Fracking wastewater poses a risk

March 5, 2013 

The news on fracking just keeps getting worse. As Republican lawmakers in the General Assembly rush to open the state to energy companies eager to mine natural gas reserves believed trapped in shale rock formations deep underground, they seem to be stumbling into reality a little at a time.

Fracking is the procedure used to extract that gas, and basically it means pumping in huge amounts of water and chemicals to smash that shale. But the wastewater from the process has to go somewhere, and now it turns out that somewhere might include North Carolina’s precious and fragile coastal counties. Potentially jeopardizing the state’s most valued natural resource and the bedrock, so to speak, of the tourism industry is foolhardy.

The state recognized, 40 years ago, the risks in using deep underground wells as permanent sites for industrial waste. That’s why they were banned. But now GOP lawmakers want to legalize such wells as a possible solution for disposing of fracking wastewater – and the only place for such wells would be near the coast, which sits atop deep saline aquifers.

Because the subterranean depths of the coastal plain are already full of brackish, undrinkable water, wastewater injected more than 8,000 feet deep would theoretically not damage a drinking water source.

While the center of the state is the most promising site for fracking and natural gas extraction, the geology there may not be suitable for waste storage. The ground, state environmental officials say, might not be able to safely absorb the waste from storage, which means that waste could migrate, with potentially serious consequences.

Aquifers – underground layers of absorbent rock – on the coast are more likely to absorb the waste. And so now, once the fracking legislation to let the bars down for exploration goes through, it seems the most likely sites for deep-injection waste storage will be in, or under, coastal counties.

Republicans, who are positively feverish to push on with fracking, may not be of a mind to pause, but that’s exactly what’s called for. Before the state simply goes ahead with authorizing these waste storage sites, it had better know what the consequences might be.

Putting the coast in play with regard to waste storage elevates the debate over risk and reward to a new and unsettling level. North Carolina’s coastline isn’t a tourist attraction alone, although it is that. Nor is it just a vacation spot for several million in-state residents, though it is that as well. Nor is it just about breathtaking scenery. It happens to be home for hundreds of species of wildlife and marine life.

And once such an area suffers a blow to its fragile environmental resources, it is changed forever. What if there is a problem with waste storage that even the most accomplished scientists haven’t anticipated and couldn’t have predicted?

Gov. Pat McCrory made lifting the fracking moratorium a cornerstone of his campaign, along with advocating partnerships with other states along the Eastern Seaboard to encourage offshore drilling. But there is nothing wrong with acknowledging, as a debate proceeds on any issue, that there may be reasons to pull back and take time for more study rather than rolling ahead at full speed.

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