" may not have won any Oscars Sunday night, but the New York Times is keeping the film's message alive by launching a new investigative series, "Drilling Down," that studies the risks of natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking. In its first installment, the Times focuses on the millions of gallons of wastewater produced by a single gas well — and the rivers where this toxic slurry often ends up.
Fracking is a way to extract natural gas from deep, dense deposits of shale rock, which mining companies once considered impenetrable. The process involves pumping pressurized fluids underground to loosen up the bedrock, and then pumping them back up to the surface. That can get the gas flowing more freely, and most of the wastewater is then trucked off-site for disposal. Residents who live near gas-drilling areas have long worried about lost wastewater and methane contaminating their groundwater, but the Times also highlights another threat: wastewater that often finds its way to rivers, including some that provide cities with drinking water. And even though the recent zeal for natural gas is driven partly by a desire to fight climate change — since it emits less carbon dioxide than coal or oil — energy experts point out the trade-offs may be larger than many people realize. "We're burning the furniture to heat the house," says the former 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."
Radioactivity is one of the biggest — and least understood — dangers lurking in this wastewater, often overlooked amid concerns about other ingredients, such as corrosive salts or carcinogens like benzene. The Times cites EPA findings as well as one confidential industry study, all of which conclude that radioactive wastewater can't be completely diluted in rivers. Yet that's where it's often discharged, even in rivers that supply drinking water. Meanwhile, the Times reports, federal and state regulators allow most sewage-treatment plants that process drilling waste not to test for radioactivity. As one state inspector in Pennsylvania explains, the problem is that gas drilling has outpaced regulators' resources. "We simply can't keep up," the inspector tells the Times. "There's just too much of the waste."
Two Discovery astronauts are scheduled to take a six-hour spacewalk outside the International Space Station today, performing a range of repairs and upgrades as they prepare the station for life after NASA. The U.S. space agency is winding down its shuttle program to focus on big-picture missions, leaving the job of space-station maintenance to commercial firms like SpaceX
. This is Discovery's final mission into orbit, and will be followed by two more later this year: the shuttle Endeavour is slated for its last flight in April, followed by Atlantis' swan song this summer.
Astronauts Steve Bowen and Alvin Drew prepared for today's spacewalk by holding a 14-hour "campout" in the space station's Quest airlock, which NASA explains was to help their bodies adjust to the stresses of space. "The airlock's atmospheric pressure will be lowered to help purge nitrogen from Bowen and Drew's bloodstreams, protecting them from 'the bends' when they leave the airlock for the vacuum of space," the agency said in a statement. The duo will install a power extension cable, move a malfunctioning ammonia pump and perform various other chores during their spacewalk. On Tuesday, Discovery's crew will begin another daunting task, attaching the permanent "Leonardo" module to the space station, creating a place for experiments in fluid physics, materials science, biotechnology and other areas.
Discovery is the most heavily traveled of all NASA shuttles, having spent 352 days in orbit and circled the Earth 5,628 times during its tenure. The 246 crew members it has carried are also more than any other spacecraft in history. Discovery was the first shuttle to dock with any space station, when it linked with Russia's now-defunct Mir space station in 1998. It also performed the inaugural hookup with the current International Space Station, first docking with the ISS on May, 29, 1999. As astronaut Steven Swanson said after last week's liftoff, it won't be easy for NASA to say goodbye to such a reliable shuttle. "In a way, it's ... sad to see the last flight," Swanson said Thursday. "It's such a wonderful vehicle."
Turtles and tortoises are now the planet's most endangered type of vertebrate animals, according to a new report by a coalition of turtle conservation groups. More than half of the 328 turtle and tortoise species face the threat of extinction, the report warns, as the shelled reptiles increasingly fall victim to Chinese medicine, the international pet trade, local water pollution and habitat loss. Without a large-scale effort to save them, the 25 most endangered varieties are forecast to die off within a few decades.
The problem is most pronounced in Asia, where 17 of the 25 most endangered turtles live. "For example, in just one market in Dhaka, Bangladesh, close to 100,000 wild caught turtles are butchered for consumption during a one-day religious holiday each year," the report states. "Furthering the problem is a lucrative international black market trade in pet turtles and tortoises that has escalated prices of some of the more rare species into the tens of thousands of dollars. Rumors even exist that some of the rarest Asian species are now commanding prices in the hundreds of thousands of dollars." Up to 54 percent of all known turtle and tortoise species are considered to be at risk, placing the reptiles above other vertebrates like birds, mammals, fish and even amphibians, which are typically thought to be among the most endangered animals.
The report highlights several species that have been reduced to just a handful of holdouts, including its No. 1 most endangered type, the Pinta Island tortoise. It's one of the species that helped inspire Charles Darwin's theory of natural selection, but today only one individual remains alive, a male named "Lonesome George." "Ironically, Darwin and other travelers often ate many of the islands' tortoises and released rats, goats and other animals," the report mentions, "which significantly contributed to their decline."
A polluted lake in China was recently the setting for a bizarre scene, according to the news website What's On Xiamen: Tens of thousands of shrimp leaping out of the water "as if they were trying to commit suicide." The apparently suicidal crustaceans were spotted in the act during the early-morning hours last Thursday, and by midday, most of them were found dead.
"When I went past Yanwu Lake at about 6:40 a.m., thousands of shrimp were jumping out of the lake and even onto the lakeshore," a security guard at a nearby building tells the website. "However, the phenomenon didn't last long as the shrimp died soon afterward." Many residents from surrounding neighborhoods reportedly rushed to the scene, hoping to cash in on the oddity by collecting dead shrimp to eat. But while it remains unclear whether shrimp are actually capable of committing suicide, experts tell What's On Xiamen the animals may have had a reasonable motive: The water in Yanwu Lake is believed to be polluted, creating a "dead zone" of depleted oxygen where shrimp likely couldn't breathe.
Such dead zones are common in rivers, bays and other water bodies around the world, including major U.S. ones in the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay. They're typically caused by agricultural runoff that contains fertilizers, which feed giant algae blooms. As these algae die and sink underwater, they're consumed by tiny microbes that also consume oxygen, robbing many fish, shrimp and other animals of much-needed air to breathe. While the exact condition of Yanwu Lake's water quality remains ambiguous, experts say it's probably not a good idea to eat shrimp that seem to have committed suicide.
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Photo (Discovery docking with space station): NASA
Photo (desert tortoise): U.S. Geological Survey
Photo (shrimp): John Foxx/Getty Images