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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Strict Regulations Needed To Protect Marcellus Shale Regions

By Theodora Filis

Responding to an investigative article published by The New York Times, February 26, 2011, on the high incidence of radioactive materials and other contaminants in the wastes produced from natural gas extraction, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) questioned the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on its oversight of these extractive practices.

The New York Times found that upon completion of drilling, gas companies dispose of the used hydraulic fracturing water at municipal waste-water plants that are incapable of filtering the naturally existing radioactive substances that are dug up and mixed in with fracturing water in the drilling process. The end result is waste-water plants releasing treated water into rivers and other waterways that are public sources of drinking water as well as fish that are used for food.

These disturbing revelations raise the prospect that natural gas production has turned our rivers and streams into this generation’s ‘Love Canals,’” said Rep. Markey in separate comments. “The natural gas industry has repeatedly claimed that fracking can be done safely. We now know we need a full investigation into exactly how fracking is done and what it does to our drinking water and our environment. Americans should not have to consume radioactive materials from their drinking water as a byproduct of natural gas production.”

Gas drilling is regulated independently by each state, often leading to inconsistent regulations and environmental protections, common concerns about each states oversight of gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) exist across the Marcellus Shale region.

Agencies overseeing the drilling process do not currently have sufficient funding and staffing to inspect and monitor gas wells, and baseline data on water quality and soil chemistry is not required to be collected prior to issuing a permit for gas drilling.

Without this information, it is very hard to determine if fracking is the source of water pollution, and even more difficult to hold drilling companies accountable for contamination.

Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Virginia do not have comprehensive statewide regulations and monitoring programs to determine how much water can be or is being taken from streams, rivers, lakes and the ground for hydraulic fracturing.

Without these basic rules, regulatory agencies cannot sufficiently determine the cumulative impacts on water resources, aquatic life and habitat from gas drilling an hydraulic fracturing.

The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act was written to eliminate the so-called 2005 Halliburton exemption, which prevents the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) from regulating fracking through the Safe Drinking Water Act. The legislation would also require the disclosure of chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process.

Last week, Pennsylvania regulators called on Marcellus Shale natural-gas drillers to stop sending waste water to 15 treatment plants, citing an increased risk of contaminating public drinking water supplies.

"Now is the time to take action to end this practice," Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) acting Secretary Michael Krancer, said in a statement April 19, 2011.

DEP's action comes as the EPA and activists step up pressure to increase regulation of the shale-gas boom, including the massive volumes of toxic waste-water produced by the hydraulic fracturing process.

Regulators and the industry say they recognized several years ago that the disposal options were unsustainable, and the industry developed recycling techniques that allow the waste-water to be used in new wells. Waste-water can also be treated in energy-intensive distillation plants that concentrate the toxins in a heavy brine, which is sent to injection wells.

"Amidst growing concern by the public and increased scrutiny by the media, we are happy to see DEP finally take these critical steps to once and for all stop dangerous, under-treated Marcellus Shale waste-water from entering our waterways and drinking water supplies," said Erika Staaf, a spokeswoman for the PennEnvironment advocacy group.