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Fracking pollution [ClearOnMoney]
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Commentary

Fracking pollution

28 Feb 2011 by Jim Fickett.

A clear lapse in regulation of pollution from gas drilling has been documented for Pennsylvania. Pollution will be a significant ongoing issue for the production of unconventional gas.

It has been clear almost from the beginning of the shale gas revolution that pollution would be a determining issue. The technology that made shale gas available, hydraulic fracturing, or “fraccing”, or “fracking”, produces a lot of dirty water. Preparation for fracking adds one set of chemicals to the water, and the fracking process itself causes other chemicals, located with the gas and rock for millions of years, to mix in as well. The polluted water is partially recycled, but also partially dumped. And hence pollution has been, is, and will continue to be a major concern.

On Saturday the New York Times covered in some depth one small part of the pollution story – radioactive contaminants in drinking water, mostly in the state of Pennsylvania. They make a pretty clear case that regulators are overlooking (or ignoring) a problem that might very well have significant health consequences.

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. …

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. …

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.

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. …

Under federal law, testing for radioactivity in drinking water is required only at drinking-water plants. But federal and state regulators have given nearly all drinking-water intake facilities in Pennsylvania permission to test only once every six or nine years.

The Times reviewed data from more than 65 intake plants downstream from some of the busiest drilling regions in the state. Not one has tested for radioactivity since 2008, and most have not tested since at least 2005, before most of the drilling waste was being produced. …

In December 2009, these very risks led E.P.A. scientists to advise in a letter to New York that sewage treatment plants not accept drilling waste with radium levels 12 or more times as high as the drinking-water standard. The Times found wastewater containing radium levels that were hundreds of times this standard. The scientists also said that the plants should never discharge radioactive contaminants at levels higher than the drinking-water standard.

In 2009, E.P.A. scientists studied the matter and also determined that certain Pennsylvania rivers were ineffective at sufficiently diluting the radium-laced drilling wastewater being discharged into them.

This particular problem is not widespread, because most states do not allow mining waste to be disposed of in sewer treatment plants. But there is little doubt we will continue to hear more about pollution from fracking, wherever unconventional gas is being produced. What are the consequences?

  1. As a citizen, I am (and I think you should be) strongly supportive of responsible regulation; clean water is an even higher priority than more energy
  2. A likely increase in regulation of water pollution is one more thing that is likely to raise the cost of fracking, and hence raise the price of gas
  3. It is very unclear just how much gas will really be recovered from unconventional sources; environmental protection is one force that will tend to drive the total down
  4. Additional environmental costs could end up reducing the reserves of some companies, since reserves are defined as well characterized deposits that can be profitably produced

The outcome of all this will not be determined for a long time, but it is an important issue to monitor.