Charlotte Weisberg: Major Discussion: What waste is being created?

From the sheer number of anti-fracking organizations and grassroots movements that exist today, it is evident that hydraulic fracturing is a widely controversial topic in the United States and beyond. An integral part of this argument is the issue of waste disposal from the fracking process and the environmental impact that waste may be creating. The fracking process uses many harmful chemicals and an enormous amount of water, along with many other substances which are unrevealed by energy companies. The process alone creates both solid waste, which includes a mixture of sand, sludge, and various harmful or radioactive chemicals, as well as waste water which contains any number of chemicals for disposal.

The waste water can be broken down into two major categories; flowback water and produced water [brine]. The first is a result of water and chemicals flowing back up to the surface after a well is drilled, and hence is referred to as “flowback fluid” (Hansen 2014). Flowback fluid makes up the majority of the waste created from fracking and is most critics’ biggest concern. Up to 60% of the water used for fracking at a single well will return as flowback water, with a single wellhead likely to produce more than 100,000 gallons of flowback fluid over its lifetime (Easton 2015). The brine water is of a slightly lesser concern because treatment and disposal usually involves simply diluting the intense salt concentrations before the water can be placed anywhere.

Each truckload of flowback fluid from a fracking site contains a variety of chemicals which may include anything from simple table salt to the chemicals used in antifreeze for motor vehicles. Although each chemical occurs at different levels in each sample of wastewater, many of them become toxic even at the lowest dosages. Many of the chemicals used are known cancer-causing agents, such as naphthalene, benzene, and acrylamide, and are used at considerably high levels (Ridlington et al. 2013). For example, naphthalene is a chemical used in mothballs, a common household item, that when ingested can cause anemia and liver damage in humans at even the lowest levels of exposure (NPIC 2010). In a report by the U.S. House of Representatives Energy Committee in 2011, it was noted that over 600 other chemicals appearing in fracking wastewater are hazardous or potentially harmful to humans (U.S. HOR 2011). From this data alone it becomes evident that a proper disposal system and regulations are necessary for dealing with this many dangerous or potentially harmful chemicals.