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MIKE KNAPP: Examining worst case scenario at Yellow Creek

by MIKE KNAPP on June 19, 2011 3:00 AM

A man much wiser than me once observed that people tend to fear that which they do not understand. Let's take a look at a worst case scenario that could arise from a drilling accident at our planned James Ray gas well.

For our example, let's assume an incident like what Chesapeake faced recently in Bradford since it's a recent and widely publicized case.

A flange on the wellhead breaks during fracking, and frack water begins to douse the well site. Lets assume (and this is a big assumption) that our spill control plan is somehow overwhelmed, allowing 10,000 gallons of frack water to escape the well pad and run out onto the soil. For simplicity's sake, let's assume that all of the 10,000 gallons successfully travel the approximate 2,000-plus-feet distance between the pad and the shore, entering Yellow Creek Lake.

First, let's take a look at what all is in that 10,000 gallons of frack fluid:

  • Fracking fluid is 99.5 percent water and playground sand. The remaining half of a percent breaks down as follows: (typical chemical mix in fracking fluid, sourced from http://www.energyindepth.com)
  • Hydrochloric acid: 0.123 percent (12.3 gallons). The largest chemical constituent. Very scary name, but very benign when diluted. Hydrochloric acid is the preferred additive to lower the pH in public swimming pools. Millions of gallons of hydrochloric acid are poured, undiluted, into public swimming pools every year.
  • Petroleum distillate: 0.088 percent (8.8 gallons). Petroleum distillates are found in every-day products such as candy, laxatives and make-up remover.
  • Isopropanol: 0.085 percent (8.5 gallons). Another scary sounding name. But you might know it better by its other name: rubbing alcohol.
  • Potassium chloride: 0.06 percent (6 gallons). Used as a low sodium table salt substitute, and used as an alternative to salt in water softener systems.
  • Guar gum: 0.056 percent (5.6 gallons). Most common use is in the food industry as a thickening agent. You'll find it in ice cream, salad dressings, toothpaste and many other food items.
  • Ethylene glycol: 0.043 percent (4.3 gallons). This is one of the not so nice chemicals in fracking. It is defined as moderately toxic. It's the primary constituent of automotive antifreeze.
  • Sodium carbonate: 0.011 percent (1.1 gallon). Another staple in the swimming pool industry. It is often referred to as soda ash, and is the most common way to raise the pH in a swimming pool.
  • Sodium chloride: 0.01 percent (1 gallon). Table salt.
  • Borate salts: 0.007 percent (less than 3 quarts). Used as a food additive/preservative and as a pH buffer in swimming pools.
  • Citric acid: 0.004 percent (less than 2 quarts). Lemon juice; food additive
  • N,n-dimethyl formamide: 0.002 percent (about 32 fluid ounces). Used as an industrial solvent; long-term exposure to this chemical has been linked to cancer in some studies and is thought to cause birth defects, but is not listed as a known carcinogen by the EPA.
  • Glutaraldehyde: 0.001 percent (about 16 fluid ounces). This chemical is used for surgical disinfection and as a biocide to kill algae while not harming surrounding aquatic life.

Now, to further put this into a perspective that is easy to wrap your head around, let's reduce these numbers to the equivalent of contamination were they to enter a standard 25,000 gallon swimming pool.

Yellow Creek Lake is 720 acres. Assuming an average depth of 10 feet, that would put the volume at 2.35 billion gallons. As such, the equivalent amounts in a swimming pool would be as follows:

Hydrochloric acid: 1.09 drops; petroleum distillate: 2/3rds drop; isopropanol: 2/3rds drop; potassium chloride: ᄑ drop; guar gum: ᄑ drop; ethylene glycol: 1/3rd drop;

Sodium carbonate: 1/10th drop; sodium chloride: 1/10th drop; borate salts: 1/16th drop; citric acid: 1/25th drop; dimethyl formamide : 1/50th drop; and glutaraldehyde: 1/100th drop.

This does not account for the fact that there is a large flow of water into the lake that would further dilute the contamination. Nor does it account for the fact that most if not all of that 10,000 gallons would be soaked up in the topsoil, and most likely would not even reach Yellow Creek Lake at all.

As you can see, the numbers we are talking about here would not present a "catastrophic" situation as has been haphazardly stated by the Central Indiana County Water Authority. There is serious doubt as to whether there would even be any impact at all.

Would you drain your swimming pool and replace the water with fresh water if you knew 1/3 of a drop of anti-freeze were to fall into it? You would have to drink 100 swimming pools worth of water to ingest one drop of the most dangerous constituent in the fracturing mix.

In the history of Marcellus shale drilling, no such incidents have occurred with vertical Marcellus shale drilling (the kind that is being proposed near Yellow Creek), which uses much lower pressures and much smaller volumes of water.

Mike Knapp is president of Knapp Acquisitions & Production, LLC, of Kittanning.

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