The American landscape is dotted with
hundreds of thousands of new wells and drilling rigs, as the country scrambles
to tap into this century’s gold rush — for natural gas.
The gas has always been there, of course,
trapped deep underground in countless tiny bubbles, like frozen spills of
seltzer water between thin layers of shale rock. But drilling companies have
only in recent years developed techniques to unlock the enormous reserves,
thought to be enough to supply the country with gas for heating buildings,
generating electricity and powering vehicles for up to a hundred years.
So energy companies are clamoring to drill.
And they are getting rare support from their usual sparring partners.
Environmentalists say using natural gas will help slow climate change
because it burns more cleanly than coal and oil. Lawmakers hail the gas as a source of
jobs. They also see it as a way to wean the United States from its dependency
on other countries for oil.
But the relatively new drilling method —
known as high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking —
carries significant environmental risks. It involves injecting huge amounts of
water, mixed with sand and chemicals, at high pressures to break up rock
formations and release the gas.
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.
That has experts worried.
“We’re burning the furniture to heat the
house,” said John H. Quigley, who left last month as secretary of
Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “In shifting
away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re
producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally
occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly
handling this waste.”
The risks are particularly severe in
Pennsylvania, which has seen a sharp increase in drilling, with roughly 71,000
active gas wells, up from about 36,000 in 2000. The level of radioactivity in
the wastewater has sometimes been hundreds or even thousands of times the
maximum allowed by the federal standard for drinking water. While people
clearly do not drink drilling wastewater, the reason to use the drinking-water
standard for comparison is that there is no comprehensive federal standard for what
constitutes safe levels of radioactivity in drilling wastewater.
Drillers trucked at least half of this waste
to public sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania in 2008 and 2009, according
to state officials. Some of it has been sent to other states, including New
York and West
Yet sewage treatment plant operators say they
are far less capable of removing radioactive contaminants than most other toxic
substances. Indeed, most of these facilities cannot remove enough of the
radioactive material to meet federal drinking-water standards before
discharging the wastewater into rivers, sometimes just miles upstream from
drinking-water intake plants.
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