Commentary…Dangerous elements occur naturally in fracking brine


By Dan Heyman

Research about naturally occurring chemicals, some radioactive, coming out of fracking wells is raising concerns for West Virginians. Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality, Duke University, has studied the salty water that comes to the surface when Marcellus Shale is fracked. He said the brine contains things like bromide and radium, which is naturally radioactive.

Vengosh noted that the levels of bromide in Marcellus brine are very high. Bromide is typically of little concern, but Vengosh said it combines in a dangerous way with the chlorine used to sterilize drinking water.

“This combination can generate a very toxic organic compound; it could be very toxic if consumed by the people that use this water from this utility,” Vengosh said.

Vangosh explained that radium in the brine ordinarily contains a very low level of radioactivity, but he has found it can accumulate in the sediment at water treatment facilities. And he said there are reasons to think it may also bio-accumulate – build up as organisms feed on each other – and even end up in the fish that people eat.

“It could move from bugs in the sediments into higher-order organisms and eventually end up in fish,” he said.

The energy industry said it is recycling more of the fluids it uses, and insisted fracking is not harming water quality. Vengosh agreed that more is being recycled, but he pointed out that the brine is very loosely regulated, and in many states its chemical content is not even monitored.

The good news is that the brine can be treated and cleaned up, he said. “It’s doable. There’s no need for technological breakthroughs; all those technologies are available. The only question is the cost,” Vangosh said.

The oil and gas industries are exempted from the federal Clean Water Act, Vengosh said. Otherwise, they would have to clean up the brine before gets into surface water or ground water.