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When It Comes to Water Pollution from Fracking, Pennsylvania State Regulators Have Been Hiding the Ball

Daniel Raichel

Posted November 6, 2012 in Environmental Justice, Health and the Environment

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For Pennsylvania residents who suspect their drinking water has been contaminated by fracking, the situation has long been frustrating.  Because of legal exemptions for fracking, federal regulators are generally not involved, and drilling companies—along with state regulators at the Pennsylvania Department of Environment (DEP)—are often quick to blame preexisting “natural” conditions, even when, shortly after nearby drilling activities, water has turned brown, smelly, or flammable.

It has always been hard to explain the disconnect between the visible water problems experienced by residents on the ground and DEP’s unwillingness to take action.  This disparity has often been blamed on the inability to prove drilling has caused contamination in a particular case because of a lack of pre-drilling water testing in some areas.  Last week, however, a new and alarming possible explanation for DEP’s inaction came to light—the agency has been purposely ignoring portions of its own drinking water testing results that may have demonstrated toxic metals linked with fracking.

This new information was revealed in a deposition of the Technical Director of DEP’s Bureau of Laboratories, Taru Upadhyay, which was publicized in a letter addressed to DEP Secretary, Michael Krancer.  The testimony reveals that, at least in some cases, DEP uses a special coding procedure for testing drinking water in potential fracking contamination cases so that it can hide vital water quality information from itself and from the public. 

Here’s how it works:  DEP is required by law to investigate homeowner complaints of drinking water contamination related to oil and gas drilling and issue a written determination of its findings to the homeowner.   Complaints come to DEP’s Oil and Gas Division (OGD), which then sends a request to DEP’s Bureau of Laboratories (BOL) to conduct the testing.  BOL tests all drinking water according to EPA standards, which should require testing for a range of dangerous contaminants including 24 dangerous metals. 

But even where BOL tests for all these metals, that doesn’t mean OGD will see all of those results.  Each request sent by OGD comes with a specialized so-called “suite code,” which, in some cases, causes the BOL to withhold important parts of the results.  (For a really useful graphic on this system, click here).

In the fracking context, Director Upadhyay’s testimony shows that one code, 942, had been used to exclude fully two thirds of the testing results—16 of the 24 required metals—from the lab reports it sent to OGD and to affected residents.  The excluded metals include aluminum, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, copper, silicon, lithium, molybdenum, titanium, vanadium, and boron.  Many of these are found in fracking wastewater, and in excess doses, they are also known to cause health problems like diarrhea, vomiting, immune and nervous system damage, and cancer. 

While we don’t know yet how many times DEP has used these codes to bury its head in the sand (and it may be almost all the time), this practice is utterly unconscionable and unacceptable.  Imagine, what if you received a letter from the state telling you that there were no dangerous metals in your family’s water when it had only looked at one-third of the results?

This new and disturbing news comes on the heels of another worrying policy move by the DEP.  In September, DEP prevented its field offices from issuing contamination determination letters directly to residents, having all such letters sent to the head office in Harrisburg first.  The move will likely delay important water quality information in reaching residents and discourage DEP geologists and water quality specialists from making contamination findings when they know their superiors will be second-guessing their work.

Collectively, it increasingly appears that standard operating procedure at DEP is to prioritize drilling and gas profits over the health of its citizens and the quality of its natural resources.   This is, in part, why NRDC created the Community Fracking Defense Project—to help communities defend themselves when the state and federal governments are either powerless or unwilling to act.

But this is not enough.  Fracking is already widespread in many communities, and it is likely that many families whose water has been tested by DEP have not been given access to the full extent of contaminants that could be in their water.  This is why it is imperative that DEP release the full water testing results to all families whose water has been tested under suite codes 942, 943, or 946. 

Furthermore, a full and independent investigation of DEP’s inspection practices for fracking should be conducted to determine whether there is any additional negligent or criminal activity on the part of the agency.  Because when a family’s water supply has been contaminated, they shouldn’t get half-truths from their state environmental agency—they should get help.

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Comments (Add yours)

Michael BerndtsonNov 6 2012 12:33 PM

Here's the main point to focus on from your post:
"Complaints come to DEP’s Oil and Gas Division (OGD), which then sends a request to DEP’s Bureau of Laboratories (BOL) to conduct the testing."

Many States' environmental protection agencies have setup divisions based on market sectors. Basically for one reason, money. A contaminant be it organic, inorganic, biological or radionuclide can impact air, water, or land regardless of market-based spill source. That and waste type demarcation be it hazardous, non-hazardous, special, etc. But again, that's also somewhat a function of market sector and not necessarily all based on human-health risk or environmental impact.

Great post by the way.

Daniel RaichelNov 9 2012 12:38 PM

Hi Ryan,

I am aware of the GAO report, although I think your summary may mischaracterize its findings. The report does not contain original research, but compiles information from review of existing literature and interviews with state regulatory officials. Here is a quote from a GAO released summary of the report:

“Similarly, a number of studies and publications GAO reviewed indicate that shale oil and gas development poses risks to water quality from contamination of surface water and groundwater as a result of erosion from ground disturbances, spills and releases of chemicals and other fluids, or underground migration of gases and chemicals.”

In general, the report frankly lays out many of the potential risks associated with fracking and also notes that many risks are yet unknown because of the lack of studies that “take into account the potential long-term, cumulative effects.” The report is available at:

http://www.gao.gov/assets/650/647791.pdf

On a separate note, drawing a line between water contamination caused by the “fracking technique” (i.e. the temporary pumping of water, chemicals, and sand to fracture a shale formation) and water contamination caused by the process of “fracking” at large—the drilling and casing of the well, the thousands of truck trips to set up and supply the well, the mixing of chemicals onsite, the production of gas, the return of hundreds of thousands of gallons of wastewater, and the closing of the well so remaining wastewater does not escape years or decades down the line, etc.—does nothing for the families who now have unsafe water in their tap.

If I eat a sandwich and get sick because the bread is moldy, the meat is rotten, and the tomatoes are spoiled, it brings me little comfort to know that the mayonnaise was ok. When we talk about fracking, let’s talk about the whole sandwich, not just the mayonnaise.

Daniel RaichelNov 9 2012 05:48 PM

Hi Ryan,

Three quick points:

First, to have a productive discussion about the risks of an industrial process, it is necessary to address all the risks necessarily associated with that process. Talking about just the “technique of fracking” when we talk about water contamination avoids discussion of the risk that matters to the most to families living next to wells—the risk that their water will be contaminated.

Second, there are many risks uniquely related to the “technique of fracking” as acknowledged in the GAO report. For example, the risk of long term well integrity issues because of the high pressure exerted by fracking:

“The risk of contamination from improper casing and cementing is not unique to the development of shale formations. Casing and cementing practices also apply to conventional oil and gas development. However, wells that are hydraulically fractured have some unique aspects. For example, hydraulically fractured wells are commonly exposed to higher pressures than wells that are not hydraulically fractured. In addition, hydraulically fractured wells are exposed to high pressures over a longer period of time as fracturing is conducted in multiple stages, and wells may be refractured multiple times.” (p. 45)

Even the risk of handling of produced water itself is necessarily linked to the “technique of fracking.” Other drilling processes do not involve large volumes of wastewater (often in the millons of gallons). If you had an appliance in your house that emitted large amounts of carbon monoxide, would you say the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning was not associated with that appliance?

Third, you may still be mischaracterizing the findings of the report. The report makes a guess on the safety of the technique of fracking based on the available scientific information. It makes very clear, however, that the available information is insufficient to assess the actual long-term and cumulative risks of the process. For example:

“[W]hile researchers have evaluated fracture growth, the widespread development of shale oil and gas is relatively new. As such, little data exist on (1) fracture growth in shale formations following multistage hydraulic fracturing over an extended time period, (2) the frequency with which refracturing of horizontal wells may occur, (3) the effect of refracturing on fracture growth over time, and (4) the likelihood of adverse effects on drinking water aquifers from a large number of hydraulically fractured wells in close proximity to each other.” (p. 50)

This is precisely why it is so important to more carefully study all of the risks before rushing to support expanded fracking. The stakes (clean water and the public's health) are simply too high to rely on incomplete information.

Best,
Dan

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