Green Junction: Hydraulic Fracturing by Julie Peller, Ph.D.

Hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as fracking, is an advanced technological process for mining natural gas and oil from the depths of the earth, typically 1000 to 4000 feet. The process requires huge amounts of fresh water, 1.5 million to 16 million gallons per well, that are mixed with chemicals to pressurize the wells and release the fuel. The water mixture then becomes further contaminated by chemicals, and is termed fracking wastewater or product water. One scientist described companies that harness these fossil fuels as “water companies that skim oil.” 

A recent study tested the toxicity of the fracking wastewater by monitoring the response of water fleas. The fleas are considered a primary link in the food chain. Water fleas were exposed to two different dilutions of fracked wastewater for 48 hours. With the more concentrated wastewater, nearly 70 % of the water fleas died; half of the fleas died when exposed to the less concentrated wastewater.  

Additional studies have established that up to 1100 chemicals can be found in fracking wastewaters, which are deposited in underground sites. Chemicals can leach from these disposal sites and affect the quality of nearby groundwater and surface water. Currently in West Texas, farmers are concerned about the hundreds of millions of gallons of the wastewater that are being injected underground at a rate higher than normal.  They believe that contamination from the wastewater is seeping into groundwater that they use to irrigate crops. 

One researcher summarized the situation: “Hydraulic fracturing can represent a health risk via long-lasting soil and water contamination when strict safety measures are not rigorously applied.” Regulations, monitoring, and enforcement are fundamental requirements for industrial processes to safeguard our water supplies. Modern technological processes need to value this precious resource to protect fresh water on the earth.

Julie Peller, Ph.D., is an environmental chemist (Professor of Chemistry at Valparaiso University ). Julie has been writing a weekly column for the past ~6 years called the Green Junction and is helping to move the call of Laudato Si to action forward. Her Research Interests are advanced oxidation for aqueous solutions, water quality analyses, emerging contaminants, air quality analyses, Lake Michigan shoreline challenges (Cladophora, water, and sediment contaminants), and student and citizen participation in environmental work.

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