Are you among the ever-shrinking group of people who remain unconvinced that high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing (aka fracking) poses a threat to the nation’s water resources?
Probably not. But if you are, please read this in-depth, well-documented New York Times article - the first in a series of articles that “examine the risks of natural-gas drilling and efforts to regulate this rapidly growing industry.”
With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater 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. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.
While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.
The documents reveal that the wastewater, 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, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.
The Times article features some powerful numbers that add fuel to the assertion that the U.S. hastily jumped into widespread use of this new gas extraction process without implementing adequate environmental and public health safeguards…safeguards that would have eaten away at industry profits.
Here are some numbers that should convince, well, anybody who drinks water and cares about the future of our country’s water resources:
EXCERPT: There were more than 493,000 active natural-gas wells in the United States in 2009, almost double the number in 1990. Around 90 percent have used hydrofracking to get more gas flowing, according to the drilling industry.
EXCERPT: Gas has seeped into underground drinking-water supplies in at least five states, including Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia, and residents blamed natural-gas drilling.
10 to 40
EXCERPT: Anywhere from 10 percent to 40 percent of the water sent down the well during hydrofracking returns to the surface, carrying drilling chemicals, very high levels of salts and, at times, naturally occurring radioactive material.
EXCERPT: At least 12 sewage treatment plants in three states accepted gas industry wastewater and discharged waste that was only partly treated into rivers, lakes and streams.
EXCERPT: Drilling companies were issued roughly 3,300 Marcellus gas-well permits in Pennsylvania last year, up from just 117 in 2007.
EXCERPT: More than 1.3 billion gallons of wastewater was [sic] produced by Pennsylvania wells over the past three years, far more than has been previously disclosed. Most of this water — enough to cover Manhattan in three inches — was sent to treatment plants not equipped to remove many of the toxic materials in drilling waste.
EXCERPT: The risks are particularly severe in Pennsylvania, which has seen a sharp increase in drilling, with roughly 71,000 active gas wells, up from about 36,000 in 2000.
EXCERPT: In Pennsylvania, these treatment plants discharged waste into some of the state’s major river basins. Greater amounts of the wastewater went to the Monongahela River, which provides drinking water to more than 800,000 people in the western part of the state, including Pittsburgh, and to the Susquehanna River, which feeds into Chesapeake Bay and provides drinking water to more than six million people, including some in Harrisburg and Baltimore.
EXCERPT: Lower amounts have been discharged into the Delaware River, which provides drinking water for more than 15 million people in Philadelphia and eastern Pennsylvania.
EXCERPT: But even with recycling, the amount of wastewater produced in Pennsylvania is expected to increase because, according to industry projections, more than 50,000 new wells are likely to be drilled over the next two decades.
Hundreds or even thousands
EXCERPT: The level of radioactivity in the wastewater has sometimes been hundreds or even thousands of times the maximum allowed by the federal standard for drinking water.
100 and 1,000
EXCERPT: Of more than 179 wells producing wastewater with high levels of radiation, at least 116 reported levels of radium or other radioactive materials 100 times as high as the levels set by federal drinking-water standards. At least 15 wells produced wastewater carrying more than 1,000 times the amount of radioactive elements considered acceptable.
EXCERPT: And in 2009 and 2010, public sewage treatment plants directly upstream from some of these drinking-water intake facilities accepted wastewater that contained radioactivity levels as high as 2,122 times the drinking-water standard.
Additional resources about fracking:
- Ecocentric is covering the fracking issue
- Pro Publica investigative series
- EPA’s Hydraulic Fracturing home page
- EPA’s Draft Hydraulic Fracturing Study Plan (now open to public comment)
- USGS: Water Resources and Natural Gas Production from the Marcellus Shale (PDF)
- The Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Natural Gas Resource Center
- "Drilling for Natural Gas: Rewards and Risks" (The Diane Rehm Show, March 1, 2011)