A blockbuster New York Times investigation of hydraulic fracturing has uncovered a cache of undisclosed government documents that show fracking wastewater containing radioactive chemicals and other toxic substances is being discharged into rivers and streams that serve as sources of drinking water. According to the Times, these fracking pollutants are creating “dangers to the environment and health [that] are greater than previously understood.â€
Fracking is a drilling technique that involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. Environmentalists are concerned that the chemicals used in that fracking fluid could contaminate water supplies near drilling sites, and already, such drilling is suspected in several instances of water contamination in states – especially Pennsylvania – where fracking is booming. Thanks to a move by Congress in 2005, fracking is exempt from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, meaning that states are primarily responsible for oversight of fracking operations.
Last March, the U.S. Congress directed the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to undertake a study of fracking, amid concerns such natural gas drilling could impact water quality. Proponents of better fracking regulation are hoping the study results – expected to be released in 2012 – will spark regulatory reform.
The recent New York Times article, published over the weekend, shows why such reform is so badly needed. As the article points out, drillers use between two and five million gallons of fracking fluid in the hydrofracking of just one natural gas well. Because of the exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act, drillers don’t have to disclose what is contained in these fluids, however, some recent studies have found toxins, such as barium, strontium, benzene, glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols. All have been linked to health disorders when human exposure is too high.
Once a well has been fracked, the used fracking fluid that comes back up from the well has to be dealt with. According to the Times, this wastewater is sometimes hauled to sewage plants NOT designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water. The documents uncovered by the Times reveal the wastewater “contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.”
The documents detailed by the Times included studies by the EPA and the drilling industry that found that dumping radioactive fracking waste into waterways does not sufficiently dilute it. Drinking water intake plants downstream from these sewage facilities do not test or treat water for radioactivity, the Times said.
The article continues:
“Other documents and interviews show that many EPA scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an EPA consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.”
The New York Times report is already creating an uproar among fracking critics. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee and a long-time advocate for federal oversight of the industry, sent a strongly worded letter to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson on Saturday, expressing outrage that the agency appears to have been aware that fracking posed such significant risks to water quality, yet chose a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ approach to regulation.
“These disturbing revelations raise the prospect that natural gas production has turned our rivers and streams into this generation’s ‘Love Canals,’ Rep. Markey said in separate press release commenting on the Times article. “The natural gas industry has repeatedly claimed that fracking can be done safely. We now know we need a full investigation into exactly how fracking is done and what it does to our drinking water and our environment. Americans should not have to consume radioactive materials from their drinking water as a byproduct of natural gas production.”