Big storms and fracking: what's at stake?

Here in Washington, D.C. the winds are fast, furious, and loud as we await the brunt of Hurricane Sandy. Winds have been clocked up to 90 mph as the storm hits land with the lowest pressure ever recorded in the northeast. Images of a crane dangling off a Manhattan skyscraper are as scary as the reports that flooding will occur as far north as Vermont and New Hampshire.

West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and eastern Ohio are all expected to be hit by the storm. What could it mean for fracking sites in the Marcellus shale?

One of the greatest risks at these sites are spills and what is called "stormwater runoff." 

Under the Clean Water Act, there is something called the Spill Prevention, Control, and Countermeasure (SPCC) rule which includes requirements for oil spill prevention, preparedness, and response to prevent oil discharges to navigable waters and adjoining shorelines. The rule requires specific facilities to prepare, amend, and implement spill prevention plans. Sounds like a no-brainer. But in Fiscal Year 2011, EPA officials visited 120 sites oil and gas development sites and found 105 were out of compliance-- 87.5%. (Note: these do not have to be oil production sites. For example, natural gas pads may have enough fuel for drill rigs stored on site to trigger this requirement.)

Almost every single oil and gas site inspected lacked a mandatory spill prevention plan meant to protect our rivers and streams. This is an unacceptable flouting of our environmental laws.

In addition to a spill prevention plan, oil and gas companies should have something called a Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan. During a rainstorm, flowing water can pick up pollutants along the way, including toxic materials like fracking chemicals or fracking waste. Most companies are required by the Clean Water Act to get a stormwater permit by submitting a Storm Water Pollution Prevention Plan outlining precautions the company will take to avoid illegal discharge of pollutants and impacts to nearby rivers and streams. Ensuring prevention of stormwater run-off is not rocket science. It requires simple measures such as sufficient berms and containment systems. But the oil and gas industry is exempt from having to get a permit for uncontaminated stormwater discharges, which means regulators do not have to approve a pollution prevention plan--or even see if a company really has one for each site.

This is all increasingly terrifying as Sandy bears down on the Marcellus region, where there are many open pits filled with fracking and related waste. Because the oil and gas industry is also exempt from our hazardous waste laws, no one knows exactly how dangerous the waste at any particular site might be, but we know it can be very toxic and also radioactive. NRDC opposes storing of fracking and production waste in these open air pits, but it is still allowed.

What does a flooded wellpad look like? Here is a photo of a flooded wellpad in Bradford County, Pennsylvania, after Tropical Storm Lee in September, 2011:


Carol French, used with permission.

And here is a photo of how dangerously close millions of gallons of potentially toxic fracking waste can be to homes, in this case in Washington County, Pennsylvania:


Robert Donnan, used with permission. 

NRDC opposes having dangerous fracking waste stored so close to people's homes. Hurricane Sandy is terrifying for many reasons. For people living next to fracking waste sites, one of them is that the storm may flood these sites and cause toxic substances to flow onto their land, their home, or their farm. It is well past due for the toxic waste loophole for the oil and gas industry to be closed.

Corrected version posted on November 14, 2012

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