Hot Sludge: Problems With Recycling Frack Waste
CHARLESTON, W.Va - Recycling of fracking waste can reduce water use and pollution from the wells, but only by creating low-level nuclear waste too hot for landfills. One fracking-waste recycler is operating near Fairmont and another is planned for Doddridge County. They take the brine, mud and drill cuttings from the wells and extract clean water and salt. The problem is that the uranium and radium that occur naturally underground get concentrated in the remaining sludge.
Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke University has studied the hot sludge.
"Once you concentrate all the radioactivity in sludge, the level will be very high," he said. "Something that you need to dispose in only designated low-radioactive-waste disposal sites."
The recyclers proudly point out that the clean water can be reused by the drillers and the salt can be sold for deicing roads. And they say recycling will reduce the need for waste-disposal injection wells. They have not made clear what they plan to do with the sludge.
In February, Kentucky state officials warned that state's landfills not to take what are known as technologically enhanced, naturally occurring radioactive material (TENORM). Twelve hundred cubic yards of sludge from Fairmont Brine Processing had been illegally buried in a landfill there last fall. No one from the Fairmont company returned a call requesting comment.
Vengosh stresses that TENORM can be buried in such a way that it is disposed of safely. But he said the radioactivity is high enough to leech out of a regular municipal landfill.
"If it's isolated, sure, it doesn't matter," he said. "But it would be a hundred times what we see in produced water and flow-back water, which is high by itself."
Vengosh said the issue of naturally occurring radioactive waste is not unique to fracking, that other oil and gas wells in West Virginia probably also produce it. He said some of the hot elements in TENORM can have a half-life of a thousand years, and even after that the sludge is probably not safe.
"Some of the secondary, or daughter or granddaughter isotopes coming from the decay are extremely toxic by themselves," he added. "The radioactivity would generate a legacy that could be over thousands of years."