The Nation: The Next Drilling Disaster?
A tour of Dimock, Pennsylvania, with Victoria Switzer is a bumpy ride
over torn-up roads, around parking lots filled with heavy machinery
and storage tanks, and past well pads that not long ago were forests.
The winter here was quiet, but with the thawing ground came the return
of the rigs, the trucks, the constant noise and lights of a
twenty-four-hour-a-day gas drilling operation. "It's a modern-day
Deadwood out here," Switzer says, likening the activity to the gold
rush. "No rules, no regs, just rigs."
The "occupation," as she calls it, hasn't just transformed Dimock into
an industrial hub; it has also damaged the local water supply and put
residents' health at risk. After a stray drill bit banged four wells
in 2008, Switzer says, weird things started happening to people's
water: some flushed black, some orange, some turned bubbly. One well
exploded, the result of methane migration, and residents say elevated
metal and toluene levels have ruined twelve others. Then, in September
2009, about 8,000 gallons of hazardous drilling fluids spilled into
nearby fields and creeks. The contamination and related health
problems have prompted fifteen families to file suit against Cabot Oil
and Gas, the primary leaseholder in the area, alleging fraud and
contract violation and seeking to stop the damage from spreading.
If she could do it all over again, Switzer says, she never would have
signed the 2006 drilling lease that helped open Pandora's Box here.
But at the time, she'd never heard of hydrofracking—the Cabot
representative didn't mention the word to her when he gained the
rights to drill on her land. The story of gas drilling in Dimock
begins more than a mile below the earth's surface in the Marcellus
Shale, a huge rock formation that extends from New York to Tennessee.
Some geologists estimate that the Marcellus contains enough shale gas
to power the United States for two decades. But the gas is caught in
millions of tiny pores and can be extracted only through hydraulic
fracturing, or hydrofracking, a controversial process that requires
blasting millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals deep
underground to create fissures that open the pores and free gas to
rise to the surface.
Hydrofracking is a hugely lucrative and rapidly expanding industry—the
consulting firm PFC Energy recently reported that shale gas production
accounts for about 10 percent of US natural gas production, up from 1
percent in 2000. It is bolstered not only by a powerful lobby but also
by growing awareness of the threats posed by climate change and
America's dependence on foreign oil. In recent years, a broad
coalition of energy analysts and government officials have embraced
domestic natural gas as a promising "bridge fuel" that could help
smooth the transition from more carbon-intensive fossil fuels like oil
and coal to renewable energy sources like solar and wind. The catch,
though, is that the natural gas industry shares the same history as
other energy industries operating in the United States. A string of
recent disasters—including the TVA coal ash spill, the Massey coal
mine explosion and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill—have demonstrated
all too vividly that failure to regulate and oversee resource
extraction can lead to catastrophe. Some fear that Dimock is the first
natural gas casualty, an early warning of what could happen on a much
larger scale if fracking spreads unchecked to other residential areas
in the Marcellus region and across the country.
For a long time, shale gas was thought to be unattainable. But in the
1990s, first in Texas and later in other Western states, new drilling
techniques, sophisticated technology and industry exemptions from
environmental laws paved the way for economically viable fracking.
Many of those exemptions—from provisions in the Clean Air Act, the
Clean Water Act, the Superfund Act and the Resource Conservation and
Recovery Act—are longstanding. The most notable among them was
introduced by Vice President Dick Cheney as an amendment to the 2005
energy bill. The so-called Halliburton Loophole, named after Cheney's
former employer and the company that pioneered the fracking process in
the 1940s, stripped the EPA's authority to regulate hydrofracking
through the Safe Water Drinking Act. Companies were essentially given
free rein to drill however and wherever they see fit, and to use and
dispose of proprietary fracking fluids without any disclosure or
safety requirements. The only remaining shred of federal oversight was
a voluntary agreement with the three largest companies not to use
diesel fuel—which they proceeded to ignore.
Drilling is now regulated entirely at the state level, where there is
not nearly enough manpower to handle the volume of wells. In 2008
thirty-five inspectors were responsible for more than 74,000 wells in
Pennsylvania (with promises to hire sixty-eight more as Marcellus
drilling grows); nineteen inspectors covered more than 13,000 wells in
New York; and twenty-four oversaw more than 64,000 wells in Ohio.
With staff stretched so thin, it's nearly impossible to get the job
done well, says Dusty Horwitt, a senior counsel for the Environmental
Working Group. In January Horwitt released a study warning that
regulators in several drill states—including Pennsylvania and New
York—don't check to see if companies are using diesel or other harmful
distillates. He also found that many state EPA officials are unclear
on the stipulations surrounding fracking regulation. In many cases,
the report estimates, the concentration of petroleum distillates used
in a single well could be enough to contaminate 650 million gallons of
water—the same amount consumed daily by New York City residents. In a
worst-case scenario, the amount of distillates in a well could be
enough to pollute more than 10 billion gallons of water.
Keeping track of the materials used in fracking is crucial, says Theo
Colborn, a Colorado-based endocrinologist who monitors the impact of
industrial chemicals on human health. "It's the same kind of very
high-tech stuff that we use in airplanes," she explains. "If we didn't
use some very dangerous stuff in airplanes, as hydraulic fluids to
reduce friction, we wouldn't be flying." Colborn has been researching
hydrofracking operations since 2004. Of the 246 products on a partial
list of drilling and fracking chemicals used in Colorado, obtained
with help from the Oil and Gas Accountability Project, she found that
228 have at least one adverse health effect. Most are known to have
multiple negative health impacts, and many are endocrine disruptors,
which cause developmental, reproductive and neurological harm. She
also found diesel and benzene, which is a carcinogen and is toxic at
very low levels.
When a well is fracked—each well is generally fracked up to ten
times—between 15 and 40 percent of the mix flows back to the surface.
Companies operating in the Marcellus, which is naturally radioactive,
must find a way to dispose of thousands of gallons of water, toxic
chemicals, brine and radium. There are several ways things can go
wrong, Horwitt says. Fluids can be spilled during transport, they can
travel underground through natural or man-made fractures, or they can
contaminate nearby areas if they're not stored properly.
There are many ways to dispose of the stuff: injection wells,
evaporation pits, wastewater treatment plants and dumping, which are
allowed by industry exemptions from environmental laws. Companies
choose which method to use based on the amount of waste they have and
the resources available, says Lee Fuller, a top lobbyist for the
Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA).
Injection wells, which were recently linked as a possible cause of
minor earthquakes in fracking towns along the Texas Barnett Shale,
aren't being used in Dimock, according to Switzer. But she says that
companies dump waste into creeks and ponds, or into pits lined with
thin plastic. Pits that are not lined will eventually leach into
groundwater, and pits that are lined can easily tear, leak and have
the same effect, says Colborn. Even those that are properly sealed can
still release dangerous gases into the air. In recent years, she
explains, hydrofracking in Wyoming has raised ozone levels, which can
lead to serious respiratory problems. A resident-funded health survey
and air quality study in the tiny drilling town of Dish, Texas,
revealed dangerously high levels of benzene, toluene and xylene in the
Walter Hang, a toxicologist who runs a web-based toxics mapping
company in Ithaca, New York, worries that the current infrastructure
can't handle the scale of these operations. "Anytime you have
industrial activity, you're going to have problems—there's no way
around it," he says. "You have tremendous volumes of wastewater, you
have thousands of truck trips, and it's really heavy-duty."
Hydrofracking requires millions of gallons of chemically treated water
to be on site at all times. And wastewater plants can't handle
fracking fluids properly, says Hang, because there is such a high
concentration of chemicals and radioactivity.
In an effort to prevent their communities from becoming the next
Dimock or Dish, New York state officials have held off on opening the
Marcellus to drilling, pending a review. Late last year, the state's
Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released a draft
environmental impact statement, which aimed to supplement drilling
regulations that have been in place since 1992. The two-month public
comment period drew about 14,000 comments, including some from the
EPA, the Natural Resources Defense Council and elected officials.
Comments are still under review, and a final version of the draft will
likely be released in the fall.
The issue is of particular concern to residents in New York City and
Syracuse, two of a small number of US cities with a special permit to
provide unfiltered surface water for drinking. Drilling in upstate
watersheds could place the cities' water supplies at risk and create
the need to build billion-dollar water treatment plants. In April the
DEC announced that any Marcellus drill permits within the New York
City and Skaneateles Lake (Syracuse) watersheds will undergo a
separate, far more rigorous environmental review.
It's a step in the right direction, says State Senator Tom Duane, but
it's a potentially divisive move for New York. As Duane sees it,
residents of New York City and Syracuse are protected from the stress
and destruction of hydrofracking, but those in rural upstate areas
Duane and State Assembly member James Brennan introduced twin bills
earlier in the year that seek to put a two-year hold on issuing
permits and ban drilling within certain distances to drinking water
supplies. It's his mission, Duane says, to deter—if not ban—drilling
in the state, as any revenues from drilling would quickly be eaten up
by road repair and other costs. "I don't believe that there's a way to
safely do hydraulic fracturing," he says. "I'm skeptical that you
could ever find a way, but I don't want to say that it's impossible."
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