When I worked at Kiski, some folks on campus were concerned about the fracking that was happening around us, especially because there were fracking wells around the reservoir nearby. They had good reason to be worried. There were some recorded spills and a handful of citations. Now if you know anything about the gas industry and the DEP, you know that they’ve been close to peas in a pod, sharing a bromance created when the gas industry fracked the legislature and the governor’s office as it started fracking the Commonwealth. There was probably more to worry about at that reservoir and, well, plenty of places.
In another direction, upstream of the confluence of the Conemaugh River and Loyalhanna that forms the river giving the Kiskiminetas Springs School its name, lies the Conemaugh Dam. Sediment accumulates behind it. What’s in that sediment?
Some of my peers over in Civil and Environmental Engineering (I’m at Penn State’s Sustainability Institute) have found something really frightening. Working with researchers at Colorado State University, they “looked for high radioactivity signatures and measured the pore water and the radioisotopes to determine the age of the sediments. They determined that “[l]arge quantities of oil and gas wastewater with high loads of chloride, barium, strontium, radium and organic compounds left high concentrations in the sediments and pore water.” As troubling, they also found “endocrine disrupting chemicals (nonylphenol ethoxylates) and carcinogens (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). The highest concentrations coincided with sediment layers deposited five to 10 years ago, during the peak of Marcellus Shale activity.”
As Bill Burgos said, “The isotopes confirm these are unconventional oil and gas wastes.” Some isotopes of barium and strontium have signatures known to be unique to the Marcellus Shale. Though fracking waste water has passed through treatment plants, the concentrations of dangerous materials is up to 200 times higher downstream of the plants compared to upstream. Levels have dropped since the voluntary decision not to “treat” frack water this way, but we don’t know the long-term impacts.
They could be severe. “It’s kind of an unknown, unquantified risk,” Burgos said. “The thing that you don’t know is the synergistic effect of all of these things together, the combined effect of radium and lead and surfactants and salt, all together. Does the combined effect of those things ratchet up the toxicity?”
Any sensible approach to this industry would curtail it greatly. It would stop this experiment on people in the name of power and move to a sustainable energy future. And it would keep my friends at Kiski, the boys who make their pilgrimage to the rope swing, and the kids from Apollo who play in that river safer.
At some point, we all live downstream from fracking.