Dr. Paul Ziemkiewicz is doing everything he can to make sure there is no repeat of last year’s fish kill on Dunkard Creek.
It’s summer time, and that’s when energy and water issues come into their sharpest focus, says Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute. Temperatures rise and stream levels fall, creating a prescription for trouble for local waterways. The WVWRI is a program within the National Research Center for Coal and Energy at West Virginia University.
“In 1970, the Upper Monongahela River, Dunkard Creek and most tributaries were dead as a result of acid mine drainage,” Ziemkiewicz said. “There have been huge improvements in water quality since then.”
But Ziemkiewicz said those gains are at risk.
Wastewater from coal mines and increased development of the Marcellus Shale gas field pose a host of potential dangers.
Last year, drought-like conditions and the disposal of salty waste water from mines contributed to a bloom of golden algae in the water that released a toxin that killed thousands of fish at Dunkard Creek, a stream that flows through Monongalia County in West Virginia and Greene County in Pennsylvania.
Click the arrow below to hear Dr. Ziemkiewicz talk about the Dunkard Creek fish kill of '09.
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Salinity levels in the Mon were “exceptionally high” in October 2008, Ziemkiewicz said, as were the levels at Dunkard before the fish kill was discovered. In early June, there was another fish kill in Camp Run, a Dunkard Creek tributary.
“The cause is still under investigation but we know that it happened upstream of any mine discharges,” Ziemkiewicz said.
The fish in Dunkard had survived previous periods of high salinity, Ziemkiewicz said, “but when the flow in the creek gets too low, the water stagnates in pools and that seems to help the golden algae bloom.
“In stagnant water, the algae’s poisons can reach concentrations that are toxic to anything with gills.”
While Ziemkiewicz sounds a cautionary note, he sees improvements ahead, in large part because of the research he is conducting and efforts at education.
“We’ve been talking to the coal industry and talking to regulatory agencies to promote the idea that you should regulate pumping your mine discharges to the times of the year where we have more flow in streams,” Ziemkiewicz said. “I think the (mining) industry is already backing off its pumping rates during lower-flow periods.”
The environmental effects of development along the Marcellus Shale seem more uncertain.
Click the arrow below to hear him talk about the Marcellus Shale.
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“At times, mine water accounts for all of the salinity in the upper Mon and its tributaries. But most of the time it’s only a fraction of total salinity” Ziemkiewicz said. “So we’ve been looking at the chemistry for signs that Marcellus drilling wastes could make up the extra salinity. The only indication of Marcellus brines we’ve seen so far is in the lower Youghiogheny River.”
The Yough is a tributary of the Mon River that extends through parts of West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Its chemical makeup has been altered recently by a source yet to be determined, Ziemkiewicz said.
“Since January of this year, the Yough’s chemistry has changed from a typical mine water signature to a sodium chloride water. Marcellus frac water returns are largely sodium chloride. At the same time, while salinity has more than doubled, it has not yet reached concentrations that would place the fishery at risk” he said.
The Marcellus Shale, a geological formation stretching under West Virginia and much of the Appalachian Basin, is one of the nation’s largest reservoirs of natural gas, with at least one estimate saying it could provide cheap gas for the U.S. for 14 years. A recent report from the American Petroleum Institute estimated it contained gas reserves worth $2 trillion.
According to the DEP, about 500 gas wells have been drilled into the Marcellus Shale in West Virginia in the last three years and hundreds more wells are in the southwestern Pennsylvania counties near the border.
To capture natural gas reserves, drillers use fresh water plus small amounts of sand and additives to make frac water, which is then injected into the Marcellus formation and pushes the shale layers apart. Fracing creates myriad small cracks, or fractures, that are propped open by the sand, allowing the gas to collect in the well. The gas is cleaned and then sent to markets through transmission pipelines.
Along with the gas, about 18 to 20 percent of the frac water returns to the surface while the rest is lost in the formation, around 8,000 feet below the surface. Ziemkiewicz said that up to six million gallons of water are needed to frac each well, which places demands on streams during dry periods and creates a disposal problem.
Click the arrow below to hear him talk about the environmental concerns surrounding fracing.
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To combat those problems, Ziemkiewicz has received $600,000 in federal grant money for a research and demonstration project that aims to facilitate recycling of the returned frac water.
“We are working closely with the Marcellus gas industry because we want to make sure that our technology is practical in a technical and financial sense,” Ziemkiewicz said. “The industry understands that solving water problems is critical to development of this important resource.”
The grant was awarded from the U.S. Department of Energy National Energy Technology Laboratory under its Oil and Natural Gas Program and links WVU with Filtersure Inc., a company that already developed a self-cleaning filter that removes solid particles suspended in frac water. Removing solids is the first step in almost any water treatment process but Ziemkiewicz is also looking for ways to remove enough of the salt and minerals so that water can be reused on the next natural gas well.
The system will be small enough to be trucked to a gas well for on-site water treatment. Then, instead of trucking untreated frac water off site, the treated water could be used for the next job. A pilot scale version of the system has been operating since March of this year and further testing is under way.
“By the end of the year we want to have a unit that can be deployed to an operating well site Ziemkiewicz said. So far it’s panning out better than I thought it would.”
That’s because a much smaller quantity of frac water returns to the surface than previously believed, meaning that dilution with makeup water will bring the salinity down to levels that should be acceptable for re-injection.
“When we wrote the proposal two years ago, it was assumed that as much as 60 percent of the frac water returned to the surface. If that were the case, dilution would not be sufficient,” Ziemikiewicz said.
Ziemikiewicz also wants to explore ways to reuse treated mine water, either combining it with frac water to help the dilution process or filtering it on its own for reuse.
“Rather than pulling fresh water out of the headwaters of Dunkard Creek, we could take it from mine water treatment plants,” Ziemkiewicz said. “That keeps fresh water in the creeks and mildly saline mine water out of the creeks. Further testing will determine how much can be used for frac water makeup while meeting the industry’s quality criteria. There is no reason why we cannot have healthy gas and coal industries as well as healthy streams. It’s technology that will make those goals achievable at a realistic cost.”
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