The Short Course on the Marcellus Shale – But There’s Much More to Come

A Huge Fracking Mess

New York Times investigation uncovers lax regulations, radioactivity and serious concerns about water contamination.

By Andrew Schenkel
Beaver County Blue via MNN.Com Bloggers
Mon, Feb 28 2011

Fracking concerns FRACKED UP: A recent expose by the New York Times reveals all sorts of problems with the process for extracting natural gas. (Photo: ltmayers/Flickr)

The New York Times and reporter Ian Urbina dropped a serious bomb on the fracking industry over the weekend with the first installment of a series of reports entitled Drilling Down.

Urbina’s story is the first must-read of the year when it comes to energy and environmental reporting. It reveals all sorts of damning nuggets about fracking in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Colorado. I think anyone who cares about energy production should take a look. Here are a few highlights or, in this case, lowlights:

1. Radioactive material found in water

Wastewater is a major part of the fracking process. Millions of gallons of toxic water mixtures are necessary for the extraction of natural gas, and once the gas is extracted something has to be done with all that waste. The problem, according to the Times, is that the wastewater has been frequently found to contain amounts of radiation hundreds and sometimes thousands of times higher than what the federal government allows. This radioactive wastewater may be getting into drinking water because it is often hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and “discharged into rivers that supply drinking water.” That’s not good, even if you are a fan of the three-eyed fish from The Simpsons.

2. The EPA hasn’t done much

For everyone in Congress who has been clamoring to reduce the power of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Urbina piece reveals that the agency has been relatively powerless when it comes to fracking. The story alludes to several documents and interviews that “alarmed” EPA scientists, but were never made public. These findings included the revelation that many sewage treatment plants simply couldn’t remove the contaminants from the toxic fracking fluids. Perhaps even more damning is that scientists and consultants with the EPA have known about the radioactive problem since 2006 and have apparently not made much of an effort to call for testing for radioactivity. (The fracking boom began in 2008.) That’s not good, even if you are a fan of water that glows in the dark.

3. Concerns out West

Most of the Urbina story focused on Pennsylvania, which was described as “ground zero” for the fracking industry. While this is certainly true, the story did make some interesting and scary connections to the heavily fracked states of Colorado and Wyoming. As someone who has spent a few years in both states, I wasn’t surprised. But I was still disappointed to read, “In a sparsely populated Sublette County in Wyoming, which has some of the highest concentrations of wells, vapors reacting to sunlight have contributed to levels of ozone higher than those recorded in Houston and Los Angeles.” From my few trips to Sublette County, I can tell you that there isn’t much that it has in common with Los Angeles or Houston. The ozone connection is not a good one to make, even if you are a fan of awesome sunburns. 

4. The natural gas industry doesn’t seem to care

While it’s easy to point to flaws in the regulatory process and within the EPA, let’s not ignore the industry that is doing this. I couldn’t help but notice that throughout the NY Times story, it seemed the industry not only knew about these serious concerns but kept operating despite them. An industry study going back to 1990 stated that “’using conservative assumptions,’ radium in drilling wastewater dumped off the Louisiana coast posed ‘potentially significant risks’ of cancer for people who eat fish from those waters regularly." This is of concern because radium may not just be getting into water in places like Pennsylvania, but also the food chain, as livestock is likely to ingest radium. Therefore anyone who eats that livestock may be exposed to the carcinogen. There are also several other instances of information that the industry was privy to in this report, followed by explanations of how they are not concerned. Perhaps most concerning of all is this statement that reveals how much regulators are depending on the very industry they are regulating for information. “’If we’re too hard on them,’ the inspector added, ‘the companies might just stop reporting their mistakes.’”

So there you have it — a few lowlights from a very depressing article. However, perhaps this is the beginning of getting energy right. You have to know what’s wrong before you can fix it. There’s certainly a lot wrong, but with accountability and transparency perhaps we can get it right. That’s a start.

2 thoughts on “The Short Course on the Marcellus Shale – But There’s Much More to Come”

  1. Keep your eyes on the print media – both local and national – over the coming days. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette for example is finishing a two (consecutive) day series today (Monday March 7, 2011) on the southwestern counterpart to Marcellus Shale the Barnett Shale and its impact on select regions of Texas. They also have an online Marcellus Shale presence. Even the Beaver County has had things to say. Amidst their ‘drilling envy’ they clearly chart out that the number of wells drilled in Beaver County so far is quite small. The picture on leases is less vivid described. The local ‘word’ is that traffic on gas corporation property research at the Beaver County Courthouse is very heavy. Did I miss anything important?

  2. Curiosity and Systematic Study are Relevant

    No offense intended but my ‘health physics’ curiosity is aroused/activated by the brief discussion of radiation in the fourth section of Andrew Schenkel’s summary article above. It reads as if the main impact from radium arises more from secondary exposure through concentration in the food chain than in direct drinking of the water. While that section points out that we may be getting industry corrupted informational baloney it would be good to attempt finding out how and why from the ‘wider literature’ say in health physics of which there may be some. I know that at this stage I am supposed to rail against corporate corruption, and some day I might. But now I’d rather use my scientific background which reaches back four to four and a half decades to address these issues. Those long reinforced traditions may continue to serve me well.

    Hopefully much of that ‘information’ is still relevant, refereed and academically distributed. Health physics is the term coined in the early 1940’s for “a field of science concerned with radiation physics and radiation biology with the goal of providing technical information and proper techniques regarding the safe use of ionizing radiation.”

    Departments of Health Physics are integral parts of national laboratories such as Argonne National Laboratory, the first or one of the first national atomic energy commission laboratory established after world war two. It is twenty five miles southwest of Chicago where I spent large portions of more than a dozen consecutive summers working and collaborating on basic research.

    Which isotopes of radium are the most radioactive? How does radium have the most impact on health?
    How does it have the most impact on people, through drinking water or on becoming concentrated in the food chain? If so why and how?

    Curiosity is important and I am curious.

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