Radioactive Water to Mining & Fracking Effluent: What Happens to Contaminated Water?

Contaminated water from fracking

Our dependence on water is not merely physiological; a myriad of production processes require water to maintain safe conditions. Once it has come into contact with dangerous chemicals and unstable radionuclides, what happens to contaminated water?

Technological advances across industries and agriculture may have propelled our civilization forward but they are responsible for some of the worst offenses of water contamination. It is estimated that 80 percent of the world’s wastewater is dumped—largely untreated—back into the environment, polluting rivers, lakes, and oceans.

Water is remarkable in its ability to renew and cleanse itself naturally, diluting many of these pollutants to harmless concentrations. However, these natural processes take a great deal of time. 

The blame lies with humans but the solutions are likewise anthropogenic. We explore the question of contaminated water in different sectors and their management of its purification. 

Radioactive Water Contamination: Storage or Release?

In the wake of a devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami on March 11th, 2011, three nuclear reactors at the Fukushima nuclear energy plant in Japan suffered meltdowns. Workers pumped water through the molten ruins of the reactor cores to prevent them from overheating and inflicting further damage. A decade later, the volume of contaminated water is equal to that of 500 Olympic-sized swimming pools. Purification has been mainly a waiting game of allowing the radioactive isotopes to naturally decay.

Small quantities of the contaminated water have been treated using the Advanced Liquid Processing System (ALPS), a purification system composed of a chain of complex filters that captures 62 kinds of radionuclide contaminants. Unfortunately, ruthenium, cobalt, strontium, and plutonium, all of which have long radioactive lifetimes often slip through. Furthermore, the ALPS is not capable of removing tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, because it replaces hydrogen atoms in water molecules. 

This is one among various types of treatment of aqueous radioactive wastes; ion exchange/sorption, chemical precipitation, evaporation, reverse osmosis, and solvent extraction are other methods that precede its release back into the environment. 

Japan recently announced plans, after years of debate, to gradually release 1.25 million tons of treated wastewater into the Pacific Ocean over the course of 40 years. The practice of releasing contaminated water containing tritium is common among nuclear plants around the world. Releasing the water into the Pacific Ocean is promised to dilute the radioactivity to safe levels for humans, comparable to exposure from airline travel and x-rays.  However, the accumulation of the isotopes in seafloor sediments poses a much greater risk for marine life.

Those who oppose the release of the water would prefer to see its continued storage until further developments in filtration technology could assure the removal of all radioactivity. 

Smoke billowing out of stacks nuclear energy plant contaminated water at Fukushima.

Mining Water Contamination: Consuming, diverting, & seriously contaminating water 

Across the world, billions of gallons of water containing harmful pollutants, heavy metals and toxic chemicals from mining are being continually unloaded into rivers, streams, ponds and groundwater without treatment. 

In 2015, during a routine visit to scope out future work to mitigate pollutants from a closed mine in Silverton, Colorado, a crew supervised by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) inadvertently released 3 million gallons (11.4 million liters) of toxic mine waste from a drain pond into the Cement Creek. The dramatically mustard-colored contaminated water fouled rivers across three states. The abandoned mine was one out of thousands in Colorado alone––there are around 500,000 abandoned hard rock mines nationwide in the USA. 

The peak of water contamination and environmental degradation from mining actually takes place after a mine has been shut down. Accountability for the all-too necessary contaminated water management of former mining sites divides federal agencies and private operators. Thus far, governmental agencies have struggled to monitor and enforce environmental standards. 

The mining industry relies heavily on water for mineral processing, dust suppression, and slurry transport. As mining has become increasingly mechanized, activity and output have been ramped up, multiplying the waste tremendously. This waste––a mixture of water, sand, clay, and residue acids, metals, chemicals––is referred to as ‘tailings’. It is stored in tailing dams, which are effectively huge ponds. In case of a dam failure, it poses a serious threat to the environment. Tailings require constant monitoring and the water which passes through the dam must be treated. 

Treatments of contaminating water from mining are limited. In many cases, there is a reliance on allowing nature to “take its course” by allowing sediment and chemicals to settle or dilute in larger quantities of water. 

Point-Source Water Contamination: Ever-Increasing Production Chains

Public water supply can also be contaminated by discharge from manufacturing. In the 1960s and ’70s, factory dumps of industrial solvents in Woburn Massachusetts were identified as the source of a staggeringly high incidence of childhood leukemia, congenital abnormalities, and birth defects in the region. 

Industrial wastewater is an undesirable by-product of production chains including––but not limited to––iron and steel industry, organic chemicals manufacturing, pulp and paper industry, and textile mills. 

Treatments of such wastewater vary depending on the source of contamination. One possibility is a membrane filtration process, such as reverse osmosis, which risks damage to the membrane depending on the concentration of the contaminant. Evaporation processes are quite widespread. Skimming processes can remove oils from open water surfaces. The treated water can then be reused at the plant. 

Contaminated water  with heavy metals flowing into rivers mining effluent

Agricultural Water Contamination: Hormones to Nitrates

The biggest consumer of global freshwater resources is likewise one of the most prolific polluters. Farming and livestock production are using up to 70 percent of the earth’s surface water supplies. The conventional agricultural industry uses pesticides, nitrates, and fertilizers to guarantee a robust crop yield. It is often espoused that without their use, the world’s population would starve. 

However, if the amount of fertilizer is too high, the plants are unable to absorb it completely, leading to the remnants of these products seeping deep into the soil and contaminating groundwater and other water bodies. Today, the use of fertilizers is 15 times higher than it was in 1945. Agricultural pollution is the top contamination source of rivers and streams, while also ranking high for polluting wetlands, lakes, estuaries, and even groundwater.

Furthermore, the removal of agricultural pollutants in water treatment plants is complex and expensive. The best solution is legislating the application of these products right at the source. 

The Tap Water is on Fire: Wastewater from Fracking

Natural gas production in the USA increased eightfold between 2007 and 2016. In one year, fracking in the USA produces upwards of 280 billion gallons of wastewater. 

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is used in oil and gas exploration. The process entails creating fractures in shale, coalbed and tight-sand formations by injecting them with fracking fluid––water mixed with sand and, quite often, chemicals––to create enlarged fissures so that the oil and gas flows out easier. This disruption of a large volume of rock not only leaches the chemicals and the gas which is being extracted into the ground and groundwater, but it can likewise exacerbate the natural decay of radium and uranium deposits. All of these contaminants can find their way into groundwater. This is often cited as the source of the well-documented phenomenon of lighting tap water on fire

Recycling fracking wastewater is the most environmentally responsible solution. However, since federal laws have neglected to adequately monitor fracking waste, the problem of water contamination often gets overlooked. 

What can I do?

The problem of contaminated water is not one that can be remedied at an individual level. These sites of production are often hidden from everyday observation and if you’re a city dweller, it is unlikely you would stumble upon them. However, it’s an important issue to bear in mind when you are considering the quality of your tap water. 

By Natalia Kvitkova — Jun 2, 2021
The information contained in this article is provided for educational and informational purposes only, and should not be construed as health or nutritional advice.

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