For the first time, American scientists have published a paper showing that wastewater from a shale-gas well and a coalbed methane site, disposed of by injecting it into a deep well, has reached a surface stream. This has led the UK group Frack Off to claim that the ‘favoured method of frack-waste disposal [is] causing environmental harm’.
Given the US’s 36,000 disposal wells, and the growing volume of wastewater surrounding them, the news came as a relief to greens, who have long been hunting for proof of surface-level contamination as a result of fracking. But what did the research, conducted by the US Geological Survey (USGS), really find? Concentrations of iron in the stream, which is within the Wolf Creek watershed, exceeded the 1mg/litre standard specified by West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection. Levels of naturally occurring radioactive radium were up to four times what uncontaminated (‘background’) sites showed. Levels of chlorine, bromine and other iffy elements were high, too. These elements, the USGS reported, ‘can potentially’ alter ecosystems: in the deicing of roads, for instance, increases in salinity (dissolved salt content) ‘are associated with disruptions in nitrogen cycling, likely due to alterations of microbial communities’. Thus, in the sediment around Wolf Creek, alterations in microbial communities brought about by shale wastewater ‘could’ impact nutrient cycling there.
A tentative judgement. Still, a second, parallel paper, again written (mostly) by USGS scientists, reported that, among fish and amphibians in the stream, endocrine-disrupting chemicals at receptors for the hormones oestrogen, androgen, progesterone, glucocorticoid and thyroid were at ‘equivalent authentic standard concentrations [sic] known to disrupt reproduction and/or development’.
Now, the first group of scientists couldn’t say how the contamination of the stream had happened. They admitted that it could have come from storage ponds and tanks, or from fuel and motor oil from vehicle deliveries. They conceded that the iron, chlorine and bromine could have come from past coal mining, coalbed methane, or from activities around conventional oil and gas production, rather than shale. Meanwhile, the second group of scientists noted that the water in Wolf Creek only merges with flows into the New River, a drinking water resource, five miles away from the endocrine disruption they found.
Altogether, the response followed the usual climate-alarmist formula. First, scientists find just enough debatable evidence to call for further research. Then, greens throw all nuance to the winds and reduce the research – in this case, two papers, 16 closely printed pages of enquiry and more than 100 references – to the headline phrase ‘environmental harm’.