Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2020
By Elena Hight
As temperatures continue to rise across the globe, states like New Mexico and California are facing increasing strains on already stretched water supplies. Looking for new ways to meet water needs, some states have started researching other uses for the millions of gallons of wastewater generated by hydraulic fracturing.
Every year, the US oil and gas industry produces about 772 million gallons of this wastewater, which the industry calls “produced water.” Depending on the geological formations surrounding the fracking site, some of this wastewater contains significant levels of radioactive materials and other toxic metals, including lead, uranium, and radium among others. This toxic wastewater is often pumped back into the ground via “disposal” or “injection” wells, or placed in on-site evaporation or seepage pits. Some states have also started using the water in other ways: to drill more wells, to spray on icy roads, and to irrigate crops.
These other uses, along with the lack of research on the potential dangers of recycling contaminated water, have alarmed academics, environmentalists, and community members who have raised concerns over the unknown chemistry of the water, lack of data about the water’s treatability, and the potential risk to public health and the environment. Even in areas where the wastewater is less radioactive, spillages have resulted in serious environmental problems, including the contamination of food and livestock in areas around the spill.
Most recently, New Mexico’s Oil Conservation Division proposed new rules to the 2019 Produced Waters Act, that clarify the definition of produced water as well as the agency’s ability to regulate its use within the oil and gas industry. In response to the new rules, a coalition of environmental and indigenous groups wrote a letter strongly opposing the new rules, saying in part, “The Oil Conservation Division’s rules appear to set the stage for a more insidious plan to allow companies to dump their toxic waste into our environment.” Despite the opposition, the new rules were adopted, and New Mexico continues to pursue alternative uses for “produced water.” The state legislature has even given New Mexico State University a $100 million grant to study the treatment and reuses of the wastewater, including its use in agriculture.
Ultimately—while states may seek solutions for the disposal of fracking wastewater, which poses risks to food production, the environment, and people’s health—only a just transition to alternative energy and a ban on the use of fracking can safeguard communities from harm.
—Elena Hight is a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Wisconsin.