This opinion piece was written for Earthjustice and is reprinted here with permission.
The recent New York Times investigation into the dangers posed to our air and water by fracking is a must-read. The meat of the investigation deals with radioactive material in wastewater from the fracking process and its possible migration into our lakes and rivers. The paper's findings are alarming to say the least, here are just a few:
• At least 12 sewage treatment plants in three states accepted gas industry wastewater and discharged waste that was only partly treated into rivers, lakes and streams.
• Of more than 179 wells producing wastewater with high levels of radiation, at least 116 reported levels of radium or other radioactive materials 100 times as high as the levels set by federal drinking-water standards. At least 15 wells produced wastewater carrying more than 1,000 times the amount of radioactive elements considered acceptable.
In late 2009, Earthjustice Managing Attorney Deborah Goldberg got wind of a backroom deal that would allow a new industrial wastewater treatment plant to dump untreated gas drilling wastewater straight into Pennsylvania’s Monongahela River -- the drinking water supply for 350,000 people. Since then she has been representing Clean Water Action in an appeal challenging the secret agreement.
“We know that Pennsylvania is facing enormous pressure from gas drillers who are generating contaminated water faster than the state’s treatment plants can handle it,” Goldberg told reporters at the time. “Still, the health of the 350,000 people who depend on the Monongahela River for their drinking water should come first. We’re asking the State not to skimp on its due diligence.”
We were able to stop the proposed discharge – forcing the plant operator to treat the wastewater and send it back to the field for reuse by gas drillers. As a result, not a drop of gas wastes has been discharged into the river from the plant. Unfortunately, the environmental agency charged with protecting water quality is capitulating to industry pressure and is considering a new deal – still not available to the public – that would allow discharges in violation of legal requirements. Earthjustice is gearing up for renewed litigation.
As a second article in the Times points out, Pennsylvania does not have a handle on tracking recycled drilling wastewater – meaning that it can still end up in drinking water supplies.
The simple truth is that officials in Pennsylvania and many other states have a lot of work to do before they can truly say they are doing everything they can to protect residents from the health impacts of the gas drilling boom.