Important new NY Times article demonstrates why NY is not ready for new gas drilling

A significant article in today’s New York Times provides stark new evidence of why New York State’s go-slow approach to new gas production using hydraulic fracturing – or “fracking” – is the right one.  And it further demonstrates why the state must continue on that path, rather than being rushed by the industry to wrap up an on-going environmental review process on which much critical work is still needed.

The story reports on the serious public health and environmental threats associated with gas production – especially that using fracking (which by industry’s own estimates accounts for about 90% of all domestic production).  It shines a particular light on the dangers related to highly toxic wastewaters generated in the process, including startlingly high levels of radioactivity.  It also includes the important observation that these wastewaters threaten not just rural drinking water supplies, but also those of major population centers.

These are precisely the reasons that NRDC has been advocating for many years now for the need for drastically improved regulation of gas (and oil) development in the United States – at both the federal and state levels.  Plainly, any advantage the natural gas industry might claim for its product over other fossil fuels in terms of its cleaner combustion are significantly undercut by dirty production.

Some highlights from the piece:

  • The Times uncovered a trove of documents from EPA and the gas industry itself showing that millions of gallons of waste water from the fracking process is far more radioactive than previously believed, and far more than federal drinking water standards allow.
  • Radium in this water is not being captured in the treatment process, nor is it being diluted to safe levels when it is dumped back into lakes, rivers and other water ways – many of which are sources of drinking water to major metropolitan centers.
  • High levels of salts in drilling wastewaters are so corrosive they are eating away the machinery in the very plants that are supposed to be treating toxic contaminants.
  • EPA, state regulators and other experts say this radioactive wastewater poses a serious risk, especially with the explosive growth in this industry.
  • Amazingly, while continuing to disclaim the need for additional regulation of its activities, the industry's own studies seem to agree.
  • EPA and researchers for industry both say radioactive wastewater could create a risk of cancer or other health problems for people who consume contaminated drinking water, fish or livestock.
  • The takeaway: not only is fracking a serious threat to local groundwater, but also to the surface water sources that millions of people in major cities depend on every day.

The article makes the important point that in Pennsylvania – where fracking has exploded over the past few years – the vast majority of drilling wastewater is being handled in sewage treatment plants that discharge into surface water bodies (like the Susquehanna, Delaware and Monongahela Rivers, which collectively supply over 21 million people with drinking water).  This is because, unlike in other states, particularly in the western part of the country, regulators have not concluded that it is safe to discharge these contaminated wastewaters into deep underground storage wells.

The same is true in New York.  As conceded in the highly flawed draft environmental review document issued by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation in the fall of 2009, wastewaters contaminated with radionuclides and other hazardous substances generated in New York would have to be handled at treatment plants for discharge into surface waterbodies.  The document further concedes that there are no adequately permitted facilities to handle this material in the state.  Yet it does nothing to accurately analyze or explain the risks associated with all this new wastewater, nor how it would ultimately be safely managed.  That is inexcusable.  The state simply cannot allow massive new gas production to move forward unless and until it has (1) fully evaluated the risks, and (2) figured out a way to manage them that is protective of human health.

Even more troubling, although New York’s Environmental Conservation Law would allow for wastes (both liquid and solid) from oil and gas production to be defined and treated as hazardous wastes, DEC has regulatorily excluded them from that definition.  That means that drilling wastes – even if they are hazardous – don’t have to be handled at facilities that are permitted to manage such wastes.  DEC’s own draft environmental assessment showed that, in fact, many of these wastes in Pennsylvania meet the standards to be designated as hazardous – if they weren’t subject to the regulatory exemption.

All of this provides yet more fodder for the case to go slow before opening up the state to new drilling.  As I have previously blogged, although out-going Governor Paterson rightly called on the DEC to issue a new draft environmental review document, he imposed an arbitrary – and wholly insufficient – deadline of June 1st to complete the review.  This important new article (which the article indicates is the first in a series that will expose the environmental and health risks of inadequately regulated gas development) provides just one more important reason why it is so critical that Governor Cuomo clearly tell the DEC that it should take whatever time is necessary to get it right before putting the state’s resources and its citizens’ health at risk.

It further demonstrates the need for the state – whether by executive, regulatory or legislative action – to immediately amend its regulations to extend the definition of hazardous waste to cover oil and gas wastes.  As Pennsylvania is showing us, the repercussions of having these materials handled in standard treatment facilities are just too high.