Drinking water systems report high carcinogen levels in Pennsylvania and West Virginia; Testing of fracking waste greatly underestimates the risk

A recent article reports that dozens of drinking water plants in western Pennsylvania and West Virginia have violated the EPA’s limits on trihalomethanes over the last three years. According to the article, "Over that time, 33 different  Western Pennsylania drinking water systems have exceeded EPA standards for the carcinogen."

Trihalomethanes, which can cause cancer, are created when bromide combines with the chlorine used to treat water. Bromide is found in frack flowback, the used fracking fluid that comes out of a well after the well has been fracked. According to the article, the huge spikes in bromide began around the same time as the oil and gas industry began its dramatic expansion in Marcellus shale areas. However, there are other sources of bromide, and there is uncertainty about where it's coming from, although there are opinions. This is just one more area where the scientific uncertainty demands more rigorous independent investigation to fully understand risks to public health from oil and gas production and to minimize them.

In a related story, recently released research by U.S. Forest Service scientists found that frack flowback stored in tanks varies in its content. The researchers found higher levels of contaminants deeper in a tank. They determined that typical test kit sampling greatly underestimated chemical concentrations in the frack flowback because it only tests the fluid at the surface of a tank. Such testing would not get a full picture of the chemical concentration of all the fluid in a tank. This research has enormous implications for the handling, storage and disposal of fracking waste.

Tests that underestimate the risks or toxicity of waste may allow that waste to avoid compliance with the strongest regulations. While current rules for managing oil and gas waste are too weak, they are better than nothing. Regulators must ensure that all testing of waste is comprehensive and accurately determines the chemical composition of the total waste product, not just the less concentrated fluid on top of a tank.