Environmentalists lately have grown increasingly concerned about groundwater contamination from a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The technique, which has spiked in popularity since 2008, involves blasting water laced with sand and chemicals into underground rock formations to open up cracks that help extract difficult-to-reach reserves of natural gas.
Yet the danger fracking poses may be far more serious than previously understood.
According to an investigation by The New York Times, internal documents from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that fracking is leading to the diversion of large amounts of radioactive material into water supplies.
The problem, The Times reports, involves naturally-occurring radioactive elements being picked up by the water injected underground. Then wastewater, in some cases containing more than 1,000 times the amount of radioactive elements considered acceptable, goes to local sewage plants that aren’t designed to treat it. The contaminated water is later released into rivers, and could wind up in drinking water.
One irony is that drilling for natural gas has been supported by some environmentalists concerned about climate change because the fuel burns more cleanly than oil or coal.
However, that amounts to “burning the furniture to heat the house,” said John H. Quigley, former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste.”
The problem is particularly severe in Pennsylvania, where the number of natural gas well has jumped from roughly 36,000 to 71,000 since 2000. Potentially radioactive wastewater has been dumped into the Monongahela, Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers, which together provide the drinking water for tens of millions of Americans.
While community groups have voiced worries regarding the safety of fracking, the Times reports that authorities haven’t shown a great deal of concern. Federal and state regulators in Pennsylvania have not required waste facilities to test for radioactivity. They also have failed to require similar tests from most water-intake plants downriver from wastewater facilities since 2006.
Some analysts point to economic pressures as a factor in the lax attention to fracking-fouled wastewater.
“It’s cheaper to dump wastewater than to treat it,” said John Hanger, until January the secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.
Current state officials, however, deny that the problem is severe.
“The wastewater treatment plants are effective at what they’re designed to do — remove material from wastewater,” said Jamie Legenos, a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman.