Environment

This section is provided for news and discussion of Niobrara oil drilling related impacts, concerns, and questions with respect to the environment.

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  1. RockPick says:

    Slim chance for radioactive water from local drilling

    John Colson
    Post Independent staff
    Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado

    There is little possibility that gas drilling activities in Colorado will result in the kind of radioactive wastewater treatment problems reported to be plaguing gas drilling regions in the Northeast, say state officials.

    That is because water produced by Colorado drilling activities is not dealt with in the same way as water produced by wells in the Marcellus Shale states, said two state agency directors.

    “No produced water is treated in wastewater treatment plants,” said Dave Neslin, director of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, the agency that regulates gas drilling activities.

    While gas drilling in Colorado does produce some potentially radioactive water, Colorado has restrictions in place to prevent it from migrating into drinking water sources, said Steve Gunderson, director of the Colorado Water Quality Control Division.

    A Feb. 26 article in The New York Times by writer Ian Urbina, part of the “Drilling Down” series, reported that wastewater treatment plants in Pennsylvania, New York and other eastern states are called upon to treat toxic substances produced during the extraction procedure known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

    The procedure injects huge amounts of water, sand and chemicals into gas wells to break up deeply buried rock formations and make it easier for gas and oil deposits to flow to the surface.

    Along with the gas and oil, however, significant amounts of “produced water” comes back to the surface, often laced with “highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground,” according to the article.

    Those toxic wastes, according to the article, are then sent to sewage treatment plants that are not designed to treat such substances, and the effluent is then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water to towns and cities.

    The Times story has prompted calls for a federal investigation into the issue.

    In Colorado, Neslin said, 60 percent of the “produced water” that comes back to the surface as a normal part of the well completion process ends up going back underground in injection wells, where it stays.

    Injection wells, Neslin said, are “as deep or deeper” than extraction wells, and are well below any groundwater aquifers that might supply drinking water for communities and irrigators.

    Another 20 percent of the produced water dries up in lined holding pits, Neslin said, and the liners from those pits currently must be taken to specially designated disposal sites.

    The remaining 20 percent of the produced-water waste stream, Neslin continued, is discharged into rivers and streams under guidelines of the Colorado Water Quality Control Division.

    According to Steve Gunderson, the division’s director, Colorado has not experienced any problem with gas drillers releasing radioactive water into the state’s rivers and streams.

    Gunderson said the division’s restrictions on such releases are tailored to the particular region of the state, the “ambient” water quality of local streams and rivers, and the type of discharge involved.

    “There is sometimes a radioactivity issue in produced water in Colorado,” Gunderson said, but only concerning the evaporative pits.

    He noted that Colorado has a history of mining for radium and uranium. “So you would expect, in certain cases, that you would see radium in produced water,” he said.

    Gunderson said division regulations cover the issue with varying degrees of strictness, depending on whether the surface water involved serves as a drinking water source.

    For produced water discharges that might reach the Colorado River, a source of drinking water for communities including Silt and Rifle, Gunderson said drilling companies “would have to meet the more stringent standards.”

    Neslin, who conducted a town meeting about gas drilling issues in Rifle on March 3, said the issue of radioactive isotopes in the produced water did come up that night.

    But according to Neslin, his explanation appeared to satisfy the questioner.

    jcolson@postindependent.com

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