Environment

Major New York Times Expose on Fracking

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyFeb 27, 2011 12:47 AM

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Did I say this issue was heating up, or what? A series on the environmental risks of fracking has just begun in the Times; the first installment is here. It focuses on a less discussed issue than flammable tap water--so central to Gasland--although one wonders if a piece on that topic is still forthcoming from the Times. In any case, the current article is about wastewater from the fracking process, which apparently contains lots of radioactive material and is being sent to water treatment plants which (the piece claims) can't handle that material, or adequately remove it before it ends up in waterways. If what the Times says is true, this is the sort of expose that is going to cause an uproar. The central paragraphs from the piece:

With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself. While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood. The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle. Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law. The Times also found never-reported studies by the E.P.A. and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways. But the E.P.A. has not intervened. In fact, federal and state regulators are allowing most sewage treatment plants that accept drilling waste not to test for radioactivity. And most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008. In other words, there is no way of guaranteeing that the drinking water taken in by all these plants is safe.

You can read the full expose here.

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