The New York Times and reporter Ian Urbina dropped a serious bomb on the fracking industry over the weekend with the first installment of a series of reports entitled Drilling Down.

Urbina’s story is the first must-read of the year when it comes to energy and environmental reporting. It reveals all sorts of damning nuggets about fracking in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Colorado. I think anyone who cares about energy production should take a look. Here are a few highlights or, in this case, lowlights:

1. Radioactive material found in water

Wastewater is a major part of the fracking process. Millions of gallons of toxic water mixtures are necessary for the extraction of natural gas, and once the gas is extracted something has to be done with all that waste. The problem, according to the Times, is that the wastewater has been frequently found to contain amounts of radiation hundreds and sometimes thousands of times higher than what the federal government allows. This radioactive wastewater may be getting into drinking water because it is often hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and “discharged into rivers that supply drinking water.” That’s not good, even if you are a fan of the three-eyed fish from The Simpsons.


2. The EPA hasn’t done much

For everyone in Congress who has been clamoring to reduce the power of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Urbina piece reveals that the agency has been relatively powerless when it comes to fracking. The story alludes to several documents and interviews that “alarmed” EPA scientists, but were never made public. These findings included the revelation that many sewage treatment plants simply couldn’t remove the contaminants from the toxic fracking fluids. Perhaps even more damning is that scientists and consultants with the EPA have known about the radioactive problem since 2006 and have apparently not made much of an effort to call for testing for radioactivity. (The fracking boom began in 2008.) That’s not good, even if you are a fan of water that glows in the dark.

3. Concerns out West

Most of the Urbina story focused on Pennsylvania, which was described as “ground zero” for the fracking industry. While this is certainly true, the story did make some interesting and scary connections to the heavily fracked states of Colorado and Wyoming. As someone who has spent a few years in both states, I wasn’t surprised. But I was still disappointed to read, “In a sparsely populated Sublette County in Wyoming, which has some of the highest concentrations of wells, vapors reacting to sunlight have contributed to levels of ozone higher than those recorded in Houston and Los Angeles.” From my few trips to Sublette County, I can tell you that there isn’t much that it has in common with Los Angeles or Houston. The ozone connection is not a good one to make, even if you are a fan of awesome sunburns.   

4. The natural gas industry doesn’t seem to care

While it’s easy to point to flaws in the regulatory process and within the EPA, let’s not ignore the industry that is doing this. I couldn’t help but notice that throughout the NY Times story, it seemed the industry not only knew about these serious concerns but kept operating despite them. An industry study going back to 1990 stated that “'using conservative assumptions,’ radium in drilling wastewater dumped off the Louisiana coast posed ‘potentially significant risks’ of cancer for people who eat fish from those waters regularly." This is of concern because radium may not just be getting into water in places like Pennsylvania, but also the food chain, as livestock is likely to ingest radium. Therefore anyone who eats that livestock may be exposed to the carcinogen. There are also several other instances of information that the industry was privy to in this report, followed by explanations of how they are not concerned. Perhaps most concerning of all is this statement that reveals how much regulators are depending on the very industry they are regulating for information. “’If we’re too hard on them,’ the inspector added, ‘the companies might just stop reporting their mistakes.’”

So there you have it — a few lowlights from a very depressing article. However, perhaps this is the beginning of getting energy right. You have to know what’s wrong before you can fix it. There’s certainly a lot wrong, but with accountability and transparency perhaps we can get it right. That’s a start.

Also on MNN: What is fracking?

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