The natural gas drilling process known as hydrofracking poses far more danger to the environment and health than previously understood, the New York Times has reported.
The paper said its analysis of more than 30,000 pages of federal, state and company records relating to more than 200 gas wells shows that radioactive wastewater from the process is sometimes discharged into rivers that supply drinking water to millions of people in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
At least 12 sewage treatment plants in three states have discharged waste that was only partly treated into rivers, lakes and streams, the Times said. It said the wastewater is sometimes hauled to sewage plants that are not designed to treat it.
Hydrofracking, also called hydraulic fracturing, uses water, particles and chemicals injected underground at high pressure to break up shale and release natural gas.
The process releases naturally occurring carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements such as radium, the New York Times said, and the hydrofracking fluid itself can also contain carcinogenic materials.
The Times’ criticism of fracking follows closely on the heels of publicity for the documentary Gasland, which was nominated for Sunday’s Academy Awards. It lost to corporate malfeasance exposé Inside Job. But the natural gas industry has been on the defensive against Gasland, with America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) launching a consumer-facing website called The Truth About Gasland.
“We welcome questions about the film Gasland because it gives us the opportunity to set the record straight in a fact-based way,” ANGA said.
Earlier this month the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a draft plan to study the impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water. The plan will be reviewed by the agency’s Science Advisory Board next week, and the study will begin soon after, with initial results available by late 2012.
The Times reported that in some EPA documents, scientists warned that fracking waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. The paper also said that according to studies by the EPA and drilling industry, radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.
Under current regulations, most sewage treatment plants that accept drilling waste do not have to test for radioactivity, the Times reported. It said that the federal government has not set a comprehensive standard to set the safe levels of radioactivity in drilling wastewater.
“We’re burning the furniture to heat the house,” said John H. Quigley, who last month left his post as secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste.”
“Hydrofracking impacts associated with health problems as well as widespread air and water contamination have been reported in at least a dozen states,” said Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, an Ithaca, N.Y., company that studies gas drilling.
But James E. Grey, chief operating officer of Triana Energy, told the Times, “These low levels of radioactivity pose no threat to the public or worker safety and are more a public perception issue than a real health threat.”
The number of active natural gas wells in the U.S. almost doubled between 1990 and 2009, the Times reported, and about 90 percent of the wells have used hydrofracking.
It said that gas has seeped into underground drinking-water supplies in at least five states, including Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and West Virginia, and air pollution from natural gas drilling is also a threat. In 2009, Wyoming for the first time failed to meet federal standards for air quality, partly because of the benzene and toluene from its 27,000 wells, the Times said.
Last month investors filed shareholder resolutions urging nine major oil and gas companies to disclose the risks of their fracking operations. Five investment groups filed resolutions with ExxonMobil, Chevron, Ultra Petroleum, El Paso, Cabot Oil & Gas, Southwestern Energy, Energen, Anadarko and Carrizo Oil & Gas.
Among other concerns, the shareholders called on the companies to disclose water impact risks associated with fracking.
Last autumn, just days after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a subpoena to Halliburton to force the company to share information about its hydraulic fracturing process, Halliburton announced the launch of a new microsite that discloses the materials content of its hydraulic fracturing fluids.
In November Wyoming implemented new rules requiring natural gas drillers to disclose chemicals used in fracking, but citizen groups said the rules fall short of full transparency.
Pictured: Pennsylvania’s Monongahela River, where the Times says much of the wastewater has been released. Picture credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Huntington District.