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There’s no doubt that fracking has provided a boost to the North Dakota economy in recent years, but at what cost? New research from Duke University scientists hasmapped 3,900 fracking spill sites in North Dakota, analyzing both water and soil around these locations and finding significant, persistent pollution levels that could have serious implications for human and environmental health alike.
Researchers found high levels of ammonium, selenium, lead and other toxic contaminants as well as high salt levels and radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element. And the problem appears to be persistent—pollutant levels regularly exceeded federal safety limits for safe drinking water or aquatic health, and at one site at least, the researchers were still able to detect high levels of contaminants in spill water four years after the spill occurred. This problem is apparently exacerbated by the fact that, unlike oil, many of the inorganic chemicals found in the wastewater are resistant to biodegradation, creating a long-term legacy of contamination.
Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, suggests these findings present a new picture of the potential downsides of fracking when wastewater is not safely managed:
“Until now, research in many regions of the nation has shown that contamination from fracking has been fairly sporadic and inconsistent. In North Dakota, however, we find it is widespread and persistent, with clear evidence of direct water contamination from fracking. The magnitude of oil drilling in North Dakota is overwhelming. More than 9,700 wells have been drilled there in the past decade. This massive development has led to more than 3,900 brine spills, mostly coming from faulty pipes built to transport fracked wells’ flowback water from on-site holding containers to nearby injection wells where it will be disposed underground.”
Assessing the full scope of contamination is also hindered, say researchers, by the fact that many smaller spills have occurred on tribal lands where monitoring is either insufficient or non-existent.
Once again, the true cost of gas proves a lot higher than what we’re paying for it.