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Rebuilding the Natural World: A Shift in Ecological Restoration by Richard Conniff: Yale Environment 360
17 MAR 2014: ANALYSIS
Rebuilding the Natural World:
A Shift in Ecological Restoration
From forests in Queens to wetlands in China, planners and scientists are promoting a new approach that incorporates experiments into landscape restoration projects to determine what works to the long-term benefit of nature and what does not.
by richard conniff
Restoring degraded ecosystems — or creating new ones — has become a huge global business. China, for instance, is planting 90 million acres of forest in a swath across its northern provinces. And in North America, just in the past two decades, restoration projects costing $70 billion have
attempted to restore or re-create 7.4 million acres of marsh, peatland, floodplain, mangrove, and other wetlands.
This patchwork movement to rebuild the natural world ought to be good news. Such projects are, moreover, likely to become far more common as the world rapidly urbanizes and as cities, new and old, turn to green infrastructure to address problems like climate change, flood control, and pollution of nearby waterways. But hardly anyone does a proper job of measuring the results, and when they do, it generally turns out that ecological restorations seldom function as intended.
A 2012 study in PLOS Biology, for instance, looked at 621 wetland projects and found most had failed to deliver promised results, or match the performance of natural systems, even decades after completion. Likewise,
A new study finds more than 75 percent of river restorations failed to meet minimal performance targets.
an upcoming study by Margaret A. Palmer at the University of Maryland reports that more than 75 percent of river and stream restorations failed to meet their own minimal performance targets. “They may be pretty projects,” says Palmer, “but they don’t provide ecological benefits.”
Hence the increasing interest in what Alexander Felson, an urban ecologist and landscape architect at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, calls “designed experiments” — that is, experiments designed by ecologists and incorporated into development and landscape restoration projects to test which alternative approaches work best — or whether a particular approach works at all. The idea is both to improve the project at hand, says Felson, and also to provide a scientific basis for making subsequent projects more successful.
At first glance, the designed experiment idea might seem to echo practices that already exist. Environmental consultants have been a part of most development projects for decades. But they almost never do long-term research on a project, says Felson. “Adaptive management,” the idea of continually monitoring environmental projects and making steady improvements over time — or “learning by doing” — has also been around in ecological circles since the 1970s. But a recent survey in Biological Conservation found “surprisingly few practical, on-ground examples of adaptive management.” In part, that’s because “long-term investigations are notoriously difficult to establish and maintain.”
To deal with that challenge, Felson proposes incorporating ecologists into the design team, so that designers and ecologists build a relationship and complement each other’s strengths from the start. As part of its Million Tree Initiative, for instance, New York City was proposing in 2007 to plant almost 2000 acres of new and restored forest over a ten-year period. The project fit the city’s sustainability agenda to reduce air pollution, sequester
As part of New York’s Million Tree Initiative, a scientific team proposed experiments for the planned forests.
carbon dioxide, control stormwater run-off, and provide wildlife habitat.
But planners didn’t have much basis for determining which species were more likely to achieve those goals, or where to plant them. The usual feedback about whether an urban tree planting project is successful boils down to a single question: “Are they alive or are they dead?” Nor could science provide much guidance. A literature search turned up only a single long-term study of new urban forests planted with native tree species.
So Felson and a team of scientists and designers proposed designed experiments for New York’s planned forests — plantings with different species, in varying configurations, some with compost or other amendments, some without — to learn what worked best.
The proposal represented a compromise between two sensible but contradictory ideas. On the one hand, it is widely accepted that the best time to plant a tree is 50 years ago — or, failing that, right now. On the other hand, Felson writes, you “would not build a wastewater treatment plant if it did not achieve water-quality standards, so why plant an urban forest without knowing that it performs the intended function?”
Because experimental plots are not typically scenic, the ecologists worked with park managers to disguise the test plots within a more natural-looking forest. The first test forest went in at Kissena Corridor Park in Queens in 2010, and a second at Willow Lake in 2011, on the site of the 1964 World’s Fair.
The ambition is to study traits like carbon sequestration and how species patterns change over decades. But the study is already producing results that may be useful within the context of the Million Tree Initiative, according to Felson and Yale co-authors Mark Bradford and Emily
The Chinese park features a terraced system of 21 ponds, designed to filter urban runoff.
Oldfield: If the goal is to get trees to canopy height as quickly as possible, for instance, competition from shrubs will actually make them grow faster, not slower. Some trees, like basswood, do better in more diverse plantings; others, like oaks, prefer less diversity. Compost doesn’t seem to make much difference for the first two years but kicks in during year three.
The designed experiment idea has begun to turn up in restoration projects around the world, notably in China. The northeastern city of Tianjin, for instance, was struggling in 2003 to deal with a 54-acre former shooting range that had become an illegal dumping ground and was also heavily polluted by urban runoff. It hired Kongjian Yu, founder of the Beijing design firm Turenscape, who had trained at Harvard with Richard T.T. Forman, a leading thinker in urban landscape ecology.
The result, Qiaoyuan Wetland Park, opened in 2008, with none of the great lawns and formal plantings seen in conventional Chinese parks. Instead, Yu’s design features a naturalized landscape of ponds, grasses, and reeds, with walkways and viewing platforms for local residents.
Traditional landscape design in China is “based on art and form,” says Yu. “My practice is to find a scientific basis.” The park features a terraced system of 21 ponds, designed to filter urban runoff as it moves through the site. Yu calls it “peasant” landscaping, based on traditional rice farms. But the ponds are of different sizes and depths, with the aim of monitoring how
As urban crowding increases, cities may require new projects to deliver multiple ecosystem services.
each microhabitat affects water quality, PH values, and the character of the evolving plant community.
Ecologists on staff at Turenscape and Yu’s students at Beijing University do the monitoring. Among other results, they recently reported that three families of Siberian weasel now call the park home, a remarkable development in a city of 7.5 million people. Yu acknowledges that the experimental results don’t hold much interest for city officials, who have sometimes tried to replace “messy” reeds with playgrounds and formal plantings. But Yu has employed the results from Tianjin to improve his subsequent projects, which also incorporate designed experiments.
The pell mell pace of urban development in China, combined with the often catastrophic environmental after-effects, together create a demand for landscape designs that do more than look pretty, according to Yu. The usual engineering solutions — for instance, “larger pipes, more powerful pumps, or stronger dikes” to handle monsoon flooding — often just aggravate other problems, like the water shortages and falling groundwater levels that now afflict 400 Chinese cities. Yu sees naturalized landscapes as urban “green sponges” to retain and filter water, with designed experiments to show whether or not they deliver the promised services.
The goal of incorporating designed experiments more broadly in restoration and development projects is likely to meet resistance on both sides. Developers may regard ecologists as natural adversaries, and research as a costly nuisance. The idea of working within the agenda of developers and government agencies may also strike some ecologists as a fatal compromise.
But China is no means the only place with rapidly worsening environmental issues. As urban crowding increases worldwide and the effects of climate change become more evident, cities may require every new development or restoration project to deliver multiple ecosystem services. The stricter financial standards of the green marketplace will also oblige project managers to demonstrate that those services are real and quantifiable.
“There are certainly problems with what we’ve been doing in restoration projects, but it doesn’t mean we should stop,” says Franco Montalto, a Drexel University environmental engineer who has written about the designed experiment idea. “We should be trying to figure out what doesn’t work and stop doing that, and figure out what does work and do more of it. That’s what you learn from experiments.”
POSTED ON 17 MAR 2014
27 FEB 2014: REPORT
In a Host of Small Sources,
Scientists See Energy Windfall
The emerging field of “energy scavenging” is drawing on a wide array of untapped energy sources — including radio waves, vibrations created by moving objects, and waste heat from computers or car exhaust systems — to generate electricity and boost efficiency.
by cheryl katz
Computers feasting on their own exhaust heat. Super-efficient solar panels snaring lost thermal energy and recycling it into electricity. Personal electronics powered by stray microwaves or vibration-capturing clothing. Cellphones charged with a user’s footsteps. These and more innovations may be possible with free, green energy that is now going to waste.
Ubiquitous sources like radio waves, vibration and pressure created by moving objects, heat radiating from machines and even our bodies — all have the potential to produce usable electric power. Until
recently, ambient energy was largely squandered because of a lack of ways to efficiently exploit it. Now, advances in materials and engineering are providing tools to harvest this abundant resource and transform it into cheap, clean electricity.
“This power is simply available and it’s not doing anything right now, so it’s truly being wasted,” said Steven Cummer, a Duke University electrical and computer engineering professor working on harvesting ambient electromagnetic radiation to power electronic devices. “And as people think of useful things to do with it, then you’re doing those things with available power instead of requiring new power.”
This up-and-coming technology, some experts say, can save energy, liberate portable electronics from the grid, and all but do away with disposable batteries. Although it won’t begin to replace solar and wind for generating utility-scale electricity, energy harvesting can serve as a multiplier for these and other sustainable resources, boosting productivity by feeding escaped power back into the system, expanding the range of sunlight that can be harnessed, and powering controls that keep
This up-and-coming technology could all but do away with disposable batteries.
equipment functioning at its peak. If obstacles of size and efficiency are overcome, repurposed ambient power can be an important contribution to the renewable energy supply.
The concept isn’t new — in a sense all energy drawn from the environment is “harvested.” Nor is there a standard definition for the emerging technology known as energy harvesting or energy scavenging, but it primarily involves collecting low-power electromagnetic, thermal, mechanical, or light energy and converting it to electric current.
Exploiting free, ambient energy is “an interesting idea and you’re going to see more applications of it,” said Jonathan Koomey, research fellow at Stanford University’s Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance. But the technology has a long way to go, he said. Constraints on space and the amount of energy that can be gleaned in many settings now limit its use to small, fairly low-power devices. “It’s not this magic bullet,” Koomey said.
Still, in today’s power-hungry world, energy scavenging can help ensure that no watt goes to waste.
“Your computer, hot asphalt, there’s a million things that are fairly hot but not really viable for standard thermoelectrics,” said Harry Radousky, a physicist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in Northern California and co-developer of a nanoscale harvester for low-temperature heat, such as exhaust from appliances. In contrast to high-temperature, waste-heat capture systems — in which sources like flue gas provide a steep heat gradient for thermoelectric generators — the small heat differences between low-temperature sources and their surroundings are much harder to convert into electricity. But new low-temperature thermal harvesting technology could turn these overlooked resources into working power.
For instance, Radousky said, “we park our cars in hot parking lots all over the U.S. in the summer, so in principle we could charge batteries in electronic devices, [and] run coolers to keep food cold” with heat from the pavement. Other prospects for reaping low-temperature thermal power include light bulbs, hot ovens, and plastic seats inside cars baking in the sun. “My rule of thumb is that if it is too hot to touch, it’s a candidate source,” he said. “So we were looking for things that could harvest that low
“Our motto is ‘No wires, no batteries, no limits,’” says one expert.
quality of heat … where a small amount of energy can get you a long way.”
As energy harvesters become increasingly efficient and cost-effective, a growing number of products such as light switches, thermostats, gas detectors, and avalanche alarms are going off-grid and battery-free.
“Our motto is ‘No wires, no batteries, no limits,’” said Graham Martin, chairman of EnOcean Alliance, a California-based consortium of companies promoting a wireless standard for automated building controls that run on scavenged power.
Regulating building heat, cooling, and lights with devices like room occupancy sensors can cut energy use by as much as 40 percent, Martin said. EnOcean Alliance reports that more than 250,000 buildings worldwide contain its energy-scavenging devices, like wireless, battery-free controls with tiny, integrated photovoltaic cells that harvest energy from room lights, or vibrations that agitate a pressure-sensitive material, releasing electrons. Martin estimates that EnOcean devices have saved 50 million batteries, and predicts that 3 billion switches, sensors, thermostats, transmitters, and other low-powered, self-contained gadgets will be in use within five years.
While the market for energy-harvesting devices is currently “not massive,” it is growing steadily, said Harry Zervos, senior technology analyst with the consulting firm IDTechEx. Some of the biggest uses at present include vibration-driven equipment monitors on oil rigs and other remote settings,
The greatest benefits may lie in cutting waste and boosting output from existing electricity sources.
and car tire pressure sensors running on mechanical energy from the wheels. The technology is now at a tipping point with advances in efficiency, reliability, and affordability, according to Zervos, who expects revenues to hit roughly $4 billion in a decade or so.
Future applications could range from powering a car’s electrical systems with heat captured from the tailpipe, which University of Houston physicist Zhifeng Ren estimates would increase mileage by 5 percent, to a film that can be attached to human skin, converting a person’s movements into energy for portable devices.
Energy harvesting’s greatest benefits, however, may lie in cutting waste and amping up output from existing sustainable electricity resources.
Self-powered wind turbine monitors, for instance, could warn of problems in time to keep turbines from going off-line. And capturing lost heat would significantly boost solar production. Mahmoud Hussein, an assistant professor of aerospace engineering sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder, has come up with a process that could convert heat to electricity much more efficiently: topping thermoelectric material with nano-sized pillars to slow escaping heat vibrations called phonons. The pillars stem heat loss by interacting with, rather than impeding, the phonons, leaving the electric current undiminished, a significant gain over existing thermoelectric materials.
Improved thermoelectric technology can help recoup energy lost by photovoltaic cells that utilize only part of the light spectrum while the rest escapes as heat, Hussein explains. Harnessing waste heat “adds to the field of harvesting energy from the sun,” Hussein said.
Engineers and entrepreneurs are also coming up with a host of other ingenious ways to put ambient energy to work.
At the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory on the University of California, Berkeley campus, bioengineer Seung-Wuk Lee is harvesting energy produced by a virus. Genetically engineered to contain a protein that generates electricity when squeezed, the virus infects bacteria and makes them create “zillions of copies,” Lee said. The result is layers of piezoelectric biopolymer with strong positive charges on the inside and
One possible application is biomedical devices powered by motions from the body’s organs.
negative charges on the outside that transform pressure into power.
“Piezo means press,” Lee explained, “so when we mechanically press, we break the symmetry and induce their electric potential.” He demonstrates, tapping a super-thin, fingertip-sized biopolymer sandwich. A few inches away, a small display lights up, spelling out “Virus.”
This so-called Bacteriophage Power Generator can produce enough electric current to power LEDs, but the output would need to be increased a thousand-fold to illuminate a light bulb. Lee and colleagues are now working on boosting that performance.
Another possible application is biomedical devices powered by motions from the body’s organs — especially useful for implants like pacemakers now driven by batteries that must be surgically changed. “We can convert
small energy from our heartbeat,” Lee said. “The potential is endless.”
At the University of California, Los Angeles’ Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science, Professor Kang Wang and colleagues are developing a way topower appliances and electronics with their own excess heat. The process channels heat given off by a working computer, for example, into spin waves able to power and speed up the machine at the same time.
Reprocessing waste heat can save electricity used not just in powering up computers, but also in cooling them down. Such savings would be especially significant at large server farms, where Wang says the dissipation of power is “an enormous drain on energy.”
Lawrence Livermore’s Radousky and partner Morris Wang, meanwhile, combined two technologies to wrest energy from low-temperature sources. Their hybrid harvester contains a phase-change material that deforms when heated and stresses a piezoelectric surface, producing current. Although the output is less than a volt, it could be deployed in arrays of miniscule sensors and processors known as MEMS (microelectromechanical systems), currently used as autonomous controls in cars, airplanes, imaging systems, and numerous other applications, Radousky said.
“The basic idea is to create energy which is used locally, rather than needing to be transmitted,” he said.
But don’t plan on getting rid of that tangle of chargers and power cords just yet. Satiating sophisticated portable electronics like cell phones with
MORE FROM YALE e360
A shortage of “rare earth” metals, used in everything from electric car batteries to solar panels to wind turbines, is hampering the growth of renewable energy technologies. Researchers are now working to find alternatives to these critical elements or better ways to recycle them.
ambient radio waves sounds great, but unless you’re standing next to a transmitter, pulling in enough signal requires an antenna larger than the phone, according to Koomey. And even that can only power a very basic model, he said. “Your iPhone is not going to get charged.” Alternatives are in the works: Researchers at Georgia Tech have developed cell phone-powering shoe inserts, and a company called Sole Power plans to market footwear late this year that charges your phone while you walk. Both, however, need “many steps” — on the order of a 10-mile hike — to get the job done.
To Koomey, the greatest value of energy-harvesting is information: enabling small, self-contained sensors to provide data that can optimize power use and trim waste. “The way we operate the economy now, there’s all this inefficiency because we just don’t know, we’ve never been able to measure the inefficiency before,” Koomey said. “There’s huge efficiencies that can be wrung out of the system.”
As Zervos put it, “By using just microwatts, you can save kilowatts of energy that would have gone to waste.”
POSTED ON 27 FEB 2014
With hydraulic fracturing for oil and gas continuing to proliferate across the U.S., scientists and environmental activists are raising questions about whether millions of gallons of contaminated drilling fluids could be threatening water supplies and human health.
by roger real drouin
An hour south of Pittsburgh, in Pennsylvania’s Washington County, millions of gallons of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing wells are stored in large impoundment ponds and so-called “closed container” tanks. The wastewater is then piped to treatment plants, where it is cleaned up and discharged into streams; trucked to Ohio and pumped deep down injection wells; or reused in other fracking operations.
But tracking where the fracking wastewater from Washington County and sites across the United States ends up — and how much pollution it causes — is exceedingly difficult. In a study conducted last year, researchers from the environmental consulting firm, Downstream Strategies, attempted to trace fracking water — from water withdrawal to wastewater disposal — at
several wells in the Marcellus Shale formation in West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
“We just couldn’t do it,” said Downstream Strategies staff scientist Meghan Betcher, citing a lack of good data and the wide range of disposal methods used by the industry. What the study did find was that gas companies use up to 4.3 million gallons of clean water to frack a single well in Pennsylvania, and that more than half of the wastewater is treated and discharged into surface waters such as rivers and streams.
Increasingly, the fracking boom in the Marcellus Shale and across the United States is leaving behind some big water worries — concerns that are only growing as shale gas development continues to expand. Pennsylvania, which has experienced a frenzied half-dozen years of hydraulic fracturing, is now the U.S.’s third-largest producer of natural gas. The Downstream Strategies report noted that from 2005 to 2012, Pennsylvania and West Virginia issued permits for nearly 9,000 natural gas wells that use hydraulic fracturing technology, which pumps a high-pressure mixture of water, chemicals, and sand deep into shale formations to extract natural gas.
The vast volume of water needed to extract that natural gas, and the large amounts of wastewater generated during the process, is causing increasing concern among geochemists, biologists, engineers, and toxicologists.
Initially, worries about fracking and water pollution focused largely on leaks of drilling fluids and other contaminants from well casings, which could potentially pollute groundwater supplies. But with engineering improvements that have reinforced well casings and reduced pollution from that source, experts now say fracking’s real pollution danger comes from wastewater.
“I am more worried about wastewater management — handling, storing it, driving across the countryside with it,” said Monika Freyman, a senior manager of the water program at Ceres, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to foster sustainable practices in business and industry. Freyman spent months studying the effect of the industry on water resources. “It’s complicated,” she said. “There are a lot of different pathways wastewater can go.”
A Duke University study conducted last year showed that some of the Marcellus Shale wastewater, tainted by high levels of radioactivity, flows
The oil and gas industry’s ‘social license’ to use groundwater without limit may no longer be a given.
downstream into water sources for Pittsburgh and other cities, with uncertain health consequences.
The huge amount of fresh water used by the industry is also a concern. The Downstream Strategies report, funded by theRobert & Patricia Switzer Foundation, said that more than 80 percent of the water used in hydraulic fracturing in West Virginia is pulled directly from rivers and streams. Ninety-two percent of that water and drilling fluids remains deep underground, “completely removed from the hydraulic cycle,” the report said.
Only 8 percent of those fluids are recaptured, and Betcher’s research team found that because of inadequate state reporting requirements, the fate of 62 percent of that fracking waste is unknown.
Betcher and others note that Pennsylvania and West Virginia are water-rich states, but that in the arid western U.S. some of the nation’s most intense fracking activity is sucking up huge amounts of groundwater for oil and gas operations. In Texas, most of that groundwater is trucked to injection wells, where it is pumped deep underground and thus lost from the already-depleted water supply. Water shortages in Texas could well push companies to recycle more wastewater.
Freyman said that the oil and gas industry’s “social license” to use groundwater without limit in Texas is no longer a given, adding, “When there are restrictions put on homeowners, there is a bit more resentment at the industry’s use of groundwater.”
In California, the current drought will shape some of the upcoming debate over planned fracking. “There is a ton of interest because water is already a big issue in California,” said Dustin Mulvaney, an assistant professor of environmental studies at San Jose State University.
According to Betcher, millions of gallons of wastewater used in fracking comes back to the surface in three different forms: flowback fluid returns to the surface for up to a month after the mix of water, sand, and chemicals is forced into porous shale rock; brine continues to come back up after 30 days; and throughout the process drilling debris and fluids are mixed in with the wastewater.
Raina Rippel, director of the nonprofit Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project in Washington County — which has thesecond highest number of shale gas wells in Pennsylvania — worries most about the wastewater and potential health impacts from fracking compounds such as arsenic and chloride, as well as naturally-occurring
‘It is highly likely that more water is withdrawn and more waste generated than is known,’ says a report.
radioactive elements, such as radium, loosened during the fracking process.
Rippel points to instances where homes are sited downhill from impoundment ponds. “In some cases, the [Pennsylvania] DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] has been made aware of contamination,” Ripple said. “There are certainly more cases we don’t know of.” Ripple is also worried about the ability of newer, closed-container systems to securely store millions of gallons of wastewater. “It’s inevitable that a closed system can only hold so much,” she said.
Scott Perry, a deputy secretary of the DEP’s Office of Oil and Gas Management, acknowledged that impoundment spills “have happened on some rare occasions,” especially at older impoundments called open “pits.”
The industry in Pennsylvania is making a shift to closed systems for holding wastewater before it is treated or shipped out of state. The companies still use large impoundment ponds to store wastewater, but the newer ponds meet stricter requirements enacted in 2012 mandating double-lined walls and spill detection, Perry said.
Wastewater storage, treatment and disposal, however, remains one of the Pennsylvania DEP’s “more significant environmental concerns” when it comes to fracking, Perry said. For that reason, regulators and inspectors have been “pushing the industry as far as anyone has” to improve its handling of wastewater and prevent spills, according to Perry. Industry officials say that rapidly improving treatment and storage technologies mean that the overwhelming majority of drilling operations do not discharge untreated or poorly treated wastewater.
While states such as Pennsylvania and West Virginia, working with industry, have improved reporting and data collection on fracking wastewater, the Downstream Strategies report said that “critical gaps persist,” adding, “It is highly likely that much more water is being withdrawn and more waste is being generated than is known.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has little oversight over fracking fluids and wastewater because a 2005 law exempts the industryfrom the Safe Drinking Water Act.
David Brown, a toxicologist at the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, said the close proximity of some wastewater sites to homes
New technology includes mobile filtration plants to filter the flowback of fracking fluids.
and schools is cause for concern, especially given the presence of radium and other pollutants in fracking wastewater. According to Brown, more than 50 families have called the center, or were referred by doctors, after experiencing rashes, gastrointestinal conditions, or other health concerns. After ruling out pre-existing conditions or symptoms triggered by other causes, Brown said, the center’s medical staff concluded that 17of the 50 cases may have been caused by exposure to pollutants.
According to Thomas Murphy, co-director of Pennsylvania State University’s Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, the “technology is improving” for wastewater storage and treatment. In addition, state regulations are changing and becoming more effective, Murphy said.
New industry technology includes mobile filtration plants designed to filter the flowback of fracking fluids. That’s becoming an industry “best practice,” said Joe Massaro, a field director with Energy In Depth, a group sponsored by the Independent Petroleum Association of America. For instance, a mobile wastewater treatment facility that Cabot Oil & Gas uses in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, treats wastewater in the field so it can be reused in nearby wells.
Massaro acknowledged some initial problems during the fracking rush, but says most companies drilling natural gas are focused on operating cleanly. “Dumping stuff down the [storm] drain, those guys should get the book thrown at them,” Massaro said, referring to an Ohio company charged with improper dumping last February. “That is not the case for the whole industry.”
A new wastewater treatment facility run by Eureka Resources in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, holds perhaps the most promise for cleaning tainted wastewater. The plant uses a more effective filtering process of distillation to burn off wastewater contaminants, according to Duke University biologist Robert B. Jackson. The newer distillation plants, however, have proven more energy intensive, and thus more expensive, and the Williamsport plant remains the only one of its kind operating in Pennsylvania. The EPA has cited the Eureka facility for air quality violations.
Industry officials say that as much as 90 percent of Pennsylvania’s fracking wastewater is either reused or treated before it is released back into
Levels of radium 200 times higher than normal were found in sediment downstream.
streams or other water sources. But while there have been improvements in storage and treatment technology, there hasn’t been “an overall industry solution for flowback in Pennsylvania and Ohio,” said Anthony Ingraffea, an engineering professor at Cornell University. “In Pennsylvania, disposal of wastewater has been and will remain a chronic problem because they produce it in very large quantities,” Ingraffea said.
Violations issued in Washington County, show the scale of the problem. In the last 12 months, Pennsylvania DEP’s Office of Oil and Gas Management found 27 violations in the county, of which 10 involved improper treatment or storage of fracking wastewater.
During testing from 2010 to 2012, Jackson and fellow Duke scientists made an alarming discovery at the Josephine Brine Treatment Facility, a disposal site on Blacklick Creek, which feeds into water sources for Pittsburgh and other cities. The researchers found that the facility did a poor job of filtering chloride and that levels of radium 200 times higher than normal were present in the sediment downstream, Jackson said. The plant had contributed about four-fifths of the downstream chloride content, and bromide was also found downstream, posing a possible health risk for drinking water, Jackson said.
The dangerous releases at the Josephine plant have ended. In May, 2013,Fluid Recovery Services, the facility’s operator, signed an agreement to stop accepting or discharging wastewater from Marcellus Shale wells until it installs technology to remove toxic and radioactive compounds.
But Freyman predicts that municipalities will begin legislating to keep fracking a safe distance from population centers and their water supplies, as Dallas, Texas has done. “There needs to be more discussion and more transparency before we as a society decide what the tradeoffs are and how to mitigate the risks,” she said.