NYT fracking series reveals need for toxic waste rules, wake up call for New York

Yesterday, The New York Times released the second installment of its investigative series on the dangers associated with natural gas production using hydraulic fracturing. The latest piece looks at fellow Marcellus Shale states – Pennsylvania and West Virginia – that have already opened their doors to fracking.

Frankly, this one is as damning – if not more so – than the first, which revealed that wastewater from fracking can be highly radioactive. This time around, the Times looked at how our neighbors to the south are disposing of potentially radioactive waste.

The stories are shocking: some companies are selling their toxic waste to communities for deicing roads (it’s extremely salty) or suppressing dust, despite the fact that rain can wash it into local rivers and drinking water supplies. Others just shoot it back into the wells as a second round of fracking fluid, which according to experts the Times interviewed, can make it even more toxic. While recycling of fracking fluid is generally a good thing, because it reduces waste and conserves fresh water, ultimately there is very toxic waste left over that needs to be disposed of in a safer way.

All of this is hailed as responsible recycling, despite the enormous risks to public health. Here are a few key highlights from the article:

We can’t trust industry to be truthful: The total amount of recycling occurring in the Pennsylvania is nowhere near the 90 percent that industry has been claiming over the past year. State regulators themselves revealed that nearly 40 percent is actually sent to treatment plants that often just dump the treated waste into rivers (radioactive material and all).

Regulators are cozying up to industry: Three of the top state officials in Pennsylvania who helped shoot down regulations for tracking waste left their posts for jobs in the natural-gas industry.

Local communities are left in the dark: One official in a PA town said she was not made aware of “frack water or any gas-well brines or anything else,” even though records show a gas company sold the town salt waste from a highly radioactive well.

Industry takes full advantage of its exemption from toxic waste laws: Industry bosses wrote to federal regulators to make sure “that drilling waste, regardless of how it was handled, would remain exempt from the federal law governing hazardous materials.”

There are two major takeaways from this article that reaffirm the solutions NRDC is fighting for everyday to protect people and communities from fracking’s dangers:

First, big oil and gas corporations must be subject to the same federal environmental laws that govern everyone else. These laws were created to protect us from industrial practices just like this – oil and gas should be NO exception. Otherwise, there are almost no federal rules for how they handle waste that is radioactive and full of other toxic chemicals, which leaves it to the states. But in many cases, the states have given similar unfair exemptions to industry. In New York, for example, oil and gas wastes are exempted from the regulatory definition of “hazardous waste.” That means there is nothing to stop the companies from treating their waste just like any other plain vanilla municipal waste. As the Times stories reveal, that’s what exactly what has happened in Pennsylvania & West Virginia. As a result, industry is dumping it in rivers, on roads, into fields next to people’s houses; in other words places from which it can easily end up in our drinking water.

Updating the laws governing toxic waste to include protections from practices like those highlighted in this Times piece is long overdue. That’s why NRDC has filed a petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to regulate toxic wastes associated with the exploration, development and production of oil and gas under the hazardous waste provisions of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. And it’s why we’re fighting to have New York’s regulations amended so that oil and gas wastes are subject to hazardous waste provisions.

Second, this should be a wake-up call for those who live in the last untouched part of the Marcellus Shale region: New York. As I cautioned over the weekend, the state must continue on a “slow as you go” 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.

We’re watching the consequences of poor regulation unfold for our neighbors to the west and south. We must put strong rules in places before allowing drills to break ground if we want to avoid a repeat of these atrocious practices in our own backyards – and show other states that it can be done. After all, the Times series is starkly demonstrating the consequences of not learning from these mistakes are great: the drinking water for tens of millions of people – from wells upstate to all of New York City, and parts of Philadelphia and New Jersey – hangs in the balance.