When we think about the need for alternative energy solutions in order to keep our air and water clean, usually we’re considering the negative impact of carbon emissions on our environment. However, there’s another important consideration that doesn’t get nearly the attention—the risk of mercury being released into our streams and waterways.
Mercury is an element found deep within the earth. The amount of this element is stagnant—we aren’t producing more of it. Rather, actions such as drilling and mining bring the substance to the surface. Once uncovered, there are a number of ways it becomes harmful to humans.
To be fair, man isn’t the only cause of releasing mercury into our atmosphere. Measured levels increase from many natural causes, from erosion to earthquakes and most notably—from volcanic eruptions. However, what we can control are the actions by humans that increase amounts in our biosphere.
What are the risks of mercury for humans?
The most common effects of mercury toxicity are impacts to the neurologic, gastrointestinal, and renal organ systems. Adults may experience muscle weakness; changes to vision, hearing, and speech; difficulty walking or breathing; and other symptoms. Children can also suffer from impaired motor skills, cognitive processing, and overall awareness. Poisoning can occur from inhalation, ingestion, or absorption through the skin.
How does this harm us?
First of all, mining product from deep in the earth pumps dust into the air and brings to surface material from miles beneath containing mercury. The amount varies depending upon location, and without getting really technical–suffice it to say there are different types with varying levels of risk. What gives us the biggest concern is the kind known as “methylmercury.”
Secondly, the products mined from deep in the earth like petroleum contain mercury. When the material is burned in the combustion process, this element is released into the air.
When that material reaches the air or the ground surface, water (ie, rainfall), mixes the mercury into the topsoil and also transports some of it to streams and waterways. Mercury that mixes with topsoil becomes an issue particularly when that ground contains food crops for humans or animals. It is absorbed into the crops, and then by the animal or human that eats it. It’s a strong enough element that it will exist from crop to animal to human that consumes the animal. When mercury washes into lakes, rivers, and oceans the same problem occurs and can make eating fish and shellfish from certain areas very toxic. This is why experts caution against eating too much tuna.
How big a problem are the risks of mercury?
Little was studied about the impacts of energy production related to the introduction of mercury to our biosphere until the end of the 20th century. In 2001, the EPA concluded a research study and produced a report on “Mercury in Petroleum and Natural Gas: Estimation of Emissions from Production, Processing, and Combustion.” At that time, the U.S. was responsible for discharging about 140 Mg per year of mercury into our environment, and the majority of that was from coal combustion with a slim portion attributed to oil and natural gas. For comparison, the total worldwide discharge during that same timeframe was over 2,000 Mg per year, mostly due to the increased use of coal in other countries.
This type of data seemed to show that the risk levels attributed to the oil and gas industry were relatively low and scrutiny fell off the radar. In 2014, the IPIECA produced a “Good Practice Guide” for mercury management in petroleum refining that downplayed the hazards of this chemical element for most oilfields worldwide. According to their studies, 64% of crude oil mined worldwide had less than 2 parts per billion (ppb) of mercury, while only 10% contained 15 ppb or more.
How does fracking impact the problem?
Fracking is a relatively new technology developed after these studies were completed. It’s similar to power washing your driveway: high-speed water mixed with chemicals is directed into rocks and fissures to create horizontal wells capable of obtaining greater amounts of petroleum than vertical wells. Just like power washing at home, the water (now called “produced water” or “flowback water”) ricochets backward and now contains salt, dissolved minerals, hydrocarbons, radioactive elements, and yes—mercury. This flowback water is supposed to be stored in deep wells to prevent contamination into drinking water and other ecosystems. However, regulations are not extremely tight around storage and water does spill and leak.
In Pennsylvania, there are about 6,000 active wells with another 10,000 permitted. Some estimate that up to 30,000 wells could be operating there by 2030. In 2021, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania published a Public Health Advisory regarding fish consumption in the state. “While most recreationally caught sport fish in Pennsylvania are safe to eat, chemicals such as mercury and PCB’s have been found in some fish from certain waters.” As a result, they recommend limiting consumption of sport fish caught in any of the state’s waterways or stocked from their hatcheries to one meal per week composed of no more than ½ pound of fish.
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