Horizontal Gas Drilling Waste: What Is It and What Do We Do About It

Written by Glynis Board on . Posted in Media, News, Uncategorized

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The natural gas boom continues to sound in what have become the northern gas fields of West Virginia. State lawmakers are working on ways to take maximum advantage of the economic benefits that are coming with it. The other byproduct authorities are grappling with is an excess of waste products, which, without proper disposal, can threaten public health.





The Horizontal Well Control Act of 2011 allocated funding to study the impacts of horizontal drilling. Legislators reached out to West Virginia University’s Water Research Institute. Director Paul Ziemkiewicz managed a study that looked at liquid and solid waste streams.

Liquid Waste

Horizontal wells produce two kinds of wastewater: flowback, and what’s referred to as “produced water.” Ziemkiewicz explains, once a well is fracked—meaning once operators take fracking fluid (5 million gallons of water mixed with sand and additives) and blast it deep into this hard, black, non-porous rock called Marcellus shale—the pressure is released and the first thing that happens is a regurgitation of some of that fluid.

“The stuff that comes out over the initial 60 days or so is called flowback,” Ziemkiewicz explains. “You have to get that flowback out of the system before you can start producing gas. You start producing a little bit of gas as soon as you release the pressure but when it gets to the point where you can start commercially producing gas you switch over to something called ‘produced water.'”

Ziemkiewicz goes on to explain that the longer the fracking fluid mingles with the rock formation the more stuff from that formation flows back out with the fluid like organic compounds, lots of salts, and yes, radioactive material.

“Sodium chloride, bromide, mainly chloride salts of one kind or another,” Ziemkiewicz says. “Strontium chloride, barium chloride. These things start pushing back up out of the hole and the concentration of those salts almost everything, including radioactivity starts to go up during the flowback cycle. So the longer you go into flowback and then produced water the higher the concentrations get.”

Ziemkiewicz adds that while many people seemed to be very concerned with the initial fracking fluid being injected into the wells, he is much more concerned with the produced water that comes up afterward.

“The stuff that comes back out is almost always more concentrated,” he says.

Ziemkiewicz says in some cases this briny water produced a concentration of about 250,000 milligrams per liter of dissolved solids–which he explains is essentially 25 percent solid.

Where does it go from there?

Well Ziemkiewicz says about 25 percent of the fluid is pumped back into deep wells classified as injection waste disposal wells, while the other 75 percent of flowback is being recycled. That recycled portion has to be processed. Solids like clays, metals, and rock are filtered and precipitated out, leaving cakes behind. These cakes are then dumped into solid waste landfills, the same place that the mud and rock produced during the drilling process are dumped.

Solid Waste

Under the Resource Conservation Recovery Act (RCRA) hazardous waste is differentiated from industrial solid waste based on tests that determine chemical properties. Interestingly, federal laws exempt drilling waste from regulation as hazardous waste. But the WV Department of Environmental Protection is proceeding with some caution, nevertheless.

Scott Mandirola Director of the DEP’s Division of Water and Waste Management explains horizontal well operators were just sort of spreading this waste on properties, or dumping it, burying it, whatever, wherever. By all estimations, a bad idea. The Horizontal Well Control Act of 2011 specified that instead the waste should be disposed of in appropriate landfills. That’s when municipal landfills started accepting the waste. And we’re talking about a lot of waste.

So DEP Cabinet Secretary Randy Huffman sent a memo out to solid waste landfill operators in July of last year saying that they could continue accepting waste if they took one of two actions: apply to expand their operation, or construct separate cells specifically for these waste products.

Bill Hughes is the chairman of the Wetzel County Solid Waste Authority. He’s concerned about new practices.

“Wetzel County which is legally permitted for up to 9,999 tons, round it off to 10, times 12, 120,000 tons per year? Our landfill last year took in about 330,000 tons. Of that, about a quarter million tons was drill waste, drill cuttings.”

Mandirola says Wetzel County—one of the most heavily drilled counties in the state—has seen one of the largest influxes of waste because of its proximity to so many well sites. This concerns residents for reasons such as the amount of space available in landfills, and also because there’s still so little known about the chemical characterization of the waste.

Enter Paul Ziemkiewicz, who, again, was tasked to look into that.

“I don’t think we’ve characterized this material adequately enough to determine whether or not it really belongs in solid waste landfills or whether it belongs in a higher standard landfill,” Ziemkiewicz says.

Ziemkiewicz did look at drilling mud. But he explains that a combination of bad luck, low response times from companies and the WV Department of Environmental Protection, bad weather, and an aggressive timeframe to report results contributed to the lack of access to drilling samples from the actual rock formation where Marcellus gas exists—the shale. So unfortunately, it’s still something of a mystery.

“They’re black shales,” Ziemkiewicz explains. “And black shales tend to accumulate uranium. Uranium breaks down into radium.”

While Ziemkiewicz wasn’t able to test drill muds from the Marcellus itself, he says the tests results from drilling samples of vertical sections turned up exceeding amounts of toxins considered safe by federal drinking water standards.

“Whether or not [comparing to federal drinking water standards] was the right approach I’m still not sure. Nevertheless, a lot of these drill cuttings and muds came out being well excess of drinking water standards.”


Ziemkiewicz is calling for an additional study to test these solid waste streams.

“By the time this stuff gets to the landfill and is diluted it may or may not even be a problem,” he says. “It may be that we’re focusing on radioactivity when that’s not a problem at all, but the real problem is organic contamination like benzene.”

Ziemkiewicz’s other recommendations include what he calls common sense measures like proper containment of drill sites to guard against spills, and thorough inspection and enforcement by well-trained authorities. He also suggests tracking liquid wastes to have clear knowledge of where it ends up.

Ziemkiewicz and other experts say it’s hard to predict the future of oil and gas development, but everyone seems certain that significantly more drilling is the most likely scenario, and therefore, more insight into the science and practices of the industry is the best course of action to safeguard not only communities, but also employees and first responders.

Water tests continue, still no estimate of when do not use order will be lifted

Written by Shuana Johnson, Metro News on . Posted in News

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Water testing continued in parts of nine West Virginia counties on Friday, the day after West Virginia American Water Company issued a do not use order for its customers in Kanawha, Putnam, Boone, Jackson, Clay, Logan and Roane counties along with Culloden in Cabell County.

On Friday morning, Jeff McIntyre, WVAW president, still could not provide an estimate on when the order may be lifted.  “We have run some tests and we can detect the material, there is the material present, but we don’t know how to quantify it,” McIntyre said.

The material was an undetermined amount of a chemical, identified as 4-methylcyclohexane methane, which is used to scrub coal.  It leaked into the Elk River, which feeds the Kanawha Valley Water Treatment Plant, from a nearby plant, Freedom Industries, on Thursday.

McIntyre said his company was first notified of the potential problem around 12 p.m. Thursday and more than five hours before the do not use order was issued for an estimated 200,000 West Virginians.

“It’s very miserable not to have drinking water,” said Kent Carper, Kanawha County Commission president, who was working with state and local officials to coordinate water distribution in Kanawha County.

As of Friday morning, McIntyre said there were still many questions about the chemical.

WVAW was working with toxicologists with the manufacturer of the chemical that was being stored at the facility to try to understand the risks that could be associated with the chemical.  “In other words, what kind of quantities can be present in drinking water and not pose harm to our customers?”

State officials were also involved.  “Our emergency response team has worked to develop a testing protocol and a sampling plan on the chemical at issue.  Initial samples have been taken and additional sampling and testing will continue throughout the situation,” said Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin on Friday morning.

Those with West Virginia American Water Company, the state Bureau of Health and emergency responders were coordinating the sampling effort.  “This process will take time, but we continue to work quickly to provide information related to the ability to life the ‘do not use’ order by West Virginia American Water Company,” Tomblin said.

Paul Ziemkiewicz, a West Virginia University professor, had been looking into the composition of the chemical.  He said it does pose some health dangers.  “If you breathe it, in its pure form, it is a lung irritant.  In its pure form, on skin contact, it will cause irritation.  If you drink this stuff, you have to drink quite a bit of it in order to die,” said Ziemkiewicz.

In the News – 3RQ Featured on WBOY

Written by Andrew Clay, Monongalia and Preston County Reporter on . Posted in Media, News

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WBOY.com: Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

MORGANTOWN – A more than half a million dollar grant will fund continued water monitoring in the Monongahela River.

The Pittsburgh based Colcom Foundation awarded WVU’s Water Research Institute (WVWRI) $508,000 grant to continue water testing through the 3 Rivers QUEST, Quality Useful Environmental Study Team.

In 2009, the WVWRI began testing the river since after acid mine drainage threatened the water supply.

The program has grown to include the entire Upper Ohio River Basin, an area covering more than 25,000 square miles and includes the Ohio, Monongahela, and Allegheny rivers.

“I’d like to see this continue to expand. There isn’t another program like this in the United States. For example, any citizen can go online and see what the trends look like,” said WVWRI Director Paul Ziemkiewicz.

The program tests water in 54 locations, and uses hundreds of volunteers to test water at other smaller tributaries associated with the basin.

The results are then posted online for the public to see.

WVWRI research partners include Wheeling Jesuit University, Duquesne University, and the Iron Furnace Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

In 2011, Colcom, a foundation dedicated to preserving and creating a sustainable habitat donated more than $1.2 million to WVWRI.

Learn more about the 3 Rivers QUEST Program on its web site.

Regional Water Quality Monitoring Program Receives $508,000 Grant; Allows Researchers to Identify Long Term Trends in Water Quality

Written by WVUToday on . Posted in Blog, News

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MORGANTOWN, W.Va. –The West Virginia Water Research Institute (WVWRI), a program of the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at West Virginia University, has been awarded a $508,000 grant from the Colcom Foundation to continue a regional water quality monitoring and reporting program called 3 Rivers QUEST – or Quality Useful Environmental Study Teams.

The Colcom Foundation, a Pittsburgh-based private foundation dedicated to fostering a sustainable environment, first funded the WVWRI initiated program in 2011 and has contributed over $1.2 million dollars towards the overall effort.

The continuation of the 3 Rivers QUEST program, now in its second year, will allow researchers to identify long term trends in water quality in the river basins for which the program is named after – Allegheny, Monongahela, and Ohio.

Led by WVWRI, the program includes a coordinated regional network of research partners including Wheeling Jesuit University, Duquesne University, and the Iron Furnace Chapter of Trout Unlimited as well as watershed organizations throughout the Upper Ohio River Basin.

“It’s unrealistic and unfeasible for us (WVWRI) to undertake a monitoring program for an entire region,” said Melissa O’Neal, 3 Rivers QUEST program manager.  “The funding from Colcom has allowed us to expand the geographic scope of the program by bringing on our research partners and allowed us to create a mini-grant program to fund volunteer organizations interested in participating in a truly regional water quality monitoring effort.”

In total, the project monitors and reports water quality information for an area encompassing 25,000 square miles and covering portions of five states.  The resultant data is then made available to the public via the project’s website,www.3riversquest.org.

“Between the WVWRI and our 3 Rivers QUEST research partners, there are 54 locations from which we collect grab samples and conduct full chemical analysis,” explained O’Neal.  “Watershed groups involved with the program monitor another 300 plus sites.”

Dr. Benjamin Stout, a professor of biology at Wheeling Jesuit University responsible for implementing the 3 Rivers QUEST monitoring model in the Upper Ohio River Region, believes that the unique two-pronged approach to water quality monitoring benefits all involved.

“3RQ provides a unique opportunity for academic scientists to engage in community-based participatory research – that is, water quality issues identified by our community partners helps to prioritize our research efforts,” said Stout.  “It also provides community members with direct access to academic researchers who have a wide range of water quality expertise.  With this partnership, we can respond rapidly to help solve local environmental issues in a timely fashion.”

While the coordinated monitoring effort between scientists and citizens for an entire region could be considered a feat unto itself, 3 Rivers QUEST research partners agree that perhaps the greatest benefit of the program is the ability to analyze long-term water quality trends.

“People want to know how changes in the region’s energy industry will affect water quality in their streams and rivers,” said Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of WVWRI.   “Thanks to the Colcom Foundation, we will have the ability to look at and analyze long-term trends in water quality and ultimately aid regulatory personnel in making sound policy decisions.”

Dr. John Stolz, director of Duquesne University’s Center for Environmental Research and Education and Dr. Bruce Dickson, president of the Iron Furnace Chapter of Trout Unlimited – both monitoring the Allegheny River Basin, agreed with Ziemkiewicz.

“The increase in shale gas development and recent changes in coal fired power plant regulations make our three rivers as vulnerable as ever to complex types of pollution,” said Stolz.  “Continued monitoring of the water quality in the basin will create a more reliable database that accounts for seasonal and episodic fluctuation and will allow us to identify the larger causes of pollution.”

Dickson added that the continuation of the program is, “especially important in light of the rapid expansion of deep shale development and a very active conventional oil and gas industry.”

For more information about the 3 Rivers QUEST program and to see detailed water quality information from throughout the Upper Ohio Region, visit: www.3riversquest.org.

About the West Virginia Water Research Institute

WVWRI is a program of the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at West Virginia University.  Founded in 1967, WVWRI is funded through federal, state and private sources. It serves as a statewide vehicle for performing research related to water issues. WVWRI is the premier water research center in West Virginia and, within selected fields, an international leader.

About the Colcom Foundation

The primary mission of the Colcom Foundation is to foster a sustainable environment to ensure quality of life for all Americans by addressing major causes and consequences of overpopulation and its adverse effects on natural resources. Regionally, the Foundation supports conservation, environmental projects and cultural assets.

About the West Virginia University Foundation

The Colcom grant was made in conjunction with A State of Minds: The Campaign for West Virginia’s University.  The $750 million comprehensive campaign being conducted by the WVU Foundation on behalf of the University runs through December 2015. For more on the campaign, visit: www.astateofminds.com