EPA Sees Risks to Water, Workers in New York Fracking Rules

Joaquin Sapien
ProPublica / News Report
Published: Saturday 14 January 2012
Industry and green groups have split over the DEC’s proposed regulations, with drillers saying they are too restrictive and environmentalists contending they don’t go far enough.
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New York's emerging plan to regulate natural gas drilling in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale needs to go further to safeguard drinking water, environmentally sensitive areas and gas industry workers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has informed state officials.

The EPA's comments, in a series of letters this week to the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, are significant because they suggest the agency will be watching closely as states in the Northeast and Midwest embrace new drilling technologies to tap vast reserves of shale gas.

New York is in the forefront of the shale gas boom and has been working on regulations for more than three years. Judith Enck, the EPA regional administrator who issued the agency comments, noted that New York "will help set the pace for improved safeguards across the country."

The EPA's comments are among 20,000 the state has received on its proposed plan to regulate the environmental effects of drilling. Many of the EPA's comments focus on how the state DEC will handle the chemically tainted wastewater from the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

To free the gas trapped in the Marcellus and other shale formations, drillers pump millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground under pressure. The wastewater can get into drinking water by being disposed of at sewage treatment plants, the EPA wrote.

As ProPublica first reported in 2009, these plants don't typically have the equipment necessary to detect and treat the chemicals in drilling wastewater. Plant operators who accept drilling wastewater simply dilute it with regular sewage and then discharge it into water bodies. DEC wastewater samples had levels of radioactive elements thousands of times higher than drinking water limits, ProPublica reported.

In its comments, the EPA pointed out that New York's current permitting system for water treatment plants doesn't include limits on pollutants frequently contained in drilling wastewater, such as radionuclides, which can cause cancer at high levels.

The EPA said it needs to be more closely involved in analyzing and approving any treatment plant's application to accept drilling wastewater. And while the DEC's proposed rules suggest limits on radioactive elements such as radium, the EPA said it's not clear who would be "responsible for addressing the potential health and safety issues" related to radiation exposure.

The EPA also flagged health risks to workers close to wastewater and other potentially radioactive materials, like the large amounts of soil and mud unearthed by drilling. "At a minimum, the human health risks to the site workers from radon and its decay products should be assessed along with the associated treatment technologies such as aeration systems or holding for decay," the agency wrote.

The EPA raised concerns about the sheer amount of wastewater. To deal with the excess water, the DEC listed a number of out-of-state treatment plants as potential recipients, but the EPA warned that several of the plants probably don't have the capacity to handle more wastewater.

ProPublica reported that neighboring Pennsylvania became overwhelmed by drilling wastewater after the state embraced the industry. The Monongahela River, which provides drinking water to 350,000 people, became contaminated with drilling salts and minerals.

The EPA letters are the latest in a series of federal moves to tighten oversight of gas drilling. In December, the agency scientifically linked underground water pollution to hydraulic fracturing for the first time. Last August, the EPA announced that it would develop its own rules on wastewater disposal instead of leaving it up to states.

Industry and green groups have split over the DEC's proposed regulations, with drillers saying they are too restrictive and environmentalists contending they don't go far enough. Meantime, the EPA has launched a comprehensive review of the environmental impacts of hydrofracking.

In August, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens told ProPublica that he didn't think there would be much to learn from the EPA study and that the state was far ahead of the federal agency in its response to drilling.



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ABOUT Joaquin Sapien

Joaquin Sapien has focused on environmental issues since he joined ProPublica in May 2008. In 2009 he was part of a team whose work on natural gas drilling won the Society of Professional Journalists award for online non-deadline investigative reporting. From 2005 until 2008 he was a reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, where he led a year-long investigative project, “Superfund’s Toxic Legacy,” which received the 2007 Society of Professional Journalists award for non-deadline online reporting. Before joining CPI, Sapien wrote for Environmental Media Services.

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4 comments on "EPA Sees Risks to Water, Workers in New York Fracking Rules"

aligatorhardt

January 15, 2012 7:45am

I commend the EPA for taking action on this very important issue. Water contamination is permanent. Under ground aquifers cannot be "cleaned up". The gas will be burned up quickly, but the water must be usable for ever.

JayDee

January 17, 2012 11:14am

I lived in the wilds of the Finger Lakes for more than ten years and enjoyed some of the best well water known to Americans. I reckon it's lost now. I grew up in the western parts of NYS fifty years ago when the rivers and streams (even the might Mohawk and Hudson) ran blue one day, green the next, thanks to industry dumping massive amounts of waste directly into our bodies of water. Then came environmentalism, thanks to the liberals of the 60's and 70's, and for thirty years the state was at least going in the right direction. The industries, of course, all moved to Dixie where they were still allowed to poison surface water - which they then proceeded to do (eg. the Pigeon River in NC). Now, thanks to 30 years of "conservative" rule (conserving what? Certainly not natural resources!) we're going back in the other direction, to the days when our country's waterways were toilets. It's not coincidence: whatever the current ills and crimes of modern liberalism, American political conservatism is just plain evil. ANYTHING for profit, including killing people.

Deborah Barnes

January 15, 2012 7:30am

There is no safe contamination level here. Waste water is a problem, but so is the "escape water" that will leak from the drill zone and contaminate aquifers. We do not know these underground systems, so cannot predict the potential for catastrophe. Like nuclear, it is not in the best interest of "life." We are not alone on this planet and it is time we recognized our dependency on other life forms. This need outweighs our "need" for McMansions and plastic shoes. Our manmade tools are inadequate and our system's beliefs are based on old skool science and ideology; together they are just wrong!

The whole of "civilization" is wising up and looking to heal our collective wounds. When the risks outweigh the long term positive, when we know we need to turn from planet rape and align with nature's gifts -solar, geothermal, wind- then why are we still playing as fools? When we focus on developing things for the potential of all beings we will change the paradigm, we will cut off the source of dis-ease and thrive. Why not risk amazing possibility, why not risk losing fear and distortion?

& i agree with Jeffrey- Gasland is a def must see!

Jeffrey Hill

January 14, 2012 5:05pm

I received e-mail job alerts from Halliburton for chemical engineers to frack the Marcellus shale for natural gas a little while ago.
Right above the "Jobs" section was "Halliburton Scandal" so I clicked on it to find an admission that everywhere that Halliburton had fracked shale for natural gas, they contaminated ground and surface water.
(Former Republican Pa. Governor and Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge was hired as their consultant, and he advised them to be honest and open with the people of Pennsylvania, but that was a little too honest and open.)

Pennsylvania is the 1st and only place where "treated" toxic acid frack soup is allowed to be directly discharged into streams and rivers. Downstream communities pump it out, chlorinate it making it thousands of times more toxic, and drink it. It's the height of idiocy.
(The ingredients of acid frack soup are a proprietary secret and so is the supposed "treatment" process.).

Halliburton pays a $400.00/week bonus to blowback "water" handlers because the work is extremely unhealthy due to the radioactive (radon in shale), carcinogenic, mutagenic, and teratogenic nature of the so-called "water'.
Young, unknowledgeable, unsuspecting, uneducated men are hired to do the hazardously unhealthy work.
They may have a rude awakening when they lose their health and then their fracking jobs because they'll be without health insurance and that $20,000/yr. bonus money won't begin to pay for cancer treatments if they bother to save it rather than spend it.

Pennsylvania doesn't tax the wealth extracted from the ground by the natural gas frackers because our governor and state legislature are Republican, and they don't require the posting of bond by the frackers for any possible environmenmtal damage they may do either.
Self-policing is the rule in Pennsylvania for the frackers.

Pennsylvania's state Dept. of Fatherland Security during the Rendell administration had Wackenhut compile lists of citizens who publicly spoke out against the fracking of the Marcellus shale for natural gas and labelled them "environmental terrorists".
Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell feigned ignorance of this fact when confronted by the news media about it.

The frackers are turning every bore hole into a dangerous Superfund-eligible hazardous industrial chemical waste dump (like Hooker Chemical's infamous Love Canal near Buffalo).
The Cheney Exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act allows this stupidity, irresponsibility, and criminality.
Al Qaeda terrorists in their wildest wet dreams couldn't poison our drinking water supplies like the frackers are doing.

I highly recommend that everyone watch Josh Fox's award-winning dvd entitled "Gasland" if you value your drinking water quality.