Fracking waste raises concerns

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 7, 2013

As state legislators push through fracking legislation to open up the state to shale-gas exploration and extraction, most of the attention has focused on the potential economic benefits if extensive reserves are discovered here. There’s been less discussion about disposing of millions of gallons of fracking wastewater — but that may be changing.
The Senate bill (SB 76) that lifts the state’s moratorium on fracking also lifts a state ban on deep injection wells, which are typically used for fracking wastewater disposal. These wells employ steel or cement casings that may extend a mile or more beneath the surface, where pressurized wastewater is injected into subterranean rock formations that, theoretically, keep it contained.
Fracking requires a lot of water — 3-5 million gallons per well. In many cases, the disposal wells are drilled in proximity to the fracking operations, and fracking supporters apparently thought that would be the case for shale deposits believed to be centered in the Piedmont’s Lee County. But now, according to a report in the Charlotte Observer, geologists say that area’s subterranean rock formations aren’t suitable for absorbing fracking waste. Instead, the injection wells would need to be sunk farther east, extending down into the coastal plain’s saline aquifers and stratified clay.
The bill’s primary sponsor, Sen. E.S. “Buck” Newton, a Republican representing Johnson, Nash and Wilson, told the newspaper he didn’t see this as an issue.
At least one of his Republican colleagues does. Rep. Rick Catlin is from Wilmington, in the heart of the coastal tourism area that suddenly has a high stake in the injection well issue. Here’s what he said: “You’re basically contaminating an aquifer forever. Please don’t inject any down here.”
Catlin, by the way, is a hydrogeologist and an environmental engineer, so his concerns shouldn’t be dismissed as mere “not-in-my-backyard” recalcitrance.
As with other aspects of fracking, there’s sharp disagreement over the potential risks from injection wells. Environmental concerns include water contamination and seismic disruptions. While leaks have occurred, industry representatives and supportive legislators say they’re rare, and they brush aside concerns about groundwater contamination from fracking “brine,” which can contain chemical contaminants. They point out that more than 30 states use deep-well injection disposal. The EPA says it’s safe “when properly done.”
The injection wells that leaked near Wilmington back in the 1960s, provoking the existing ban, supposedly had been properly done, too. Extraction and disposal technologies have improved in the intervening decades. But communities that are likely to be the site of injection wells have reason for concern. Lawmakers should slow the legislative rush and drill deeper into the waste-disposal issues that have been injected into the fracking debate.