Andreas Späth

Frackers kill endangered US fish

2013-09-09 11:12

Andreas Wilson-Späth

In the same week that Minister of Water and Environmental Affairs, Edna Molewa, announced that a notice had been gazetted declaring fracking a "controlled activity" which requires a water use license, a US study blamed a lethal chemical spill into a Kentucky stream on practitioners of the controversial oil and gas extraction method.

There is substantial evidence to suggest that fracking operations significantly increase the risk of polluting nearby drinking water wells with methane and activists have long expressed concerns about the potentially devastating impact toxic fracking fluids can have on water resources and aquatic ecosystems. The new research, a joint effort by the US Geological Survey (USGS) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), justifies these worries.

Here’s what happened. During the development of four natural gas wells in Knox County, Kentucky, in 2007, drilling and fracking fluids accidentally overflowed from retention pits into the Acorn Fork, a small Appalachian creek.

The "discharge killed virtually all aquatic wildlife" in a two kilometre-long stretch of the stream, "including fish and invertebrates".

Significantly, it wiped out a local population of blackside dace (Chrosomus cumberlandensis), a type of minnow that has been listed as a threatened species by the FWS since 1987 and is on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list of threatened species.

This pretty, finger-long fish occurs in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, and is endemic to parts of the upper Cumberland River drainage basin of which the Acorn Fork is a minor tributary. It's particularly sensitive to changes in water quality and in effect acts like an indicator of a stream’s environmental health - a waterborne equivalent of the miner’s canary.

Arriving at the scene a month after the spill, the authors of the study found no living blackside dace in the contaminated section of the creek and discovered that the water pH had dropped from 7.5 to 5.6 as a result of hydrochloric acid in the fracking effluent, while concentrations of dissolved metals had significantly increased.

"In lieu of unavailable blackside dace" (their euphemism), they collected specimen of two different types of fish (creek chub and green sunfish) which they found to show an elevated incidence of stress, liver and spleen damage, and gill lesions compared to unexposed fish.

Healthy fish that were moved into the contaminated area developed lesions within hours.

Nami Resources, whose subcontractors were responsible for the mess, has since pleaded guilty to violating the US's Clean Water and the Endangered Species Acts, and received a wrist-slapping $50 000 fine.

So is this sort of thing likely to stop fracking in its tracks? Is it going to temper the South African government’s eagerness to embrace fracking here?

Nah, of course it isn’t.

The industry will tell us that this is a minor mishap, an aberration in the track record of what’s otherwise a perfectly house-trained technology. The best we can expect is a supposedly pragmatic admission that this is the kind of minimal fallout we’ll have to live with if we want to continue to enjoy access to cheap and plentiful energy. Collateral damage in the war for never-ending economic growth.

Who really cares about a couple of little fishes anyway?!

For me, this episode highlights several disturbing facts about fracking:

? It graphically illustrates the toxicity of the stuff we allow the industry to pump into the ground beneath our feet in batches of millions of litres at a time. According to the USGS’s Diana Papoulias who co-authored the paper, “our study is a precautionary tale of how entire populations could be put at risk even with small-scale fluid spills”.

? It demonstrates that the fracking industry has a major waste disposal problem. What are they going to do with all of their dirty effluent? Pump it into the ground where it’s been shown to trigger earthquakes or just dump it into the environment where it will kill the odd bit of flora and fauna?

? It makes me wonder exactly how we’re ever going to control and monitor tens of thousands of fracking wells spread over a vast area in the Karoo and elsewhere. “This accident was not reported by the company,” says Papoulias, “but by a resident who noticed the water turned red and fish had died”. This after a worker came forward in a separate case in July, alleging that his bosses had ordered him to dump fracking fluid into Kentucky's Big Sandy River. If US regulators struggle to control this sort of behaviour, what do you imagine will happen when fracking reaches our shores?

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath
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