Small Study May Have Big Answers on Health Risks of Fracking’s Open Waste Ponds

A first of a kind study from West Virginia will help Americans inside the fracking boom understand the dangers of exposure to VOCs.

Graphic credit: Paul Horn/InsideClimate News

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When Mary Rahall discovered that oil and gas waste was being stored in open-air ponds less than a mile from a daycare center outside Fayetteville, W. Va., she started digging for information about the facility’s air emissions and protections for a nearby stream.

She wasn’t satisfied with the answers she got from state regulators and politicians, so the mother of two set out to find a scientist who could help. Eventually her questions found their way to William Orem, a chemist at the U.S. Geological Survey office in Reston, Va., and he began collecting air and water data at the site last fall. 

Orem’s small study could have implications far beyond Fayetteville, because it’s among the first scientific efforts directed at how air emissions from oil and gas waste could be affecting human health. He suspects waste disposal might turn out to be “the weakest link of all” in the oil and gas extraction and production cycle.

The industry’s waste isn’t subject to regular air monitoring, because in 1980s the energy industry lobbied Congress and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to exempt most of it from hazardous waste laws, even though it can contain benzene and other chemicals known to affect human health. In a recent story about waste pit emissions in Texas, InsideClimate News discovered that, nationally, there’s little data or regulatory oversight regarding air quality at oil and gas waste disposal sites. 

A handful of short-term air studies involving drilling wastewater—the most toxic form of drilling waste—have been conducted. But most were designed to determine how the emissions contribute to ozone, not how they might directly affect public health. Orem’s waste pond study is apparently the first prompted by local health and environmental concerns and the first to collect continuous air sampling over many months. 

Rahall said the foul stench from the ponds at the Danny Webb Construction facility, outside Fayetteville, sometimes drifted into town. “It smells like it’s going to explode,” she said.

Orem hasn’t smelled anything, but he has heard similar complaints from other residents.

“Whether those [citizen] concerns are justified or not is still unclear,” he said.

Orem hasn’t begun analyzing his data. When he does, he said the following questions will serve as his guide: “Is there a problem? Is there not a problem? If there is a problem, what are the contaminants of concern?”

Limited Air Studies

Short-term studies of waste-pond emissions in Utah, Colorado and Wyoming between 2009 and 2013 have either focused on how the emissions contribute to ozone (a major respiratory irritant), or to test air-monitoring equipment that could be used by the EPA. But several of these studies have produced data and anecdotal evidence that the emissions can reach levels that might trigger health problems. 

A 2009 EPA report examined emissions data collected near three evaporation ponds operated by a drilling company in Western Colorado. The goal wasn’t to gauge the risk to human health but to test equipment and measurement techniques the agency could use to track emissions from oil and gas or similar industries, according to EPA spokesman Richard Mylott.

While benzene, toluene and xylene levels were generally below risk levels established by the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, the EPA found that a few of the measured concentrations exceeded those guidelines, particularly downwind of the ponds. 

In their introduction to the report, the authors said there was an “immediate need” to better understand emissions from volatile organic compounds (VOCs), including benzene and toluene, from oil and gas waste pits. Depending on the concentration and length of exposure, these chemicals can cause a range of ailments, from headaches to neurological damage and cancer.

In 2011, Gabrielle Petron, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist working at the University of Colorado, was trying to determine whether emissions from two well sites in northeastern Utah were causing a rise in winter ozone. During the course of their work, Petron and her team of researchers discovered “out of this world” levels of benzene and toluene coming from small ponds of untreated wastewater near the well sites. At one point, the vapors were so thick that Petron felt nauseous and moved her team out of the area.

“You had to go upwind of the ponds,” she said. “You could not stand to be in the downwind emission stream.”

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Robert Field, a University of Wyoming scientist, had a similar experience when he led a winter ozone study funded by his school and state and federal regulators. Field and his co-researchers spent three winters in the Upper Green River Basin taking air samples near hundreds of wells in a rural area where oil and gas production is the main industry. There was also a wastewater recycling facility with large open ponds, where liquid waste from fracking and other processes evaporates into the air.

Field said he often smelled a strong chemical odor at the fence line of the facility. “You don’t want to breath this pollution,” he said.

Air monitoring data he collected close to the facilities found concentrations of toluene and xylene that far exceeded levels found in urban areas. This chemical signature, characteristic of oil and gas wastewater, was also present in air Field measured about three miles downwind of the facility.

Field’s team also found occasional spikes in benzene. About half of the 20 samples taken near the facility in 2012 exceeded health guidelines set by the California EPA for short-term benzene exposure (9 parts per billion). One sample had a benzene concentration of 109 parts per billion. (Neither Wyoming nor the federal EPA has short-term guidelines for benzene).

Field said the data show VOCs from the facility, most likely from the large treatment and storage ponds, contribute significantly to the area’s ambient air quality. The impact of the facility’s emissions was an unexpected discovery, he said.

Results from the study were published as a discussion article by the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics. Although the study wasn’t designed to address human health effects, Field said he hopes scientists studying waste health effects will take notice of his findings.

Last winter Seth Lyman, an environmental scientist who directs the Bingham Entrepreneurship and Energy Research Center at Utah State University, measured air emissions from ponds at disposal sites and other oil and gas facilities in northeastern Utah’s shale region. The air quality testing was part of an ozone study supported by a Uintah County group and the Trust Lands Administration. Some of the ponds had frozen over and had very low levels of VOCs. But some air samples taken from ponds that didn’t freeze exceeded California’s EPA standard for short-term benzene exposure.

Lyman recently received federal funding to extend his study of air quality near industry waste ponds, and also to test the air near pits containing solid waste.

A third winter ozone study in Utah, by NOAA scientist Carsten Warneke, took short-term samples of air downwind of three oil and gas waste ponds. It has also been published on the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics website. Benzene levels at two sites were low, but they exceeded California’s standards at a third site.

Promising Study Underway in West Virignia

Orem, who is conducting the West Virginia study, was already searching for an oil and gas disposal site to test when a scientist at West Virginia State University told him about Mary Rahall’s concerns about the Fayetteville disposal site. Orem had previously studied the chemical profiles of produced water at shale and coal-bed methane drilling sites across the country. “We jumped on it as soon as we heard about it,” he said.

His team set up four air monitors around the site. The facility’s owner wouldn’t let him install a monitor at the ponds, so he positioned one as close “as legally possible,” he said. He installed the other three further away, to track how chemicals in the air might travel and identify any other sources of emissions.

The monitors are equipped with foam discs that continuously absorb volatile organic compounds from the air. He swaps out the discs every couple of months.

The parameters of Orem’s study have shifted since he began his work. Danny Webb Construction’s operating permit was renewed in February, but on the condition that the ponds be closed. When environmental groups appealed that decision, the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection revoked the permit, although an injection well used to dispose of wastewater deep underground still operates at the site.

Orem had gathered five continuous months of air quality data while the ponds were up and running. He continued collecting data during and after the reclamation process, which involved removing the waste and liners and backfilling the depressions with dirt.

Meanwhile, Orem is trying to expand his understanding of the air and water issues surrounding oil and gas production waste. He’s searching for additional disposal sites to monitor, as well as active drilling sites that have on-site waste storage and disposal.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation by InsideClimate News and The Center for Public Integrity into air emissions created during oil and gas production. CPI’s Jim Morris contributed to this report.