Impact of Unconventional Shale Gas Waste Water Disposal on Surficial Streams

Tuesday, 16 December 2014: 8:00 AM
Isabelle Cozzarelli, Denise Akob and Adam Mumford, USGS, Reston, VA, United States
The development of unconventional natural gas resources has been rapidly increasing in recent years, however, the environmental impacts and risks are not yet well understood. A single well can generate up to 5 million L of produced water (PW) consisting of a blend of the injected fluid and brine from a shale formation. With thousands of wells completed in the past decade, the scope of the challenge posed in the management of this wastewater becomes apparent. The USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program is studying both intentional and unintentional releases of PW and waste solids. One method for the disposal of PW is underground injection; we are assessing the potential risks of this method through an intensive, interdisciplinary study at an injection disposal facility in the Wolf Creek watershed in WV. Disposal of PW via injection begun in 2002, with over 5.5 mil. L of PW injected to date. The facility consists of the injection well, a tank farm, and two former holding ponds (remediated in early 2014) and is bordered by two small tributaries of Wolf Creek. Water and sediments were acquired from these streams in June 2014, including sites upstream, within, and downstream from the facility. We are analyzing aqueous and solid phase geochemistry, mineralogy, hydrocarbon content, microbial community composition, and potential toxicity. Field measurements indicated that conductivity downstream (416 µS/cm) was elevated in comparison to upstream (74 µS/cm) waters. Preliminary data indicated elevated Cl- (115 mg/L) and Br- (0.88 mg/L) concentrations downstream, compared to 0.88 mg/L Cl- and <0.03 mg/L Br- upstream of the facility. Because elevated TDS is a marker of PW, these data provide a first indication that PW from the facility is impacting nearby streams. In addition, total Fe concentrations downstream were 8.1 mg/L, far in excess of the 0.13 mg/L found upstream from the facility, suggesting the potential for microbial Fe cycling. We are conducting a broad suite of experiments to assess the potential for microbial metabolism of the organic components of PW, and to determine the effects of this metabolism on the geochemistry of the site. We anticipate that this study will prove to be a useful model for the potential impact of a PW disposal facility on adjoining surface- and shallow groundwater.