After the New York Times recently published an expose on the environmental dangers posed by hydraulic fracturing as a result of lax government regulations on the industry, two members of the House of Representatives have written letters to the Environmental Protection Agency requesting immediate action to address the health risks related to natural gas drilling.
Natural gas has been recognized as an alternative to other fossil fuels by environmentalists and oil and gas executives alike. Environmentalists agree that natural gas burns cleaner than both oil and coal. Meanwhile, oil and gas executives state the United States' bountiful supply of natural gas, coupled with technology capable of extracting it quickly, offer the country a new path toward energy independence.
Hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking," has picked up steam in energy markets across the world. Although the industry's momentum may not growing anywhere as quickly as it is in the United States. Home to a large portion of the Marcellus Shale, Pennsylvania has been referred to as the Saudi Arabia of natural gas. Active drilling wells in the state have doubled over the last decade, growing from 36,000 in 2000 to 71,000 in 2011. It appears this is just the beginning of the growth, the New York Times' report states drilling companies were issued close to 3,300 drilling permits in Pennsylvania last year, up from 117 in 2007.
Growing along side voices clamouring about natural gas' immense potential as energy source, have been voices decrying fracking as an incredible environmental and human health threat. The debate has grown to a fever pitch, with city and state government's instituting temporary drilling moratoriums, politicians and industry groups claiming regulations are too stiff, and filmmakers and journalists increasingly exploring the topic.
The data compiled by the New York Times is hard to deny. Using hydraulic fracturing technology, a natural gas well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often littered with toxic and radioactive elements. A growing industry practice is for this wastewater to be transported to waste treatment centers which are not designed to treat its contaminants. These plants treat the wastewater and then pump it back into nearby water systems -- sometimes upstream from drinking water intake plants.
Citing several documents, including never-published studies from the EPA, the New York Times highlights that the wastewater being injected into rivers and other waterways has a toxin level which is sometimes hundreds and even thousands of times greater than drinking water standards. In 2009, EPA scientists sent a letter to New York state regulators advising that sewage treatment centers should not accept drilling waste with radium levels higher than 12 times the standards for drinking water.
Even more, despite knowledge that sewage treatment plants are incapable of removing certain radioactive materials such as radium to the point where they do not pose a threat, the EPA has not instated stiff testing regulations on sewage treatment plants or stiff regulations on how the industry must dispose of its drilling waste.
Representatives Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) and Maurice Hinchey (D-New York) have said this negligence must stop immediately. Rep. Markey has called for the EPA to provide all documents relating to the adequacy of technology at wastewater treatment centers to remove toxins found in fracking dilling waste; all documents relating to reports of the actual discharges of toxic substances found in wastewater produced from fracking in from wastewater facilities; and finally, all documents relating to reports of drinking water contamination from radium or other toxins found in hydraulic fracturing drilling wastewater.
Rep. Hinchey says the EPA should require states to monitor radioactivity levels of all drinking water intakes located close to wastewater treatment centers that accept hydraulic fracturing drilling waste. Additionally, he says he intends to introduce legislation which will allow the government to provide proper over-sight of the full life-cycle of hydraulic fracturing.
In conclusion of his letter, Rep. Markey states, "I do not believe that the price for energy extracted from deep beneath the earth's surface should include a risk to the halth of thos who live above it. I am outraged that state and federal regulators were evidently well aware of the risks that the wastewater might pose, but instead chose to adopt a 'see no evil, hear no evil' approach to regulation by ignoring them."
Image credit: Ruhrfisch via Wikimedia Commons
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