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Fossil Fuels US EPA will study the impact of hydraulic fracturing on water supplies

Published on March 20th, 2010 | by Tina Casey

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It's About Fracking Time! U.S. EPA Lights a Fire Under Hydraulic Fracturing



US EPA will study the impact of hydraulic fracturing on water suppliesIt’s been a long time coming, but the U.S. EPA will finally assess the pollution caused by hydraulic fracturing, otherwise known as fracking.  It’s a mining method that involves injecting massive amounts of chemical brine deep underground in order to release natural gas (among other things).  According to an article in the New York Times, hydraulic fracturing involves more than 260 chemicals, including benzene and many other toxic substances.  Maybe that hasn’t drawn too much notice in sparsely populated areas but there’s a natural gas drilling boom going on  in higher-population states like Pennsylvania, where the Marcellus shale formation is drawing gas companies like flies to honey, and now people are starting to pay attention.

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In most places you can’t even dump out a few pints of toxic chemicals such as used motor oil without getting into serious trouble with the law, so how is it that all these fracking people (corporations are people, too!) get to dump umpteen millions of gallons without any kind of accounting whatsoever?  I mean, isn’t there a little something called the Clean Water Act, right?  Right?  Hello, anybody there?

Hydraulic Fracturing and the Clean Water Act

Actually there is a little something called the Clean Water Act.  Its primary focus is surface water such as lakes and rivers, though with some wiggle room it could indirectly apply to ground sources like wells and aquifers.  There is also something called the Safe Water Drinking Act of 1974 but hydraulic fracturing was exempted from that, an omission that was reaffirmed by the EPA under the Bush administration.  Fracking was also exempted from the 2005 Energy Policy Act.  Then there’s the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act of 1976, which covers the use and disposal of hazardous substances,  but fracking is also at least partly exempt from that.  And just to top things off, the chemical brines used in fracking are considered proprietary and companies are under no obligation to disclose what’s in them (so they don’t).

Hydraulic Fracturing: Who’s Minding the Store?

Er…you!  That’s basically where things stand in the hydraulic fracturing hotspot state of Pennsylvania (pdf).  According to the Penn State Cooperative Extension, state regulations only require gas well operators to be responsible for pollution in drinking water supplies within 1,000 feet of the well.  That isn’t much to begin with (geologists are just beginning to understand the long distance consequences of underground mining), and on top of that there’s at least three huge catches.  First, the pollution has to occur within six months after the well is completed, which is a very short window.  Second, the gas company is under no obligation to perform before-and-after tests, which means that the property owner has to incur a pretty hefty expense just on the outside chance something bad happens.  And third – well heck, if a company don’t disclose what chemicals it is using, how can you prove that their gas well is responsible for the chemicals that show up in your water supply?

One Step Beyond Hydraulic Fracturing

In New York State, another fracking  hot spot, alarm bells are going off because part of the Marcellus formation is directly under a watershed that provides drinking water to about 9 million people.  The state is looking for ways to prevent gas well drilling on these lands, and that includes developing alternatives like biogas from cow manure, which kills two birds with one stone by helping the state’s large dairy industry put its manure to good use.  Among the flood of new biofuel discoveries, researchers have developed a strain of algae that coulds produce fuels identical to petroleum fuels, which basically cuts out the fossil fuel middle-man and its environmentally destructive harvesting methods.  In the mean time, considering the available evidence on hydraulic fracturing, it’s a safe bet that forthcoming EPA report won’t be pretty.

Image: Natural gas flame by BotheredByBees on flickr.com.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



  • Tina Casey

    Sorry folks I inadvertently moderated (in other words, deleted) a comment in which the commenter called me a moron for not knowing that fracking brine is captured and recycled so what’s the problem? Seriously I have no problem being called a moron! However the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection does have a problem with fracking brine. Here is the agency’s press release on prnewswire.com from April 6 2010:

    PA Must Take Action to Protect Water Resources from Drilling Wastewater, Other Sources of TDS Pollution

    Proposed Rules will Help Keep Drinking Water, Streams and Rivers Clean

    HARRISBURG, Pa., April 6 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ — High levels of total dissolved solids pollution from natural gas drilling and other sources pose a real threat to Pennsylvania’s streams and rivers, including aquatic life, warned Department of Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger today.

    “The treating and disposing of gas drilling brine and fracturing wastewater is a significant challenge for the natural gas industry because of its exceptionally high TDS concentrations,” said Hanger. “Marcellus drilling is growing rapidly and our rules must be strengthened now to prevent our waterways from being seriously harmed in the future.”

    Hanger pointed to recent examples where TDS impaired streams and affected major sources of drinking water.

    In 2008 and 2009, TDS levels exceeded drinking water standards along the Monongahela River, which is a major source of drinking water. Drinking water treatment plants do not have the equipment available to remove TDS, so any water polluted with TDS goes into Pennsylvania’s homes and businesses.

    Similarly, in early September 2009, excessive TDS levels led to an environmental disaster that wiped out 26 miles of Dunkard Creek in Greene County, as well as many miles of the creek in West Virginia. These high TDS concentrations, coupled with other factors such as temperature and nutrient concentrations, enabled golden algae to bloom and created an inhospitable environment for aquatic life. The algae released toxins to the water column that literally wiped out aquatic life, including at least 16 species of freshwater mussels and 18 species of fish.

    Dunkard Creek is an example of what can happen if TDS is not controlled, said Hanger, and the loss of this important public resource was an environmental and economic tragedy.

    TDS is a measure of all elements dissolved in water that can include carbonates, chlorides, sulfates, nitrates, sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium. In addition to natural gas drilling, other sources of TDS include, abandoned mine drainage, agricultural runoff, and discharges from industrial or sewage treatment plants.

    For more information, visit http://www.depweb.state.pa.us.

    Media contact: Neil Weaver, (717) 571-3866

    SOURCE Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection

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