Here’s an idea: let’s take the sulfuric acid-filled, day-glo orange creek and river water streaming out of mines, truck it away, and use it for fracking.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has finalized its white paper outlining the possible procedures required if mine influenced water (MIW) were allowed to be used as frackwater. Frackers in the U.S. are using about 40 billion gallons of fresh and treated water per year, the supply is dwindling, and people are looking for alternatives.
Citing how many gallons of polluted water flows from mines into Pennsylvania’s waterways each day (300 million), how many miles of rivers and streams have already been polluted (5,500), how much the state spends annually on abandoned mine reclamation ($19 million), and how much it would take to actually fix the problem ($50 billion), DEP says it’s a win-win proposition.
Mine influenced water (MIW) occurs when iron sulfide-containing rocks such as pyrite (fool’s gold) are crushed and exposed to either oxygen or the dissolved oxygen in water, first creating sulfate, then sulfuric acid. This corrosive chemical is not only highly toxic and capable of poisoning rivers and streams itself, but it will leach heavy metals such as arsenic, copper and lead from underwater rocks, poisoning the waterway still further.
Normally, nothing can survive in this type of water but certain very hardy microbes which, in turn, stimulate the production of more sulfuric acid. This creates a hazardous environment that can persist for not hundreds but thousands of years. Many closed or abandoned mines have been declared Superfund sites, which need constant monitoring so they don’t contaminate nearby aquifers.
The state has already encouraged gas companies to use this kind of water, but no one wants to hear about it because of liability issues. If you move contaminated water, you own it, and you are responsible should any problems arise. So the trick is how to entice the gas companies to use this dirty water for their fracking operations, when they’re already allowed to help themselves to the clean water that people and wildlife need in order to live.
DEP’s white paper addresses this question by offering various ways to shield gas companies from liability. It also goes through the different permitting processes that might be required or, depending on politics, not. For instance, when it comes to storing MIW, option A is: The company must demonstrate that there will be no resulting water pollution, and must follow the parameters required by the EPA’s National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System.
Option B is: or not.
Any self-respecting environmentalist would love to see acid mine discharge cleaned up, and clean water left alone. If everything were to go right – no leaks, no spills, no cement casing failure, no lazy subcontractor dumping the flowback into the local river instead of taking it to the wastewater treatment plant – it actually could be a win-win situation. But if things were to go wrong, there could be 8,500 mine-polluted streams in Pennsylvania instead of 5,500, and we’ve already had enough examples of what can go wrong.
Is the answer to shelve the idea? No. But the most important goal shouldn’t be shielding the gas companies from liability, which for some of them would be like handing a child a book of matches and telling him he won’t get in trouble if he sets anything on fire.
Last summer Forbes magazine interviewed George Phydias Mitchell, who pioneered the fracking process in the 1990s. Mitchell said the government should tighten its regulation of fracking, not loosen it. He said, “There’s no excuse not to get it right,” and that if drillers “do something wrong and dangerous … (the government) should punish them.”
The Father of Fracking, laying down the law. Perhaps if the government did the same a bit more often, ideas such as using MIW for frackwater wouldn’t be so frightening.