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Holy Rizzoli: Is That Fracking Fluid Going to Kill Me? (No)

The plot line for the recent episode of Rizzoli & Isles – a “torn from the headlines” crime drama on the TNT Network about a female police detective in Boston — is Hollywood at its worst. Rizzoli stumbles onto an illegal shale gas fracking operation, but the evil frackers catch her before she can call for back-up. They have to kill her. Sure, they could shoot her, but the evil frackers decide to tie her up in an abandoned car in the path of toxic spill water coming from the illegal fracking operation. Naturally, Rizzoli is rescued just in time, and the evil frackers are sent off to prison where they belong for being dirty polluters. My beef is not with the Blofeld-like decision not to shoot Rizzoli, but with the nonsensical representation of shale gas fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing (also known as fracking) is a natural gas extraction technique in which a mixture of water, sand and a tiny amount of chemical additives are pumped deep underground through a well-bore to fracture shale rock and release trapped natural gas. The disparity between the plot’s take on shale gas fracking and the facts could not be greater.

For starters, shale gas fracking is not illegal in Massachusetts, where the TV show is set.  Indeed, there is no fracking in Massachusetts because there is no shale to frack in Massachusetts.  More fundamentally, the notion of death by toxic fracking water is unrealistic in two respects.  The water-sand-chemical mixture used in fracking operations is not toxic, and in any event there are no discharges of raw fracking water.

“Chemical” Does Not Equal “Toxic.”  The minute amounts of chemicals added to the water-sand mixture used in fracking operations have drawn intense scrutiny and criticism.  Fears over dangers posed by these chemicals, however, are greatly exaggerated.  The US Department of Energy reports ( Modern Shale Gas Development in the United States: A Primer, April 2009) that these chemical additives collectively account for less than 0.5 percent of the fracking fluid; the other 99.5 percent is water and sand. Moreover, the vast majority of chemicals added are innocuous surfactants used to enhance the “slipperiness” of water used in fracking operations. It is possible that the water may accumulate small quantities of naturally occurring elements after being pumped down into the shale rock formation, as well as brine, but that hardly renders the water toxic.

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12 thoughts on “Holy Rizzoli: Is That Fracking Fluid Going to Kill Me? (No)

  1. The problem that I have with all of the pro-fracking articles—well, there is no firm data given to us so we can see fact.

    Let us look at it this way. You report that only .5% is a chemical and that makes the remainder 99.5% water and sand. It is interesting that I just checked some medicines active ingredients and even .05% is the amount that makes the drugs work! So it is important that you start reporting fact and all chemicals.

    It is so easy to see who is being paid by the gas industry! No real facts. Just what you hope is the case.

  2. I’m glad to see you publishing pro-fracking PR pieces, but the claims within should be subject to the same kind of editorial scrutiny as the criticisms. It would welcome a fact0based discussion of pros and cons, though this is made difficult because laws exempt frackers from full disclosure, and allow discharges that, performed by another industry, would be prohibited. Blatantly erroneous conclusions, real and implied, do not belong in a professional journal.

  3. Peter Gray, in yet another fracking propaganda article, quotes from the New York Times to buttress his case, noting that the fracking chemicals were not characterized as hazardous or carcinogenic in a referenced CRS article. However, that does not mean that the chemicals are, in fact, not carcinogenic or hazardous; the NYT goes on to state that “[m]ore than 650 of these products contained chemicals that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or are listed as hazardous air pollutants”. So you see, Mr. Gray, that other government documents do characterize fracking chemicals as being carcinogenic and hazardous. Furthermore, the CSR article also faulted companies for at times “injecting fluids containing chemicals that they themselves cannot identify”. And the congressional investigation also found that 14 of the nation’s most active hydraulic fracturing companies used 866 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products; not including water – so that 0.5% figure hides quite a large quantity of fracking chemicals.
    With respect to Mr. Gray’s characterization of the return water as “hardly … toxic”, I challenge him to agree to actually drink this supposedly benign water. The DOE primer on shale gas notes that “produced water can vary from brackish (5,000 ppm to 35,000 ppm TDS), to saline (35,000 ppm to 50,000 ppm TDS), to supersaturated brine (50,000 ppm to >200,000 ppm TDS), and some operators report TDS values greater than 400,000 ppm”. Thirsty, Mr. Gray?
    None of this is to say that I am in total opposition to fracking. But the true and complete facts of the matter paint a very different picture from the propaganda article that is presented here. I do agree with Peter Gray in at least one aspect: facts are indeed pesky things. And to that end, we should be more honest and truthful when discussing them. Don’t you agree?

  4. Other quotes from the NYT article:

    “Some ingredients mixed into the hydraulic fracturing fluids were common and generally harmless, like salt and citric acid. Others were unexpected, like instant coffee and walnut hulls, the report said. Many ingredients were “extremely toxic,” including benzene, a known human carcinogen, and lead. Companies injected large amounts of other hazardous chemicals, including 11.4 million gallons of fluids containing at least one of the toxic or carcinogenic B.T.E.X. chemicals — benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene”.

    and

    “A 2010 report by Environmental Working Group, a research and advocacy organization, found that benzene levels in other hydrofracking ingredients were as much as 93 times higher than those found in diesel. The use of these chemicals has been a source of concern to regulators and environmentalists who worry that some of them could find their way out of a well bore — because of above-ground spills, underground failures of well casing or migration through layers of rock — and into nearby sources of drinking water. These contaminants also remain in the fluid that returns to the surface after a well is hydrofracked. A recent investigation by The New York Times found high levels of contaminants, including benzene and radioactive materials, in wastewater that is being sent to treatment plants not designed to fully treat the waste before it is discharged into rivers”.

  5. we don’t measure chemicals in percents of mixtures, we measure them in parts of a million. Care to guess why?

  6. I usually like the show. I’m from and live in Western Mass and couldn’t even watch the idiotic episode all the way through. Not even to see the local sites. Shame is not needed and so tired of the enviro-over reactors. Here in the Happy Valley of the Connecticut River they are all to pompous and common.

  7. Upon reading about percentages and not parts per million I expected to see a long list of clients where a conflict of interest was apparent. It should be mandatory to list conflicts of interest. Even the NEMJ has now complied with expected transparency.

  8. That Rizzoli episode may have been over-exaggerated, but so are most of environmental reports the CRS made about the safety of fracking. Oil and gas companies have been given a huge pass on the environmental laws most other companies have to follow, such as the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, to name a few. Given that, companies involved in fracking are going to give their own version of the facts on what’s in their water, and you make a great proxy for their corporate cause.

  9. some fracking fluids contain up to 7% ingredients other than water and sand. once it’s down there, it’s down there. what happens with the next significant seismic event in the fracked area. gee whiz, a NEW fissure that may communicate with an aquifer. future generations may curse us for allowing perfectly habitable areas to become uninhabitable.

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