Fracking wells in the U.S. generated 280 billion gallons of toxic wastewater in 2012, according to a new report. That’s enough, as the Guardian notes, to immerse Washington D.C. in 22 feet of toxic water.
The report, published Thursday by Environment America, noted the toxic wastewater produced by oil and natural gas operations often contains carcinogens and even radioactive materials. The report also pointed out the weaknesses of current wastewater disposal practices — wastewater is often stored in deep wells, but over time these wells can fail, leading to the potential for ground and surface water contamination. In New Mexico alone, chemicals from oil and gas pits have contaminated water sources at least 421 times, according to the report.
Those toxic chemicals are exempt from federal disclosure laws, so it’s up to each state to decide if and how the oil and gas companies should disclose the chemicals they use in their operations — which is why in many states, citizens don’t know what goes into the brew that fracking operators use to extract oil and natural gas. Luckily, some states are beginning to address this — California recently passed a law ordering fracking companies to make their chemicals public, an order similar to laws in about seven other states.
The report also noted the vast quantities of water needed for fracking — from 2 million to 9 million gallons on average to frack one well. Since 2005, according to the report, fracking operations have used 250 billion gallons of freshwater. This is putting a strain on places like one South Texas county, where fracking was nearly one quarter of total water use in 2011 — and dry conditions could push that amount closer to one-third.
The Environment America study backs up previous research on the dangers of fracking. A Duke University study published this week linked wastewater from fracking to elevated levels of radioactive activity in one Pennsylvania River. Another study from September found exposure to fracking wastewater was linked to near-immediate death, stillbirths and birth defects in cattle. And a report from Pennsylvania documented the range of health problems affecting residents living near natural gas operations, including skin rashes, infections, headaches and chronic pain. Unfortunately, despite mounting scientific research, it’s difficult for residents to truly link these effects to fracking pollution — in Pennsylvania, a gag order prevents doctors from telling their patients what chemicals from fracking solutions might be the cause of their problems.
The dangers of this wastewater, enormous amount of water used, and the emissions like methane released by fracking operations have all prompted the Environment America’s report to recommend that states prohibit fracking. “Given the scale and severity of fracking’s myriad impacts, constructing a regulatory regime sufficient to protect the environment and public health from dirty drilling — much less enforcing such safeguards at more than 80,000 wells, plus processing and waste disposal sites across the country — seems implausible,” the report stated. Since that recommendation is unlikely to be heeded by states, the report also urged the federal government to ban fracking in national parks and forests and to close loopholes exempting fracking from environmental laws.