The Next Drilling Disaster?
When a well is fracked—each well is generally fracked up to ten times—between 15 and 40 percent of the mix flows back to the surface. Companies operating in the Marcellus, which is naturally radioactive, must find a way to dispose of thousands of gallons of water, toxic chemicals, brine and radium. There are several ways things can go wrong, Horwitt says. Fluids can be spilled during transport, they can travel underground through natural or man-made fractures, or they can contaminate nearby areas if they're not stored properly.
There are many ways to dispose of the stuff: injection wells, evaporation pits, wastewater treatment plants and dumping, which are allowed by industry exemptions from environmental laws. Companies choose which method to use based on the amount of waste they have and the resources available, says Lee Fuller, a top lobbyist for the Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).
Injection wells, which were recently linked as a possible cause of minor earthquakes in fracking towns along the Texas Barnett Shale, aren't being used in Dimock, according to Switzer. But she says that companies dump waste into creeks and ponds, or into pits lined with thin plastic. Pits that are not lined will eventually leach into groundwater, and pits that are lined can easily tear, leak and have the same effect, says Colborn. Even those that are properly sealed can still release dangerous gases into the air. In recent years, she explains, hydrofracking in Wyoming has raised ozone levels, which can lead to serious respiratory problems. A resident-funded health survey and air quality study in the tiny drilling town of Dish, Texas, revealed dangerously high levels of benzene, toluene and xylene in the air.
Walter Hang, a toxicologist who runs a web-based toxics mapping company in Ithaca, New York, worries that the current infrastructure can't handle the scale of these operations. "Anytime you have industrial activity, you're going to have problems—there's no way around it," he says. "You have tremendous volumes of wastewater, you have thousands of truck trips, and it's really heavy-duty." Hydrofracking requires millions of gallons of chemically treated water to be on site at all times. And wastewater plants can't handle fracking fluids properly, says Hang, because there is such a high concentration of chemicals and radioactivity.
In an effort to prevent their communities from becoming the next Dimock or Dish, New York state officials have held off on opening the Marcellus to drilling, pending a review. Late last year, the state's Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released a draft environmental impact statement, which aimed to supplement drilling regulations that have been in place since 1992. The two-month public comment period drew about 14,000 comments, including some from the EPA, the Natural Resources Defense Council and elected officials. Comments are still under review, and a final version of the draft will likely be released in the fall.
The issue is of particular concern to residents in New York City and Syracuse, two of a small number of US cities with a special permit to provide unfiltered surface water for drinking. Drilling in upstate watersheds could place the cities' water supplies at risk and create the need to build billion-dollar water treatment plants. In April the DEC announced that any Marcellus drill permits within the New York City and Skaneateles Lake (Syracuse) watersheds will undergo a separate, far more rigorous environmental review.
It's a step in the right direction, says State Senator Tom Duane, but it's a potentially divisive move for New York. As Duane sees it, residents of New York City and Syracuse are protected from the stress and destruction of hydrofracking, but those in rural upstate areas remain vulnerable.
Duane and State Assembly member James Brennan introduced twin bills earlier in the year that seek to put a two-year hold on issuing permits and ban drilling within certain distances to drinking water supplies. It's his mission, Duane says, to deter—if not ban—drilling in the state, as any revenues from drilling would quickly be eaten up by road repair and other costs. "I don't believe that there's a way to safely do hydraulic fracturing," he says. "I'm skeptical that you could ever find a way, but I don't want to say that it's impossible."
Similar concerns have been bubbling up at the federal level. Last summer Colorado Democratic Representatives Diana DeGette and Jared Polis, along with New York Democrat Maurice Hinchey, introduced the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act, which aims to close the Halliburton Loophole and revive the EPA's power to regulate or prohibit fracking fluids. Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey signed on as the Senate sponsor. After the twin bills were introduced, they were sent to California Democrat Henry Waxman, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, who opened an investigation in February. On Hinchey's request, the EPA launched its own investigation. (New York State Assembly member Steven Englebright introduced a bill in April to ban hydrofracking in the state until the EPA finishes its study.)
The federal push to regulate hydrofracking may have gotten an unexpected boost in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon explosion. "The situation in the Gulf of Mexico is a grave reminder of the dangers posed by energy extraction," Casey says. "Natural gas drilling in Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania has the potential to be a great economic boon for the Commonwealth. But we must take the proper steps to make sure it is done in a way that benefits Pennsylvanians and protects drinking water. Pennsylvania can reap the benefits and not be left with the burden on our infrastructure, health and safety." Hinchey agrees that the offshore oil spill should prompt legislators to pay more attention to drilling on land. "Drilling is important, the production of energy materials is important," he says. "But it's also critically important that it be done carefully and effectively in ways that are not going to be harmful."