Major New York Times Expose on Fracking

By Chris Mooney | February 26, 2011 7:47 pm

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.


Comments (8)

  1. Grab a Geiger Counter and use its unshielded snout to do a field survey:

    1) Wallboard. Superphosphate fertilizer manufacture outputs enormous amounts of gypsum, then used to make wallboard. Phosphate rock sequesters uranium, thorium, and decay daughters. They ride along with calcium into gypsum waste.

    2) Granite counter tops. Granite is hot. Hot granite has amazingly hot hot spots.

    3) Water softener resin. Last loop polishing resins from nuclear plants are resold in the civilian market as water softening resins. Co-60 is a typical contaminant.

    4) Concrete, as in sidewalks and laundry basins.

    5) Rebar. All sorts of hot stuff makes its way into rebar from scrap recycle.

    6) Dirt on CRT screens. At the end of the viewing day wipe a classical CRT TV screen with a slightly damp folded paper towel and snuggle that against the detector.

    7) Potassium chloride salt substitute. A seemingly innocent pile of white crystals runs more than double background count.

  2. Anthony McCarthy

    This issue really brings out the industry sockpuppets.

  3. Kevin Sunday

    I wouldn’t put too much stock into a story that relies on “never-reported” and “never made public” studies. Studies which the author fails to mention the full title and source from so that no one can verify that these studies were ever conducted. There is not one attributed quote from an EPA official in this story.

  4. Chris Mooney

    @3 guess you don’t like investigative journalism then

  5. Gaythia

    I prefer the reporting here:

    Key points:

    “Pennsylvania has been the only state allowing waterways to serve as the primary disposal place for the huge amounts of wastewater produced by a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.”

    “Several studies are under way, some under the auspices of the Environmental Protection Agency.”

    “Of the roughly six million barrels of well liquids produced in a 12-month period, the state couldn’t account for the disposal method for 1.28 million barrels, about a fifth of the total, due to a weakness in its reporting system and incomplete filings by some energy companies.”

    “In 2009 and part of 2010, energy company Cabot Oil & Gas trucked more than 44,000 barrels of well wastewater to a treatment facility in Colmar, Montgomery County. Those liquids were then discharged through the town sewage plant into the Neshaminy Creek, which winds through Bucks and Montgomery counties on its way to the Delaware River.

    Regulators put a stop to the practice in June, but the more than 300,000 residents of the 17 municipalities that get water from the creek or use it for recreation were never informed that numerous public pronouncements that the watershed was free of gas waste had been wrong.”

    In the NYT piece cited in the post above, I especially dislike the sentence:
    “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.” because I do not think that anything can be described as “fully diluted”, only diluted to some detectable level, or below some detection limit.

  6. Don

    At low flow and with heavy sediment load rivers mix more slowly than at high flow, so the problem created by dumping this radioactive waste into the rivers is greater in summer than in winter. With slower mixing, the slug moves farther down stream as a unit. One might look at where the radioactive waste was put into the rivers relative to the straws downstream where drinking water was removed.

  7. Simon

    Re: Uncle Al-
    I don’t eat wallboard, granite, concrete, rebar, potassium chloride in lieu of real table salt (if I can help it) or lick the dirt off of CRT screens. I don’t use a water softener. But, guess what, I do drink water.

  8. Carolynr

    This is not entirely true. This is not everything that you need to know about oil fracking. Did any of you look into the technology being used by GasFrac Energy in Canada and now an office in Texas. They do not use HYDRO fracking which would be a concern. They use propane, a gaseous force (used for home heating, cooking, etc.) and is 100% RECOVERABLE along with all the oil from the shale. No environmental impact. Here is an green site for you. They currently have wells in PA.


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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