Tainted Tap Water from Drilling
If you're one of those stubborn people who insists that drinking water from the tap is fine because the health department says it's so, you might want to take a gander at a report just in from The New York Times investigative team. The report focuses on how the quest for natural gas in the US has affected the environment -- and most particularly, how drilling has created some rather frightening conditions in waterways and municipal water supplies.
The problem centers around the fact that in order to release natural gas, the utility companies use a process called hydrofracking that injects massive amounts of water, sand, and poisonous chemicals into the earth. The intent is to break up the surface layer of rock to access the area where the gas resides. This process creates huge amounts of toxic wastewater while also releasing toxins into the air. According to the Times article, a single well "…can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene, and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself."
Given that natural gas has been viewed as a great energy alternative, burning cleaner than coal and more available than oil, drilling activity has been increasing dramatically. Since 2000, the number of gas wells has doubled nationwide, up to about half a million at this point. That means that we suddenly have a lot more wastewater to dispose of. That water gets shipped to treatment plants and then gets dumped into waterways after supposedly being cleaned up. And some of those waterways supply municipal water.
But the Times report, which was based on a review of 30,000 pages1 of federal, state and company records, claims that most treatment plants don't have the capacity to adequately treat the wastewater or even to remove the radioactive content from it. And that radioactive content is off-the-charts high in many cases. At least two-thirds of the wells reviewed reported radioactivity levels that exceeded federal drinking water standards by 100 times, and 15 of those wells produced wastewater with over 1,000 times the maximum acceptable amount of radioactive elements. The thing is, federal regulations do not require wastewater treatment plants to test the water they discharge for use by the public for radioactivity. So what goes in, theoretically, can go out -- into our streams, rivers, lakes, irrigation systems, and eventually, faucets.
The regulators in charge, like Mad Magazine's Alfred E. Neuman, have taken the "What, Me Worry?" stance. They say that once dumped, wastewater disperses so far that the toxins essentially dissipate. In fact, though, the Times found that plenty of scientists don't agree, and that regulators essentially disregarded warnings and recommendations issued by the EPA as far back as the 1980s. In 1987, the EPA recommended tighter regulation of gas-drilling waste, warning that the waste was hazardous and could cause massive public health problems, but according to Carla Greathouse2, an EPA researcher who authored those recommendations, the Reagan administration altered her report to bow to industry pressure. "It was like the science didn't matter," she said. "The industry was going to get what it wanted, and we were not supposed to stand in the way."
There seems to be a history of disregard of EPA recommendations regarding natural gas drilling. The Times cites several EPA studies that never got released, including one that concludes that radioactive material from drilling waste, in fact, does not fully dilute when released into waterways. Other sources mention an EPA recommendation a few years ago to enforce a moratorium on hydrofracting in the New York City watershed, but that advice, apparently, disappeared in the final report. And, although the EPA has warned that hydrofracting causes pollution of drinking water3, the 2005Bush/Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The Times article isn't the first media foray into investigating the problems wrought by natural gas drilling. In fact, a documentary on the topic called Gasland was a top contender for the Academy Awards this year. Although industry groups have swung into action to discredit the film, even creating a debunking website, the film does reveal solid evidence of the dangers of drilling that at least should raise eyebrows.
The EPA is now conducting another large-scale investigation into the impact of hydrofracting, and the results should be out next year. Hopefully, it won't be so easy to make the results invisible this time, thanks to the film, the Times expose, and dozens of YouTube videos, it's hard to ignore. All in all, considering the issue of pharmaceutical drugs in our drinking water and the negative effects of fluoride, it's just another reason to clean up your tap water before you drink it.
1 "Report: Fracking's ‘Radioactive Wastewater' Discharged into Drinking Water Supplies." 1 March 2011. Environmental Leader. 4 March 2011 <http://www.environmentalleader.com/2011/03/01/report-frackings-radioactive-wastewater-discharged-into-drinking-water-supplies>
2 "EPA caught hiding dangers of horizontal hydraulic hydrofracking." 4 March 2011. MGX. 4 March 2011. <http://mgx.com/blogs/2011/03/04/epa-caught-hiding-dangers-of-horizontal-hydraulic-hydrofracking>
3 Lustgarten, Abrahm. "EPA: Chemicals Found in Wyo. Drinking Water Might Be From Fracking." Buried Secrets, Gas Drilling's Environmental Threat. 25 Aug 2009. ProPublica. 4 March 2011. < http://www.propublica.org/article/epa-chemicals-found-in-wyo.-drinking-water-might-be-from-fracking-825>