A major investigative report published by The New York Times this last Sunday, February 27, identified important environmental hazards in natural gas fracking that previously have received little or no attention. Easily the most eye-catching is the disclosure that waste water from natural gas drilling wells sometimes contains levels of radioactivity that far exceed Federal drinking water standards. But that is not the only significant concern to be aired.
"With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of waste-water that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground," said the 4,000-word Times report, by Ian Urbina. Thousands of documents obtained by the Times "reveal that the waste-water, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known."
An additional major finding, largely overlooked in previous journalistic investigations of fracking (including one by me), is that in Pennsylvania--the main locus of Marcellus Shale gas fracking--regulation of waste-water from fracking wells is singularly lax. Unlike some other states, Pennsylvania does not require waste-water to be put into storage caverns deep under impermeable rock, and alone among the drilling states, it allows drillers to discharge the water directly through sewage treatment plants.
Pennsylvania currently has about 71,000 active gas drilling wells, almost double the number ten years ago. The Times found that 128 wells generated waste water with levels of gross alpha--radiation from radium, uranium, and other radioactive materials--that exceeded Federal drinking water standards, in some cases by a factor of 2,700.
The potential environmental problems do not end with water. Air pollution also is a serious concern, as other reports have found. Sparsely populated Wyoming, for example, failed to meet Federal clean air standards for the first time in 2009, partly because of benzene and toluene fumes from some 27,000 wells. In six Texas counties where fracking is especially intense, early childhood asthma rates exceeded the state average by a factor of more than three.
"We're burning the furniture to heat the house," a former Pennsylvania secretary of conservation and natural resources told The New York Times. "In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas . . . it's not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste."
The Times report is bound to have an impact especially in New York State, where a de-facto moratorium has been imposed on drilling in the New York City watershed, because of concerns about the city's water supply.
A second installment of Urbina's article appears today, March 2, and discusses efforts by frackers to address the waste-water issue by recycling. The general message is that this approach has considerable promise but is not as widely used at present as the industry has been claiming. In Pennsylvania, where it's been asserted that as much as 90 percent of waste water is recycled, the actual number is closer to 50 percent.
It's a telling detail in Urbina's report that the one company and industry representative who agreed to talk with him, Matt Pitzarella of Range Resources, is the very same person who made himself available to Spectrum this time last year, when I did a similar investigative report. The industry as a whole has been very close-lipped, and that is going to have to change drastically if it's going to retain public confidence as drilling becomes much more widespread.
Right now, reports Urbina, there are 6,400 permitted wells in Pennsylvania. In the next 20 years there are expected to be at least 50,000 more.