Apr 15, 2016 by

CREDIT: Bill Dickinson/Flickr

View of the New River bridge in Fayette County, West Virginia. A tributary of the New River has traces of endocrine disrupting chemicals associated with fracking, according to a new study. Researchers discovered the chemicals near a fracking fluid waste site. The New River is a local water source.

The smell of gas surrounding the northern streets of Lochgelly, West Virginia, was so pungent that Brad Keenan could taste it as he was driving home with his windows up that evening in 2004. He called 911 and the gas company, thinking a punctured gas line was to blame, but the smell and the evacuation it prompted came from something few knew existed in town: fracking waste.

“I had no idea what was going on,” said Keenan, 54, who by then had been living for two years near Danny E. Webb Construction Inc., a dumping site for fracking fluids. “You couldn’t even drive out there because the smell was so bad,” he told ThinkProgress.

At least two open pits holding fracking wastewater were responsible for the smell that got homes evacuated and forced some businesses and a daycare center to temporarily close, according to interviews and published reports. After state citations and complaints, pits were covered giving some temporary relief to affected residents. Keenan notes, however, that Wolf Creek, a major waterway traversing his 140-acre property, is polluted.

Twelve years have passed since the emergency evacuation put a little-known, state-permitted fracking disposal site under the county’s spotlight, yet things haven’t improved. The company is still marred in controversy. Locals worry about confirmed fracking chemicals in Wolf Creek as it connects to the water supply. And last year, the state renewed Danny E. Webb Construction’s permit to continue disposing fracking waste in underground injection wells, also known as brine disposal wells. The Environmental Protection Agency has jurisdiction over these wells only if diesel fuel is among the chemicals.

A fracking waste pit at Danny E. Webb Construction Inc.

A fracking waste pit at Danny E. Webb Construction Inc.

CREDIT: Brad Keenan

A fracking waste ban

The feud in Fayette county is now likely to intensify with two companies facing officials who, in the coming months, will defend in federal court an ordinance approved in January that banned fracking waste disposal. Hearings were set for this month, but habitual court delays are already being reported. One argument officials have raised against fracking waste in Fayette is that zoning laws don’t even allow traditional landfills.

In interviews, officials also said they’ve revised their ordinance to appease the industry, which they say doesn’t use fracking for local gas extraction in the first place. But Danny E. Webb Construction Inc. and EQT Corp, an oil and gas company from Pennsylvania, still object saying the county lacks jurisdiction and the ordinance is so broad it could shut down gas and oil extraction.

And with that, Fayette County has become part of a growing list of communities struggling to keep brine wells at bay through local laws. There are more than 30,000 fracking waste disposal sites across the country, according to interviews and multiple published reports. But New York, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and now West Virginia have counties favoring laws limiting brine waste disposal. The trend has been particularly robust in New York, where more than 10 counties have passed ordinances controlling fracking waste in the last couple of years.

States, too, are limiting fracking waste with Nebraska creating the most recent legislation. Industry often fights back, and in some instances, they win. Last year a federal court in Pennsylvania ruled against a town’s “community bill of rights” that limited brine disposal.

In Fayette, a county of some 46,000 people, residents and officials fear Danny E. Webb Construction wells are leaching toxic chemicals into nearby Wolf Creek, a waterway that feeds into the New River, a major tourist attraction and a water source for thousands of people. West Virginia American Water, the local water utility, told ThinkProgress the water supply is being monitored and the New River Water Treatment Plant, located more than 10 miles downstream from Wolf Creek, meets high standards. Still, studies conducted in the last couple of years in Wolf Creek seem to substantiate some of the concerns. In 2014, Duke University scientists sampled Wolf Creek and found elevated levels of chloride, bromide, manganese, strontium, and barium; all chemicals associated with fracking wastewater.

While Wolf Creek only gets seasonal kayaking, the New River connected to this tributary gets visitors almost year-round.

While Wolf Creek only gets seasonal kayaking, the New River connected to this tributary gets visitors almost year-round.

CREDIT: Laserlub/Flikr

Tainted waters

Claims of leaching even got a boost this past week after a peer-reviewed study conducted by the United States Geological Survey and other universities reported endocrine disrupting chemical activity, or EDCs, in Wolf Creek at levels that could alter development and reproduction in wildlife, researchers said. After sampling various areas including a neighboring stream, scientists measured significantly greater EDCs on and downstream of the Danny E. Webb Construction site.

These revelations come at a sensitive time for the public, the government, and water utilities around the country are scrutinizing water quality after towns like Flint, Michigan, showed that local, state and federal agencies can simultaneously overlook tainted water supplies. Though unrelated to lead pollution, fracking and its effects on water have been front-and-center in recent times, too. The Environmental Protection Agency is weighing whether fracking poses risks to drinking water ahead of a report that’s been years in the making. Meanwhile, studies examining how fracking chemicals may affect water and public health are published regularly, as some property owners are winning lawsuits and getting millions from the industry for water contamination.

Yet in the case of Fayette, researchers told ThinkProgress they simply studied water chemicals, not how these chemicals got there in the first place. So while in the study researchers note the chemicals are associated with the waste disposal site, they don’t describe how pollution may have happened. “The findings do not have a direct impact on wildlife or public health, but demonstrate the potential for impacts on wildlife or public health,” said Denise Akob, one of the authors and a USGS researcher, in an email to ThinkProgress. She added the USGS is expected to release more studies on this topic as the agency is researching potential environmental impacts of unconventional oil and gas waste.

Elevated levels of endocrine disruptive chemicals were found directly across and downstream from the fracking disposal site.

Elevated levels of endocrine disruptive chemicals were found directly across and downstream from the fracking disposal site.

CREDIT: Christopher D. Kassotis

Bad for health, bad for business

The endocrine system is a collection of glands that produce hormones that regulate metabolism, growth, reproduction, sleep, and more. EDCs are mostly artificial and can be found in pesticides, metals, additives or contaminants in food, and personal care products. EDCs are also found in brine and have been linked to adverse health effects on reproduction, growth, and the immune system, to name a few. Hormones are essential to multiple biological processes, said Susan Nagel, a University of Missouri toxicologist, who also worked on the EDC study. “So if we disrupt hormones we disrupt those processes and that is true for humans, for mammals, for fish living in these creeks,” Nagel told ThinkProgress.

The pending question now, researchers said, is to single out the chemicals causing the EDC activity. “We know the site is impacting the water, and we know there is an unconventional oil and gas impact on the stream,” said Christopher Kassotis, a Duke University researcher and author of the study, in an email to ThinkProgress. “It’s just drilling down to that final detail to determine which chemicals are responsible and where they are coming from.”

Request for comment sent to the lawyer for Danny Webb Construction Inc. went unanswered, as were calls made to the company’s phone number. West Virginia Department of Environmental Quality didn’t reply to a request for comment on the study or the company’s permits. And EQT declined to comment noting the ongoing litigation. However, the study has reached the desks of residents, county officials, and West Virginia American Water.

“We are aware of the recent article … and will continue to monitor water quality at our withdraw site on the New River,” Laura Jordan, West Virginia American Water external affairs manager, told ThinkProgress via email. “Ongoing water quality testing at the New River plant and in the distribution system confirms that water meets all federal and state drinking water standards.”

Yet to be sure, some residents told ThinkProgress they avoid their tap water, noting they distrust West Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and its inaction towards alleged pollution in Wolf Creek. “We do not drink the water, not a chance,” said Frank Lanier, 69, who lives down the street from Danny Webb Construction Inc. Even those who trust their tap water or live on the other end of the county worry about Wolf Creek, saying news of tainted waters can discourage spring tourism, a vital component of the county’s economic portfolio. “It’s bad for business. If people think the water is polluted then they may not take that rafting trip,” said Kenny Parker, owner of Water Stone Outdoors.

Undated picture of a storage tank next to the injection well at Danny Webb Construction Inc.

Undated picture of a storage tank next to the injection well at Danny Webb Construction Inc.

CREDIT: Brad Keenan

The ultimate issue

Meanwhile, officials like Larry E. Harrah II, Fayette County’s prosecuting attorney, are figuring out how to incorporate the latest study in the federal lawsuit that’s put the fracking waste ban ordinance he crafted in jeopardy. In an interview with ThinkProgress, Harrah said he’s hopeful that it will be upheld because the ordinance was revised and updated. It now distinguishes between temporary and permanent brine waste being kept in the county, in response to industry concerns. “I think we have eliminated several of their arguments,” he said.

If the county were to win the lawsuit, it would become the first in West Virginia to keep brine waste from its borders. But whether that will happen remains to be seen. So far, EQT and Danny Webb Construction continue disposing of fracking waste thanks to a temporary restraining order issued shortly after county commissioners approved the ordinance. That’s not to say the county won’t act on the alleged pollution. “If it’s found that it was due to negligence or what have you, somebody is going to be held responsible for that,” said Harrah adding an investigation into how EDCs got into Wolf Creek, and whether public health is threatened is on its way.

“Is this in our drinking water? We still need to know that,” he added. “That is the ultimate issue here. If this stuff is in our drinking water, and it’s because of the actions of this particular business, then somebody is going to pay.”

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