What the Frack? New Mexico Wants to Recycle Radioactive Wastewater

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In the Permian Basin of southeastern New Mexico, the booming oil and gas fracking industry is running out of storage capacity for its own toxic waste, and it’s getting creative about solutions.

Too creative, according to people concerned about the environmental impacts of the industry. They point to the “Produced Water Act,” a radical departure from established fracking waste policy, which transmogrified from a four-page bill to a thirty-one page act as it was rushed through two House committees, the House floor, a Senate committee, and the Senate floor in a mere three-and-a-half weeks, all with no proper public hearing.

Current policy establishes that fracking wastewater can either be reused in other fracking wells or stored in injection wells deep underground. Discharging it to the surface is prohibited because fracking waste contains radioactive material.

The Produced Water Act, however, provides a run-around, rebranding fluid fracking waste as “produced water,” meaning “a fluid that is an incidental byproduct from drilling for or the production of oil and gas.” It lays out a process for devising regulations to recuperate the waste and “treat it” for commercial use outside of the oil fields where industry is awash in it, generating in 2018 42 billion gallons of fracking waste in the Permian Basin alone.

Among the options under consideration for the treated fracking fluid are using it for agricultural irrigation and infusing it into New Mexico’s drought-ravished waterways.

“If the governor doesn’t change her tune, the question may become whether the heat of New Mexico chiles is measured by Scoville units or rads.”

Fracking waste is a poisonous admixture of heavy metals, salts, and radioactive decay from uranium and thorium embedded in the rocks from which the fossil fuels are extruded. The notion that “treatment” to make it safe for agriculture and surface water is rhetorical subterfuge, says Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner at WildEarth Guardians.

“There is no technology capable of treating radioactivity and making it safe,” Sobel told The Progressive in a phone call. “If the governor doesn’t change her tune, the question may become whether the heat of New Mexico chiles is measured by Scoville units or rads.”

Read the article at The Progressive