Water Contamination Due to Discharge
After mined sand is recovered and washed to remove impurities and make it usable for frac'ing operations the water that was used in the cleaning process must be discarded somewhere. One way to accomplish this task would be via the use of evaporation pits, but the mining and cleaning process uses far more water than evaporation will remove, so there would be a constant build up of water contaminated with silt and debris from which the silica sand was mined.
Another possible process would be distillation and/or filtration to separate contaminants from fresh water, but this is a very expensive process which would negate the cost-benefit ratio desired by the oil and gas industry. Since natural gas prices are already far below profitable rates in the US, energy companies are reluctant to engage any process that further reduces their net revenues, profits and shareholder equity, especially if such processes are not mandated by law.
The common method of discarding used water from a mining operation is to discharge it into a stream or river and allow it to be carried away to a lake, reservoir or ocean. Unfortunately, this method bares some very undesirable risks. A primary concern is that the high volume of waste water produced in frac sand mining and processing will pollute creeks and rivers, and fill the air with hazardous silica dust. Another major concern is that the process will deplete nearby residential and agricultural water wells. These are alarming to state officials and local residents who live near frac sand mining operations because polluting creeks and rivers can and will adversely affect fish spawning areas, disrupt natural habitat for fish, birds and other wildlife and the discharge of such large volumes will result in bank erosion along creeks and streams used as conduits for waste water disposal. Simultaneously, the mining and cleaning process will deplete water wells and aquifers upon which rural residents, most of whom are farmers and ranches, depend for their fresh water supply.
The problem becomes even worse in areas like West Texas where the worst drought since records have been kept starting in 1895 is in full swing. Because of the huge transportation costs of shipping sand by rail and truck it is necessary to mine sand as closely to a gas field as possible. The Brady Formation near Brady, Texas yields a silica sand that is not quite as pure as that found in Wisconsin or other places up north. The result is that Brady sand needs more washing and cleaning, and that means more water consumption. The video link below details the perils Texans are facing because of the current drought in an area where droughts are rather common and water tables generally run low:
Mining operations which deplete water tables to the tune of millions of gallons of fresh water per year, contaminating that water in the process and then discharging it back into creeks, rivers, streams and reservoirs where it pollutes fish breeding grounds, aquatic plant life and the natural environment runs risks far beyond just those of resident farmers and ranches whose use of fresh water supplies sustains their lives and their livelihood. Many reservoirs and rivers attract tourism dollars to local communities that lack thriving commerce - places where people go to fish, camp, boat and swim in fresh water. When the fish population is reduced is creates a negative impact on state parks, marinas, bait and tackle shops, convenience stores, restaurants, motels, campgrounds, RV parks, service stations, grocery stores and many other businesses that depend on tourism revenues for their very survival.
The true impacts of frac sand mining are not known because this issue is just being discovered and studied. One thing is clear - discharging polluted water into creeks and rivers is not an acceptable practice whenever it creates a negative impact on the local communities surrounding the mining operation. Polluted waterways devalue real property and make selling it difficult. Who wants to buy land near a polluted aquifer or stream, or where the aquifer is too low to provide an abundant source of fresh water necessary to sustain daily life?
Water quality will be negatively impacted by temperature change and sediment resulting from discharges of waste water from a frac sand mining operation. The extent of risk is currently unknown, and no studies are known to be under way to determine the short and long term effects. In streams that are home to fish, and that is most of them, a small temperature change can be lethal. For instance, trout can only get oxygen from cold water in the range of 45-55°. Trout size and quantity decline as water temperature increases. Water temperature is already an issue in the Izard County area of the White River of Arkansas, as well as other similar areas where frac sand mining and fish species breeding grounds overlap.
Sadly, frac sand mining operations almost invariably take place in remote rural areas far removed from urban population centers, where news coverage is scant, and where problems are largely unseen by the greater population which may be adversely affected by higher food prices and reduced availability of farm and ranch products. Beyond that, reservoirs that become polluted by frac sand mining discharges are usually primary water supplies for the large urban areas, and pollution of those water resources results in higher cost for purifying the water to make it usable for drinking, personal hygiene, food preparation, laundry and other purposes that most of us assume will always be available when we turn on the tap.
It should be apparent that there is a lot that is dirty about this "clean energy source" that may burn cleaner than coal, but that creates a lot of pollution in the drilling, sand mining, frac'ing and distribution processes. Communities have to come to grips with the true cost to them of allowing sand mining operations that disrupt so many other aspects of their normal life, and that can have profound negative impacts on them for a very long time.
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