Distilling The Facts: How Shale Gas Drilling Endangers Pennsylvania’s Water Supply

From wellpad construction to 25,000 miles of high-pressure pipelines slapped down to gather gas and ship it to China, hydraulic fracturing isn’t merely a threat to local box turtles, it’s murder on our watersheds. A simple assessment of the facts makes it difficult to imagine that any legislature can truly “get gas right” if they allow fracking in a watershed. And if they get it wrong, the adverse ecological and human health consequences could last, literally, for ages. Future generations will have no one to blame but us.

Problem #1:  Large-Scale Water Withdrawals
Whenever Aqua PA is asked about the water usage of gas drillers they are quick to point out that the gas industry isn’t their largest customer. Maybe that will change now that they have formed a joint venture with Penn Virginia Resource Partners to sell Susquehanna Basin Water to Range Resources? Aqua’s not the only entity eying drillers as a potential revenue stream. Municipal water authorities in Central PA, both public and private, have begun earning tidy sums selling bulk water to the gas industry. These new withdrawals not only raise concerns over drought, they raise the larger issue of fresh water sovereignty and the question of who controls our vital water resources. As water shortages have become a global reality, it would be short-sighted – and the height of political hubris – to gamble with our own precious supply.

Problem #2:  Lotsa Toxic Wastewater
Another grave concern is the treatment and disposal of the hundreds of millions of gallons of briny, toxic frack wastewater. Frack “flowback” is known to contain heavy metals, VOCs, diesel fuel, benzene and radioactive isotopes. Disposal remains a major industry dilemma. Some Marcellus wastewater is transported to deep injection wells in New York and Ohio. The brine is now sprayed on our roads. Increasingly, frack waste is being processed in-state, at new wastewater treatment depots, before being deposited in traditional sewage treatment plants which then discharge back into our rivers. Can these new treatment facilities really filter out all the nasty stuff? Or will these chemicals become an inexorable part of our biosphere? It’s actually a bigger gamble for Pennsylvania than Gambling. Then there’s the legitimate fear of flooding and open wastewater pits, as was the case when Hurricane Irene pummeled the region and everyone and their mother was Googling the topic. Only afterwards did it come to light that drillers are not legally required to report such incidents to the state. Yikes.

Problem #3:  Methane Migration
Lighting methane contaminated water on fire is not new to Pennsylvania, but what was once a local curiosity has become a serious problem. Thanks to a study by Duke University, we now know that instances of methane migration after drilling begins are about 17% more likely. Drillers and the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have disregarded Duke’s findings, citing insufficient data, though it seems noteworthy that some of the wells tested were private wells that had been in use for years without excessive methane. It also stands to reason, had the local water table always been rife with methane, these towns would not have been settled in the first place. An explosive topic, best to draw your own conclusions. You can read more about methane contaminated wells in Pennsylvania at damascuscitizens.org.

Particularly worrisome are the downstream impacts of methane contamination. While the human health effects of elevated methane levels in drinking water are not known, we do know that chlorinating methane-contaminated water results in carcinogenic disinfection byproducts such as chloroform. It’s unacceptable that these chemicals could find their way into my Sigg bottle.

Problem #4:  Triple Cement Well Casings
Imagine blowing yogurt through a cocktail straw. Now put the cocktail straw in a regular straw, and try to blow the yogurt all the way through that straw. Repeat three times, and make absolutely sure there are no bubbles or gaps. That, essentially, is how gas drillers intend to protect the water supplies of Pennsylvania. Even when they succeed, the most advanced cement sealants will last 100 years at best, according to the industry. The gaping disparity between the lifespan of cement casings and the million or so years left in our aquifer, means that future generations will have to contend with hundreds of thousands of deteriorating wellbore seals. The casings can also shear apart in an earthquake. What’s more, they sound so high-tech, they inspire a false sense of security among an energy-hungry population. It’s a lot easier to put faith in slick new technologies than to be bothered with conservation. The danger, of course, is that we’ll become a water-thirsty nation of fossil fuel fat-asses.

Problem #5:  Oops! Spills, Blowouts & Human Error
Many Marcellus frack wellheads, such as the one that failed at Chesapeake Energy’s Bradford County site in April, 2011, are made by Halliburton using the same technology which blew out in the BP Deep Water Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico. Are we nuts?… In 2009, a tanker truck drove 2.5 miles on public roads in Troy Township leaking hundreds of gallons of hydrochloric acid… In 2010, a torn pit liner leaked frack fluid into a nearby meadow on the Johnson Farm in Tioga County, resulting in livestock deaths and stillborn calves. As you can see, fraccidents happen, and you can read more about them on EarthJustice’s Fraccidents Map.

Problem #6:  Impervious Surfaces Deplete Hydrological Cycles
Well pads, waste pits, access roads, parking lots, it all seems pretty mundane until you see how dramatically the impacts add up and contribute to catastrophic flooding and drought. Impervious surface does not evaporate moisture into the atmosphere, whereas open frack waste impoundments do. Think, Acid Rain with a super toxic twist.

Problem #7:  It’s The Groundwater, Stupid
For years we’ve heard the driller’s battle cry, “There has never been a single proven case of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing.” We’ve even heard it from our own DEP. Well, now we know of several cases thanks to a new EPA Study released last week which reports that chemicals used in nearby hydraulic fracturing were found in water wells in Pavillion, Wyoming. The findings has sparked a maelstrom of backlash, yet the public has a right to the results of the science it pays for, and we should demand more of it. It really is that simple.

New Laws or Permanent Flaws?
America’s Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) has spent millions advertising the idea that technology and best practices enable drillers to extract shale gas safely. After all, they say, it’s already being done. Perhaps. Yet the cumulative impacts of tapping the Marcellus Play are only just beginning to accumulate. Preliminary science seems to confirm what common sense would tell you: blasting toxic chemicals below watersheds, no matter how far down, can be detrimental to water supplies and human health. Clearly, it’s too late to put this genie back in the bottle, but can we tame it? Can we be more careful in what we wish for?

Pennsylvania has more than 1,600 Marcellus wells. Gas drillers are promising 10,000 new wells in the next few years, and they’re eager to frack the Delaware River Basin. Drilling activity has more than doubled, yet the DEP budget has been cut by $165 million. Surely enforcement represents an ever expanding task? Average citizens like me can only wonder at the math. Meanwhile, drillers are storing gas and flaring wells more frequently while they wait for higher gas prices and the completion of new pipelines and infrastructure.

It’s true, Pennsylvania has comparatively strong environmental rules and regs, and leaders in Harrisburg are debating how to stiffen the actual laws as we speak. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania’s gas-happy republicans – which is not to say all state republicans – are rushing to update PA’s antiquated Oil and Gas Code with flawed bills like SB1100, which sells Pennsylvania out cheap. The current GOP legislative package limits the distribution of a relatively low Impact Fee to the counties where drilling takes place, leaving millions of people downstream “high and dry” in the event of ancillary impacts and accidents. HB1950 would strip local Zoning Boards of their right to limit where gas-related activities can be developed, causing some PA democrats to call the bill “undemocratic.”

I think they’re all missing the point. Instead of debating how to frack safely, a more logical question might be whether fracking in a highly productive, high-value watershed is even advisable. Obviously, it’s not. The lack of comprehensive study and oversight, paired with minimal taxation, plus inadequate environmental protections make it far too risky.

It’s like I sometimes say to my kids, “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.”

UPDATE: This from A Environment Daily Blog’s David Hess… “The first Marcellus Shale natural gas well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 2003, eight years ago.  Since then the Department of Environmental Protection has issued 9,325 Marcellus Shale well permits (3,225 just this year), 4,381 Marcellus wells have been drilled (1,797 this year) and hundreds of miles of pipelines lain and billions of gallons of water used for fracking.”

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One Response to “Distilling The Facts: How Shale Gas Drilling Endangers Pennsylvania’s Water Supply”

  1. keeptapwatersafe Says:

    “Fracking and investor-owned water utilities share the spoils” by Lynn Hermann

    Read more: http://www.digitaljournal.com/article/316097#ixzz1gWyEUyX8

    “Investor-Owned Utilities Profiting From Expansion of Shale Gas Development” by Winonah Hauter, Food & Water Watch

    http://www.foodandwaterwatch.org/pressreleases/investor-owned-utilities-profiting-from-expansion-of-shale-gas-development/

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