Evidence of Unconventional Oil and Gas Wastewater Found in Surface Waters near Underground Injection Site

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These are the first published studies to demonstrate water-quality impacts to a surface stream due to activities at an unconventional oil and gas wastewater deep well injection disposal site.

Evidence indicating the presence of wastewaters from unconventional oil and gas production was found in surface waters and sediments near an underground injection well near Fayetteville, West Virginia, according to two recent studies by the U.S. Geological Survey, University of Missouri, and Duke University.

These are the first published studies to demonstrate water-quality impacts to a surface stream due to activities at an unconventional oil and gas wastewater deep well injection disposal site. The studies did not assess how the wastewaters were able to migrate from the disposal site to the surface stream. The unconventional oil and gas wastewater that was injected in the site came from coalbed methane and shale gas wells.

“Deep well injection is widely used by industry for the disposal of wastewaters produced during unconventional oil and gas extraction,” said USGS scientist Denise Akob, lead author on the current study. “Our results demonstrate that activities at disposal facilities can potentially impact the quality of adjacent surface waters.”

Image shows a map with an aerial image of the study site beneath it
Map of sampling locations near Fayetteville, WV within the Wolf Creek watershed (A) and specificsites (B) in a stream running adjacent to a class II disposal facility. Panel A shows that Site 2 was located ina separate drainage from the disposal facility sites (outlined in black box), which are shown in panel B (Sites4, 5, 6, 7 and 3). In panel B, the blue line highlights the stream and the yellow outline is the location of theformer impoundment ponds. Source: Esri. DigitalGlobe, GeoEy, i-cubed, Earthstar Geographies,CNES/Airbus DS, USDA, USGS, AEX, Getmapping, Aerogrid, IGN, IGP, swisstopo, and the GIS UserCommunity.

The scientists collected water and sediment samples upstream and downstream from the disposal site. These samples were analyzed for a series of chemical markers that are known to be associated with unconventional oil and gas wastewater. In addition, in a just-published collaborative study tests known as bioassays were done to determine the potential for the impacted surface waters to cause endocrine disruption. 

Waters and sediments collected downstream from the disposal facility were elevated in constituents that are known markers of UOG wastewater, including sodium, chloride, strontium, lithium and radium, providing indications of wastewater-associated impacts in the stream.

“We found endocrine disrupting activity in surface water at levels that previous studies have shown are high enough to block some hormone receptors and potentially lead to adverse health effects in aquatic organisms,” said Susan C. Nagel, director of the EDC study and associate professor of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Women’s Health at University of Missouri.

Scientists analyzed the microbial communities in sediments downstream. These microbes play an important role in ecosystems’ food webs.

“These initial findings will help us design further research at this and similar sites to determine whether changes in microbial communities and water quality may adversely impact biota and important ecological processes,” said Akob.

Production of unconventional oil and gas resources yields large volumes of wastewater, which are commonly disposed of using underground injection. In fact, more than 36,000 of these disposal wells are currently in operation across the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the volume of unconventional oil and gas wastewater requiring disposal has continued to grow despite a slowing in drilling and production.

"Considering how many wastewater disposal wells are in operation across the country, it's critical to know what impacts they may have on the surrounding environment," said Duke University scientist Christopher Kassotis, the lead author on one of the studies. "These studies are an important first step in that process."

Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with normal functioning of organisms’ hormones.

The studies were published in Environmental Science and Technology and Science of the Total Environment and can be found here. They are titled:

  • “Wastewater Disposal from Unconventional Oil and Gas Development Degrades Stream Quality at a West Virginia Injection Facility,” with Akob as the lead author
  •  “Endocrine Disrupting Activities of Surface Water Associated with a West Virginia Oil and Gas Industry Wastewater Disposal Site,” with Kassotis as the lead author

This study is part of USGS research into the possible risks to water quality and environmental health posed by waste materials from unconventional oil and gas development. The USGS Toxic Substances Hydrology Program and the USGS Environmental Health Mission Area provide objective scientific information on environmental contamination to improve characterization and management of contaminated sites, to protect human and environmental health, and to reduce potential future contamination problems.