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35-mile fluid leak: another fracking accident

Published Oct 15, 2010 10:10 PM

In what is but the latest in an all-too-long and frequent string of environmental accidents involving natural gas drilling, a section of highway near the town of Hughesville, Pa., located in the upper Susquehanna River Valley was closed Oct. 9 after a low-boy trailer leaked an undetermined amount of frack fluid.

According to police the spill extended as far as 35 to 40 miles. Fluid was leaking from one of a dozen 100-gallon containers on the trailer as it traveled on the highway from Dimock, Pa.

The Williamsport, Pa., Sun-Gazette, which appears to be the only other newspaper covering the spill, quoted Hughesville Police Chief Jason Gill saying, “It’s not hazardous at all until it mixes with water, then it becomes as slippery as ice.” (Oct. 9)

The paper noted that Gill “said it was unknown how much liquid leaked because all of the containers on the trailer contained various amounts of different substances.”

However, Gill, who is not a scientist, doesn’t raise questions about how many other cars or trucks may have driven through the chemical fluid, or how much fluid might have run off into area creeks, storm drains or ground water sources.

Nor does Gill ask the most critical question: What toxic or carcinogenic chemicals may have been contained in this undiluted fluid? Since the drilling industry is not required to disclose the chemical composition of fracking fluid, no one knows for sure.

In fact, the gas drilling industry frequently dismisses growing public concerns about the danger of the chemicals used in their drilling process, claiming that the chemicals are only 1 percent of the mix of million of gallons of water and sand used in hydraulic fracking. In the case of the Hughesville spill, the chemicals were 100 percent.

Workers who are assigned to clean up this mess could face exposure to toxic or cancer-causing chemicals. Other drivers whose vehicles came into contact with this spill could unknowingly have carried chemicals to their homes. Are the police and state agencies issuing adequate warnings?

Damage to protected wetlands

The Hughesville spill occurred on the same day that the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined a Marcellus Shale driller $40,000. The driller, Seneca Resources Corp., had illegally built a nearly one-acre impoundment for used drilling fluid on “exceptional value” wetlands in the Tioga State Forest near Wellsboro, Pa. The company was also cited for causing “sediment runoff by failing to institute erosion control best management practices.” (Sun-Gazette, Oct. 9)

In June an explosion at a well owned by EOG Resource Inc. in Clearfield County, 90 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, resulted in a 16-hour natural gas and drilling fluid leak into nearby Moshannon State Forest, forcing the evacuation of campers.

In September 2009 a series of spills at a well site run by Cabot Oil and Gas near Dimock, Pa., leaked up to 8,000 gallons of drilling fluid into a nearby creek, causing a major fish kill. Dimock residents, who filed a lawsuit against Cabot for contaminating their water wells in 2008, are still fighting to have the company pick up the tab for a replacement municipal water system.

Challenging industry safety claims

Writer Sharon Kahkonen challenges the impartiality of the gas industry when it comes to the safety of hydraulic fracking. (Ithaca Journal, Sept. 25)

Kahkonen writes: “Representatives of the gas industry have too much vested interest in this issue, and frankly, it is not their job to evaluate the safety of hydrofracking. Their job is to maximize profits for their shareholders. ...

“Representatives from the gas industry claim hydrofracking is a 60-year-old technology with a proven safety record, and ‘there has never been a documented case of ground water contamination from hydrofracking.’”

Kahkonen refers to studies done by Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, an engineer at Cornell University who has been researching fracturing mechanics for 33 years. Ingraffea contends that the more recent practice of horizontal hydrofracking used in New York and Pennsylvania is very different from vertical hydrofracking done in the past.

When industry representatives claim there have been no documented cases of ground water contamination due to hydrofracking, Kahkonen notes that Ingraffea suggests “they are referring to the actual event of pumping water under high pressure into shale deep underground in order to crack it. This singular event may not be the major threat to our water resources. The real threat may be from fracking fluids near ground level.”

Once out of the ground, fracking fluids, laced with toxic chemicals as well as radioactive elements, are held in temporary lagoons at the pad site. “Even with the most leak-proof liners, these lagoons are apt to overflow in areas of heavy rainfall, like in the Northeast,” Kahkonen states.

She concludes: “Any honest, thoughtful person would have to agree that horizontal hydrofracking does pose a real threat to our water resources and should not be allowed to proceed until the industry can come up with real solutions. The stakes are too high.”