Activists angered over flowback wastewater being sprayed on roads
Sept. 30, 2012
Some environmentalists are alarmed after it was learned that thousands of gallons of flowback wastewater from two high-volume, deep-shale hydraulic fracking wells in Kalkaska County was sprayed on roads throughout the region to control dust.
The concern is that the fracking fluid could contaminate groundwater or harm wildlife.
DEQ officials said that this spring, 954 barrels, or just over 40,000 gallons, of flowback from two Kalkaska County hydrofracking wells was spread on roads by Team Services LLC Kalkaska, a private company working for Encana Corporation.
The spreading occurred between May 15 and June 13.
Jo Anne Beemon, an anti-fracking activist with Don’t Frack Michigan who discovered the use of the flowback through emails and telephone calls with DEQ officials, was outraged.
"What are the rules that regulate this new kind of frack fluid that’s coming back up?" Beemon said. "Why can they just put that on the roads?"
DEQ: SPREAD NOT A THREAT
Areas where flowback fluid was used to treat roads were sampled and tested by state Department of Environmental Quality officials, who said they found no environmental or human health threat posed as a result of what was sprayed.
Rick Henderson, field operations supervisor in Traverse City for the DEQ’s Office of Oil, Gas and Minerals, said brine from the wells, informally called flowback, can be used as dust or ice control on roads with a permit, if the flowback meets certain standards.
But he said use of flowback from the two Excelsior wells was halted out of concern that other chemicals might be present in the fluid.
"Because there are some unknowns, I stopped it from being spread on roads until we could better characterize it," Henderson said.
Bridget Ford, a spokeswoman for Encana, said the spraying occurred with a permit.
"We did, for a short period of time, utilize flowback for dust suppression," Ford said in an email. "This was done by Team Services under our authorization and by permit through DEQ. DEQ later determined this was not a best practice and asked us to discontinue it, which we did. It’s important to note that no environmental impact resulted from this."
"˜IT GOT PERSONAL’
Paul Brady, who lives in Bear Lake Township near the wells, said he would like to know how flowback from a deep-shale hyrdro-fracking well, operations which are shrouded in mystery over the chemical mixtures used, could be spread on Northern Michigan roads.
Brady noticed roads around the well sites were damp or wet almost every day in the late spring, and he started calling the DEQ and going door-to-door along the affected roads to alert neighbors.
At times, Brady said, the roads appeared to be soaked in the stuff.
He said the affected roads appeared to be in a route that passed both deep shale hydro-fracking wells in Excelsior and Oliver Townships. Sprayers appeared to travel in a loop from S. Sunset Trail to M-72, where Brady said muddy tracks from spray trucks appeared to stretch for miles, to Baker Road, to Grass Lake Road and past the north Excelsior well in Oliver Township.
"I think everyone is asking why and how did this happen," Brady said. "They dumped brine that they shouldn’t have been dumping."
Brady said he’s concerned about deepshale hydro-fracking and has been paying close attention to activity around the wells.
"When it hit Michigan, I got real interested, and when it was in my backyard, it got personal," Brady said.
ACTIVISTS: SAFEGUARDS ARE WEAK
This sort of wastewater disposal demonstrates the weakness of Michigan law when it comes to fracking, opponents say.
While traditional fracking has been done in Northern Michigan for decades, highvolume deep-shale hydraulic fracturing, characterized by the use of enormous amounts of water to open up previously unreachable pockets of natural gas, is new to the region.
Among the characteristics of deep-shale fracking that concern environmentalists is the use of proprietary chemicals which are blasted into the earth in a slurry to break up rock formations. The oil and gas industry successfully lobbied to be able to keep the contents of their chemical mixtures secret.
The industry says that’s to maintain an advantage over competitors. Opponents believe the companies also want to keep secret the dangerous mix of chemicals they are pumping into the ground, some of which opponents believe are carcinogenic.
"We’ve got chemicals that are undisclosed, we have no idea what the makeup is," said Joanne Cromley of Don’t Frack Michigan. "We’ve got brine going on our roads throughout the state and nobody knows what the chemical makeup is. That’s just negligence."
She said Michigan needs to have tougher laws and closer regulation of the industry.
"It doesn’t look like there is any oversight at all," Cromley said. "What they’ve been telling us all along is, "˜We’ve got the strongest regulations of any state on fracking,’ and that’s just not true."
TESTED FOR OVER 80 CHEMICALS
State officials, however, say they are doing what’s necessary to monitor the industry.
"We’re going to err on the side of protecting the public health and environment," Henderson said. "We sampled the flowback fluid and we also sampled the soil where it was spread and we did not find anything over criteria, as set by the court."
Henderson said a 1983 court order authorizes and sets the requirements for oil and gas companies to dispose of brine from wells by using it as a dust control agent.
Henderson said state officials know the classifications of the chemicals used by Encana and that means they have a good idea what contaminants to look for when they conduct tests.
He said they tested for over 80 chemicals. "We should capture everything," he said. "Our goal was to get an idea of any chemicals that may have been introduced through the hydraulic fracturing process."