Don't Drink the Water: When Lax Regulation Meets Dirty Fuels

I recently traveled to the town of Fort Chipewyan, downstream of the tar sands oil fields in Northern Alberta. My hosts took me fishing on the Fletcher River in the Athabasca Delta near beautiful Lake Athabasca, and I caught a fish for dinner. The meal was delicious, but a shadow hung over it. Government officials have told residents that it is not safe to eat fish caught around Fort Chipewyan, but they won’t identify which species.

Government officials have also told residents they can no longer drink the lake water—which they could until just a generation ago—but they don’t say why. They don’t say where the contaminants are coming from, nor do they say what they are doing to stop industry from releasing the contaminants. Instead, they seem to expect citizens to get used to unsafe water and hazardous fish.

This is what happens when lax regulations meet dirty fuels.

Fossil fuel production is inherently risky business—whether it involves dumping toxic slurry into 65 square miles of settlement ponds in the tar sands fields in Alberta or pouring hundreds of chemicals into the ground to release natural gas in Pennsylvania or sinking a well five miles below the ocean floor to get at oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Keeping these operations safe is like swimming upstream; we will always be going against the current of their dirty components.

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A vigilant regulatory system is the only lifeline we have. Yet for decades, an anti-regulatory climate has eroded many of our safeguards: Agencies are underfunded and understaffed, regulators don’t have the money to thoroughly monitor sites, and government officials must prove at each turn that protecting the public is more valuable than industry’s right to pollute. 

The trouble is that when regulators can’t keep polluting industries in check, the consequences are severe. In contr­­ast, much less can go wrong in the wake of poor oversight of wind farms—we won’t see clouds of pollution or pools of toxins—and it’s hard to see anything at all from energy efficiency. But regulatory failure in the realm of dirty fuels can be disastrous.

The BP oil spill is the most obvious example, yet it is far from the only case in which fossil fuel companies have been allowed to bypass the rules.

In Canada, for instance, the Fisheries Act prohibits the release of substances harmful to fish. The tailing ponds surrounding the tar sands oil operations leak about 1 billion gallons of water a year—water that includes benzene, cyanide, naphthenic acids, phenols, and a host of other chemicals harmful to fish not to mention human beings. And yet, the federal government has never prosecuted documented cases of unlawful discharge.

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My NRDC colleague, Dr. Gina Solomon, has identified unusually high rates of cancer in the communities downstream of these ponds. But even as the government tells people in towns like Fort Chipewyan not to drink the water, it has failed to conduct thorough studies of what the tar sands are doing to people’s health.

A similar pattern is emerging around natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. To release gas from the Marcellus Shale formation, companies inject water and fracking fluid—a mixture of water and hundreds of chemicals—into wells at high pressure to blast the rock apart.

This kind of drilling has appeared to pollute water supplies. About a month ago, I traveled to Dimock, a small town in Pennsylvania home to more than 60 natural gas wells. Several residents have been told not to drink their water, and instead they rely on energy companies to deliver water to their homes.

Like in Alberta, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Quality has failed to stop the contamination or investigate what is means for residents. But given the numerous opportunities for water contamination—from leaking wastewater ponds to underground migration of gas or fracking fluid—the government must strengthen its oversight and ensure these dirty activities are done as cleanly as possible.

Natural gas drilling can be made safer, but only if we demand it. We must call on our government agencies to draft and enforce limits on pollution that will protect our health, and then we must provide the tools they need to get the job done.

But in the end, as long as we rely on risky fuels like tar sands oil, keeping our communities safe will be an uphill slog—even with strong regulation. The safest path is to reduce our dependence on these dangerous fuels and shift to cleaner alternatives.