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Radioactive fracking wastes threaten drinking water

Published Mar 19, 2011 10:22 AM

A three-part New York Times series (Feb. 28-March 4) on the danger of wastewater from natural gas drilling being discharged into rivers upstream from drinking water intake plants cited Pennsylvania’s lax control over drilling as a major problem. Rather than ratcheting up oversight, however, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett claims that regulation of the industry has been too aggressive.

Corporate Corbett’s response was to select gas industry executive C. Alan Walker to oversee the state’s environmental permitting process. Walker, who is CEO and owner of Bradford Energy Company and Bradford Coal and who owns or has interest in 12 other companies, including a central Pennsylvania oil and gas company, has contributed $184,000 to Corbett’s campaign efforts since 2004.

“Toxic Tom” Corbett’s open support for the natural gas industry prompted one contributor to the on-line, anti-drilling Susquehanna County Gas Forum to suggest that politicians should be required to wear patches on their suits showing their corporate sponsors, just like race car drivers. “Just imagine how differently some politicians’ speeches would play if they were wearing patches for Chesapeake, Monsanto, etc., while they were talking,” the writer noted.

Despite his company’s history of running up against the state’s environmental regulations, Walker was Corbett’s first appointee last December to lead the Department of Economic Development.

Reporting on the appointment, ProPublica noted that “a paragraph tucked into [Corbett’s] 1,184-page budget gives Walker unprecedented authority to ‘expedite any permit or action pending in any agency where the creation of jobs may be impacted.’ That includes, presumably, coal, oil, gas and trucking.” (March 9)

In his budget address Corbett also announced the creation of a Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission that would include Walker as well as executives from ExxonMobil, Chesapeake Energy, Chevron and members of the pro-drilling Marcellus Shale Coalition.

Corbett’s budget proposes not only draconian cuts in funding for education and community economic development but reductions in funding for environmental oversight. It contains no provisions for a severance tax on gas drillers and no increases in drilling permit fees or fines for environmental damages stemming from drilling.

Corbett says he wants to make Pennsylvania “the Texas of the natural gas boom.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, March 9) Given Texas’ history of lax oversight of gas industries drilling in the Barnett Shale, this does not bode well for Pennsylvanians.

Nationally, more than 10,000 wells have been drilled in urban areas, many near schools and residential centers in Fort Worth, Texas, where 25 percent of children have asthma compared to 7 percent statewide. Texas state environmental inspectors are linked to the gas and oil industries controlling that state.

Danger of radioactivity in drinking water

The New York Times series by Ian Urbana was based on thousands of internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers. They show that the dangers to the environment and health posed by fracking are greater than previously understood.

Fracking (hydraulic fracturing) involves the high-pressure injection of millions of gallons of salty, chemically laden water deep into underground fissures in the shale area to force natural gas to the surface. The wastewater that returns to the surface from fracking contains radioactive materials such as uranium and radium that occur naturally in deep rock formations.

Natural gas drilling companies are exempt from many of the federal environmental laws written to protect air and drinking water from radioactive and hazardous chemicals.

The documents, according to the Times, revealed that the wastewater from this process is often hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and is then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water. The Times stated that the wastewater “contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.”

The Times found “never-reported studies by the EPA and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.”

Wastewater from more than 116 wells had radiation levels 100 times federal drinking-water standards. Wastewater from 15 had more than 1,000 times the amount of acceptable radioactive elements. In 2009 and 2010, public sewage treatment plants upstream from drinking-water intake facilities accepted wastewater with radioactivity levels as high as 2,122 times acceptable standards.

While more oversight is clearly needed, state and federal budget cuts in funding for environmental oversight, along with attempts to further weaken existing regulatory legislation, only add to the problem that grows worse as more and more wells are drilled.

The Times’ series, coupled with Corbett’s openly promoting industry interests, is fueling renewed calls for a complete moratorium on drilling in Pennsylvania as well as demands for Toxic Tom’s recall.