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Fracking is now leaving American rivers tainted with a toxic cocktail of Radium and Lead


(NaturalNews) Thousands of spills of fracking wastewater in North Dakota alone, have heavily contaminated rivers and streams with heavy metals, radioactive materials and toxic, corrosive salts, according to a peer-reviewed study conducted by researchers from Duke University, and published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

"Until now, research in many regions of the nation has shown that contamination from fracking has been fairly sporadic and inconsistent," researcher Professor Avner Vengosh said. "In North Dakota, however, we find it is widespread and persistent, with clear evidence of direct water contamination from fracking."

Thousands of spills each year

Hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking," consists of using water mixed with various chemical agents to fracture underground bedrock, thereby enabling drilling for oil and gas. But once the ground has been fractured, large volumes of water flow back to the surface, bringing along heavy metals and radioactive isotopes from deep underground. Disposing of this wastewater has been one of the industry's greatest challenges.

Typically, the wastewater is injected back underground at sites known as injection wells. Each day, an estimated 2 billion gallons of fracking wastewater are injected back underground nationwide. This practice has been implicated in causing earthquakes across the Midwest and beyond, as injected water places pressure on previously inactive faults.

The new study found that much of the fracking wastewater never makes it underground; in all, they identified and mapped more than 3,900 accidental spills in North Dakota alone. This was roughly one spill per three wells in the state. Nationwide, more than 21,000 spills took place between 2009 and 2014, dumping more than 180 million gallons of toxic wastewater.

The numbers are probably quite a bit higher, as many spills may go unreported – in particular, spills that take place on Indian reservations, which contain a quarter of the nation's oil and gas fields.

"Many smaller spills have also occurred on tribal lands, and as far as we know, no one is monitoring them," Vengosh said.

Experts attribute the high number of spills in large part to lax supervision by local or federal government. Partly, this is because the enormous amounts of wastewater generated have simply overwhelmed the capacity of regulators to monitor them. Additionally, laws passed in the 1980s have exempted the oil and gas industry from many laws regulating hazardous waste.

Regulators have also failed to force the industry to clean up its messes, the researchers found. Many of the contaminated sites they studied had no cleanup efforts at all.

Legacy of radioactivity

Just how dangerous are these spills? The researchers found that as a direct result of the spills, many North Dakota streams and rivers contained levels of toxic chemicals exceeding federal drinking water standards. Levels of lead and radium were particularly high, especially near spill locations. Levels of selenium were found the be 35 times higher than the federal limit.

Wastewater spills have also heavily contaminated soils. In some locations, radium was found at levels as high as 4,600 Bequerels per kilogram (bq/kg). For comparison, state law requires special permits to transport or dispose of any waste more radioactive than 185 bq/kg.

Even at a site examined four years after a spill, concentrations of various toxic substances remained elevated.

"Unlike spilled oil, which starts to break down in soil, these spilled brines consist of inorganic chemicals, metals and salts that are resistant to biodegradation," lead author Nancy Lauer said.

"This has created a legacy of radioactivity at spill sites," she added.

Sites contaminated with radium will remain radioactive for thousands of years, the researchers noted.

The researchers found that most of the spills studied had been caused by a failure to maintain infrastructure such as pipes and storage tanks. They also noted that as infrastructure continues to degrade, it becomes more vulnerable to natural disasters such as floods – or the earthquakes that fracking itself is causing.

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