Morgantown’s drinking water faces a threatening levels of a chemical byproduct from fracking that can cause cancer, experts say.

By itself, bromide, a salt compound that is naturally occurring and also found in discharges from fracking and mining, is of little concern. But when mixed with chlorine, a chemical commonly used to make water safe for drinking, it can become carcinogenic, according to Dr. Alan Ducatman, a professor of public health at West Virginia University.

"Can two things together be more dangerous than either thing alone? The answer is yes," Ducatman said.

If people are exposed to the compound produced by combining bromide and chlorine, a mixture known as trihalomethane, for prolonged periods of time, Ducatman and other experts say it can cause cancer even at relatively low amounts.

Since testing began in 2009, the Monongahela River, which is Morgantown’s main source of drinking water, has tested positive for elevated levels of bromide a number of times, according to Dr. Paul Ziemkiewics, director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute.

The increased levels of bromide seem to be coming from wastewater produced during the fracking process, Ziemkiewics said.

"If the cement job in fracking pipelines has cracks, fluid and gases can start leaking out and get into shallow groundwater (sources) where a lot of wells are located that supply drinking water," Ziemkiewics said.

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has issued permits to several natural gas companies to build fracking sites along the Mon River, said Marc Glass, who specializes in soil and water remediation for Downstream Strategies, an environmental consulting firm in Morgantown.

According to the Morgantown Utility Board, there are currently 342 active Marcellus wells located within the Mon River watershed.  However, one fracking site is of particular concern to Morgantown officials. That is Northeast Natural Energy’s fracking operation, which is taking place in the Morgantown Industrial Park just above the Mon River in Westover.

The drilling itself happens as close as 1,500 feet from the city’s water intake system, Glass said.

"It doesn’t seem like the best location for (a fracking site)," said Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies.

The Marcellus Shale, which has an abundance of natural gas trapped inside its rock formations, stretches across West Virginia and Pennsylvania into Ohio and New York. Dozens of companies are using the method of hydraulic fracking to release the gas from shale rock deep underground.

In hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, millions of tons of water are pumped down a long pipeline to break up shale and release the methane gas. In the process, the water mixes with sediments and toxic chemicals. As the wastewater rises back up, it can get into groundwater and water supplies either through leaks in the casement surrounding the pipe or when drilling companies improperly dispose of the wastewater.

Bromide, like other contaminants, can enter the Mon River watershed through many different channels. According to MUB documents, sources of potentially significant contaminants include above ground storage tanks and dumping sites approved by the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES), as well as oil and gas wells and abandoned coalmines.

The elevated bromide levels were first noticed in 2010 as Northeast Natural Energy was preparing the site in Westover for drilling. 

In March 2011, the WVDEP gave final approval of the drilling site and issued permits, effectively green-lighting the operation.  Bromide levels continued to spike throughout 2011 and 2012 while fracking was ongoing. When drilling stopped in 2013, bromide levels dropped back below a traceable amount.

But this past summer, bromide levels began rising again, according to tests administered by the MUB. Hansen and other researchers suspect that natural gas drilling could again be the

culprit.

Last year, Morgantown officials asked Northeast Natural Energy to build secondary containment facilities at their well sites in Westover to ensure that fracking wastewater did not leak into the Mon River, according to a previous article on the Mountaineer News Service. City officials expressed concern that if a leak were to occur, contaminants present in the wastewater could enter the Mon River adjacent to the drinking water intake system.

But executives with the Charleston-based company declined to take those secondary measures, saying they were not required by state law to do so.

City officials also asked Northeast Natural Energy to pay for tests to monitor the wastewater coming from its drilling sites in the Industrial Park, but the company refused to do that, as well.  Repeated attempts were made to reach company officials for this article, but there was no answer at the phone number listed on the company’s website.

Earlier this year, a company executive told reporters for the Mountaineer News Service that Northeast Natural has one of the safest fracking operations in the area and is complying with state law.

The company plans to drill two new deep injection wells near the existing two wells that were fracked in previous years. Drilling is scheduled to start in the coming days, MUB officials told residents at a public meeting on water quality (at the end of October).

The Morgantown City Council tried to ban fracking within city limits a few years ago, but Northeast Natural Energy sued the city, and its ban was overturned by Monongalia County Circuit Court Judge Susan Tucker.

Ziemkiewics said the best way to keep bromide out of the water supply is to prevent it from being illegally dumped and ensure that it does not leak out of the well sites. Secondary containment measures have been found to reduce such leaks and spills.

Removing bromide from the drinking water is an extremely expensive proposition. Large quantities of water would need to be treated with a process known as reverse osmosis, which uses a semipermeable membrane to remove particles of ions from the water.

"There’s not a lot of good options," Hansen said.

While natural gas drilling has slowed in the state because there is a glut of cheap gas, demand will increase and with it more extensive drilling, Glass said. So far there are less than 5,000 well sites in West Virginia, but experts predict there will be 50,000 wells drilled before the Marcellus shale is close to being tapped out.

"We haven’t even scratched the surface of what this energy infrastructure is going to be like in the state of West Virginia," Glass said. "It’s going to be substantial and it’s going to change the way of life around here for sure."