the same heavy metal that infamously contaminated water in Flint, Michigan—as well as the radioactive element radium, were discovered near spill sites. One substance, selenium, was found in the state’s waters at levels as high as 35 times the federal thresholds set to protect fish, mussels and other wildlife, including those that people eat.

The pollution was found on land as well as in water. The soils in locations where wastewater spilled were laced with significant levels of radium and even higher levels of radium were discovered in the ground downstream from the spills’ origin points, showing that radioactive materials were soaking into the ground and building up as spills flowed over the ground, the researchers said.

The sheer number of spills in the past several years is striking. All told, the Duke University researchers mapped out a total of more than 3,900 accidental spills of oil and gas wastewater in North Dakota alone.

Contamination remained at the oldest spill site tested, where roughly 300 barrels of wastewater were released in a spill four years before the team of researchers arrived to take samples, demonstrating that any cleanup efforts at the site had been insufficient.

“Unlike spilled oil, which starts to break down in soil, these spilled brines consist of inorganic chemicals, metals and salts that are resistant to biodegradation,” said Nancy Lauer, a Duke University PhD student who was lead author of the study, which was published in Environmental Science & Technology. “They don’t go away; they stay.”

“This has created a legacy of radioactivity at spill sites,” she said.

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