Answer: Yes and no, according to Tracy Bank, a professor at the University at Buffalo, who has analyzed fracking and its effects.
Here’s how fracking does lead to uranium seeping into water: in hydrofracking, water is shot down deep shafts to force natural gas back out. When the water is pumped to the surface, it contains some uranium. That’s because uranium is found a mile or two underground, where gas deposits are hidden.
But here’s the “no” part of “yes and no:” the waste water from fracking is presumably not drinking water. It contains other lubricants, solvents and salts used in the fracking process, and is generally stored rather than flushed into municipal water plants - so uranium is not likely coming out of nearby faucets.
“I think it was just a matter of finding the evidence. The question wasn’t whether uranium would be released, it would be how much,” said Bank. “If you react a rock with a lot of liquid, then some of that rock will go into a liquid phase.”
Think spraying dirt off your car with a hose; Bank calls this "mobilization."
The larger concern raised by Bank’s findings is how to dispose of the liquid once it contains uranium and other fracking waste.
“The difference here is that these fluids have a very controlled environment, nobody’s drinking these fluids,” Bank said. “I don’t believe there will be a problem with uranium in drinking water.”
But if the polluted water is not disposed of correctly, uranium and other harmful metals could potentially pollute streams, which could lead to the contamination of drinking water, Bank said. Critics of hydrofracking claim there are few facilities that are able to treat water used in the fracking process.
In an editorial published in the Buffalo News this week, Larry Beahan, secretary of the Niagara Frontier Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club writes:
This fracking water has diesel fuel, benzene, industrial solvents and other unknown chemicals added to it. On the way down aquifers are penetrated and in danger of contamination. The fracking water that returns to the surface is contaminated further by radioactive salt water from the depths. Supplying the tons of fresh water strains our supply of drinking water, but disposing of this unholy brew is the great risk.
Bank’s work focused on uranium alone, although she admits other environmentally-harmful substances are likely in water used in fracking. But even though uranium’s public reputation is poor, it’s not as much of a threat as it’s perceived to be, Bank said.
“Sure, it’s toxic. The public perception is that it’s a radioactive metal. And there’s a lot of fear about the radioactivity of uranium. But uranium is very weakly radioactive. It can still be considered a toxic metal if you’re drinking it.”
Levels of uranium found in fracking water are unpredictable and could be negligible in some cases, Bank said. But the practice of fracking is relatively new and there’s not much data on its effects yet, Bank said. Time are further research will illuminate how the process affects people and the environment.
The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation is still developing a system to regulate fracking. Until then, New York has imposed a moratorium on the practice. So far, no fracking has taken place in the state.
The Marcellus shale rock formation stretches from New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Studies have shown it to be among the largest reserves of natural gas in the country, according to this article.
Natural gas emits less pollution than coal and many have predicted it will bridge the gap between relying on coal-based power toward cleaner, renewable sources of energy. Its volatile price, due partly to supply issues, could be stabilized and lowered if fracking is allowed on the formation.
Next week I will attend this conference in Buffalo about fracking. Bank and other researchers will speak, along with folks in the fracking industry. Looks like many viewpoints will be represented.