Indication of Unconventional Oil and Gas Wastewaters Found in Local Surface Waters

Science Center Objects

Evidence indicating the presence of wastewaters from unconventional oil and gas (UOG) production was found in surface waters and surficial sediments near an UOG disposal facility in West Virginia.

Tanker truck sits in from of several large tanks holding wastewater.

This West Virginia disposal facility disposes of wastewaters from unconventional oil and gas production in Class II underground injection control wells. Photo Credit: Kalla Leigh Fleger, USGS

What They Did

Scientists from U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Duke University, and the University of Missouri collaborated on a study as part of a larger effort to ascertain potential impacts of unconventional oil and gas (UOG) wastewaters to surface waters. Water samples were collected upstream and downstream from the UOG injection disposal site for analyses of inorganic chemicals that are associated with UOG wastewater. The disposal facility is known to handle both shale gas and coal bed methane wastewaters. In order to understand potential environmental health concerns, microbial communities were characterized in surficial sediments, and bioassays were used to determine endocrine disruption activity in surface waters.

What They Found

Scientists found evidence of UOG wastewaters in surface waters and sediments collected downstream from the disposal facility, specifically elevated concentrations of barium, bromide, calcium, chloride, sodium, lithium, strontium, which are known markers of UOG wastewater. Iron concentrations also increased and were in excess of West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection Agency water quality standard of one microgram per liter downstream of the UOG disposal facility. Microbial communities in downstream sediments had lower diversity and shifts in community composition compared to upstream locations, which could impact nutrient cycling due to altered microbial activity. Water samples adjacent to and downstream from the disposal facility exhibited evidence of endocrine disruption activity compared to upstream samples.

USGS scientist collecting water samples on a wastewater disposal facility

USGS scientist collecting water-quality samples on a wastewater disposal facility in West Virginia to assess potential environmental impacts due to activities at the site. Photo Credit: Kalla Leigh Fleger, USGS

Environmental Health Considerations

These collaborative studies represent a first step to fill key data gaps in understanding the potential effects of UOG operations on surface water quality and environmental health. The results of these combined multidisciplinary studies provide evidence of changes to stream chemistry and potential concerns for environmental health at sites where disposal facilities are located adjacent to streams. Although most of the chemical levels were not high enough to cause immediate and lethal concerns for aquatic life, the observed changes in the microbial community and evidence of endocrine disrupting activity indicate potential adverse health outcomes for organisms living in or near the stream.

This research was funded by the USGS Ecosystems Mission Area’s Environmental Health Program (Contaminant Biology and Toxic Substances Hydrology) as well as USGS Energy Resources, Fisheries: Aquatic and Endangered Resources, National Water Quality, and Mendenhall Research Fellowship Programs. Funding was also provided by a University of Missouri, Mizzou Advantage Grant and a STAR Fellowship Assistance Agreement (no. FP-91747101) awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.