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Fracking Waste in ENC?

We report on the recent proposal to send fracking waste water to eastern North Carolina for storage.

Senate Bill 820 ratified last year by Governor McCrory legalizes Hydraulic Fracturing in North Carolina. With the introduction in February of Senate bill 76, permits for drilling hydraulic fracturing wells may be issued by 2015. Despite the rules for fracking in other states, including, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Texas, the North Carolina mining and energy commission began meeting last year to design state guidelines. If Senate Bill 76 passes, the commission has until October 2014 to finish. Although those rules won’t be significantly different, according to members of the rule making commission, the fracking industry is still rife with debate. Chief among the debates is the disposal of water left over from hydraulic fracturing. Stephen O’Connell has more.

The North Carolina Mining and Energy commission is made up of committees that each deliberate on different aspects of hydraulic fracturing. Executive Director of the Research Triangle Energy Consortium, Dr. Vikram Rao, is on the waste water management commission.

“We are doing it later than others, and I like to use the principal of making a virtue of being late. If you’re going to be late, make a virtue of it by being righter than the others, learning from other people’s mistakes.”

Although commission members have not yet spoken on the possibility of deep injection wells, recent media coverage indicates it may be disposed of in locations around Eastern North Carolina.

In Pennsylvania an average frack requires more than four million gallons of water. An enormous amount of that water comes back up the well. The liquid contains the sand and chemical mixture used for the injection, and water that flows underground with the natural gas. The water is therefore deemed hazardous. There are a few common methods of handling waste water, including disposing of it in deep wells, treating the water and reusing it, or storing it in evaporation ponds. The most common method is using deep injection wells, holes deeper than the fracking wells, where water is stored for an indefinite time. There are over 150,000 class II deep injection wells for leftover fracking fluid in the United States.

A few weeks ago environmental engineer and hydrogeologist, Republican Representative Rick Catlin of Wilmington said, that if the ban on class II deep injection wells is lifted then the water would most likely be disposed of in Eastern North Carolina. The statement bothered a lot of people.

Deep injection wells were legal at one point in North Carolina, but in the early 70’s  the investigation of a company outside Wilmington called Hercules proved that a class II well had contaminated the drinking water aquifers around it. Class II Underground injection wells were then banned. Senate Bill 76 allows underground injection of the briny water leftover from a frack.

Last week, I went to a meeting in Greenville where River Keeper of the Haw River Assembly, Elaine Chiosso, made a presentation that dealt mostly with the dangers of fracking.

“And most people when they hear that just say that doesn’t sound like a very good idea, just intuitively, I think most of us probably think that we just shouldn’t be fooling around with mother nature that way, and it is contaminating, so you know, is it going to slowly move up through those fissures and fractures and join with the ground water that we use for well water, probably.”

Members of the commission, including Rao, do not believe that residents of Eastern North Carolina should be concerned with deep injection wells. Dr. Charles Holbrooke, who is on the commission, says the geology of the coastal plains is not suitable.

“You can only dispose of water in sedimentary rock formations that have porosity and permeability, and it needs to be done quite deeply with lots of good ceiling beds above, and so that’s just, the geology in Eastern North Carolina just does not exist for that type of operation.”

The Black Creek Aquifer extends as far east as Carteret County, as far South as Brunswick, and west all the way to Hoke and Wayne Counties. Black Creek, the Castle Hayne Aquifer, and the other smaller aquifers around it can yield as high as 400 gallons of water per minute which means they have good permeability and porosity. Professor of Environmental Sciences at Duke University, Dr. Rob Jackson, researches waste water and groundwater contamination in natural gas producing states like Pennsylvania.

“This is a pretty porous geology in many cases a fairly sandy geology in coastal North Carolina, so fluids like water and gas move around a lot in those cases. That’s good news if you’re trying to pump high volumes of waste water underground because it allows that water to spread out underground, but it can be bad news if it means that that water migrates, I just think we need to be very careful before we start this again.”

Professor Jackson believes that we need to study the deeper underlying geology to understand whether Eastern North Carolina would be an appropriate place for deep injection wells. But he also points out something far more important.

“Do residents there want the waste to come to their area, I mean there will be jobs that come with this, I don’t know how many jobs, there will be some money, but there will be a lot of truck traffic, they’ll be a lot of waste water that’s brought, much of it with toxic chemicals in it. Do residents want that? And just as importantly how will safeguards be put in place to keep problems from happening like they happened in the 1960s and 1970’s.

Although Dr. Holbrooke and Dr. Jackson disagree on some points, they agree that the best method of managing the waste water is to treat it and reuse it. Dr. Rao, who also agrees with the reuse method, says that, in this state, unlike others, treating the water and reusing it will be more cost effective.

It is still a mystery how energy companies will choose to dispose of their waste water. We also don’t know whether the coastal plain is a viable option for deep injection wells. Here’s what we do know. Underground injection wells have been tried in our region before, and resulted in a contamination. The question that remains is whether the contamination was the fault, quite literally, of the rock below, or the fault of the company that was injecting the water.

I talked with some of the people that went to the Greenville meeting last week, and for most of them, the presentation fueled their disagreement over fracking. Jake Gella-Goad of Raliegh works with an organization called Democracy North Carolina.

“So none of the financial boon for this region but dumping the waste in this region and that’s, this area already has enough crap going on, I don’t it’s just disturbing, I guess that’s how I’d sum it up.”

River Keeper for the Pamlico Tar River Foundation, Heather Dekk.

“With the change in this bill and the potential for this waste water to be coming to North Carolina, along with the fact that once you open that door we could have injection of many other different types of wastewater, knowing that coastal Carolina gets its groundwater and our drinking water comes the ground, so that’s definitely a big concern that we all need to be aware of.”

Geology professor at East Carolina University, Alex Manda, says he went to the meeting to understand people’s perceptions of hydraulic fracturing.

Cut-manda-misconceptions-14 seconds- It might seem that there is a lot of sentiment that is based on conjecture whereas we may not really know what’s going on, but it just sounds good to say it and so we say it, and then people run with that, and so I think there are a lot of misconceptions on that end.

While I found District Representative Rick Catlin’s comments to be overstated it opened the ears of Eastern North Carolina residents to an issue that demands attention. Stephen O’Connell, Public Radio East.

Jared Brumbaugh is the Assistant General Manager for Public Radio East. An Eastern North Carolina native, Jared began his professional public radio career at Public Radio East while he was a student at Craven Community College earning his degree in Electronics Engineering Technology. During his 15+ years at Public Radio East, he has served as an award-winning journalist, producer, and on-air host. When not at the station, Jared enjoys hiking, traveling, and honing his culinary skills.