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Clear Evidence of Widespread Direct Water Contamination From Fracking

Halliburton fracturing operation in the Bakken Formation, North Dakota. (Image:  Joshua Doubek  via  Wikipedia/ CC BY-SA 3.0)
Halliburton fracturing operation in the Bakken Formation, North Dakota. (Image: Joshua Doubek via Wikipedia/ CC BY-SA 3.0)

Researchers have found that wastewater spills from unconventional oil production has caused widespread water and soil contamination in North Dakota.

A Duke University study has found high levels of ammonium, selenium, and lead among other toxic contaminants as well as high salts in the brine-laden waste-water. It is believed that these contaminants have predominantly come from hydraulically fractured oil wells in the Bakken region.

Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said in a statement:

Streams that have been polluted by the waste-water have been found to contain levels of contaminants that have frequently exceeded the federal guidelines for safe drinking water or aquatic health.

A stream contaminated by an accidental spill. (Image: Avner Vengosh)

A stream contaminated by an accidental spill. (Image: Avner Vengosh)

At spill sites the soil is contaminated with radium, which is a naturally occurring radioactive element found in brines that chemically attach to the soil after the spill water was released, according to a statement from Duke University.

At one particular site, researchers were able to detect high levels of contaminants in spill water that had occurred four years earlier, Vengosh said:

To show how the spill sites were associated with the intensity of the oil drilling, the team mapped out the distribution of the 3,900 spill sites. Unconventional oil production in North Dakota has risen from around 100,000 barrels a day in 2007 to over 1 million barrels a day in 2014.

One of 9,700 oil and gas wells drilled in N.D. in the last decade. (Image: Avner Vengosh)

One of 9,700 oil and gas wells drilled in N.D. in the last decade. (Image: Avner Vengosh)

This expansion has increased economic growth, particularly on tribal lands, however it has also raised concerns about drinking water contamination. Nancy Lauer, a Ph.D. student of Vengosh’s and the lead author of the study, said it was:

The researchers noted that samples of soil collected downstream had contained higher levels of radioactivity than at the spill sites themselves, suggesting that the radium is building up in the soil as the spilled brine travels through the environment.

The study, which was published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, consisted of collecting samples of brine-laden spill waters from four sites, two of which were large spills and two were smaller ones.

Nancy Lauer and Jennifer Harkness sample water and soil. (Image: Avner Vengosh)

Nancy Lauer and Jennifer Harkness sample water and soil. (Image: Avner Vengosh)

The samples were then measured and analyzed for inorganic contaminants and to identify the unique isotopic signature of Bakken region brines.

By matching the signature to the geochemical and isotopic profiles of 29 background surface water samples that have been collected across the region, the team is able to conclude from where and to what extent contamination associated with brine spills had occurred, and also rule out that it had been caused by other sources. Vengosh said:

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