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2Mar 2011

NYTimes - Part II of the fracking water problems in PA and other Marcellus Shale country

Grrrrrr. The NYTimes's Ian Urbina is a terrific writer, turning into fully readable and absorbing prose his stolid march through piles of statistics - many of which he obtained by hard investigative work - on the scale of potential hazards from lightly regulated and manifestly highly polluted waste water the booming natural gas industry produces. Part II of his series Drilling Down: Gas Wells Recycle Water, but Toxic Risks Persist today further explores the sheer magnitude of the challenge facing regulators who stand between this waste and the public's health, not to mention protection of the general environmental impacts on rivers, streams, and water tables.

But, as with the opener on Sunday, this one throws a lot of numbers at readers but provides little proportion. Again, industry and water system managers argue that however foul the untreated raw waste water is, dilution  is the solution (plus, of course, filtering plus chemical and bio-processing). The story does not ask the next question: what is the dilution? That is a big hole, which if filled would permit the Times to tell readers why there remains reason to be worried.

I suspect the response to the latter part of that complaint is yes - regulators still must be a lot more vigilant and well-armed with authority to act. The industry, we know, is ruining a few local wells and perhaps wreaking more subtle damage generally. The story, and any further parts coming along, is a public service. It doesn't screech about proven  public hazards, but primarily tells why official watchdogs need the resources and legal power to get busy and to find out just what the dangers are.

Still -  how about what industry and water company agents are claiming about the dilution question?

Let's get explicit. Urbina concentrates on the foul waste waters from Pennsyvania because the state has few natural geological formations in which to inject them and that would comfortably isolate the waste from  aquifers the public uses. Thus the state's gas operations recycle much of the wastewater for reuse, or they ship it to treatment plants. Separated solids may go to landfills while the partly-cleansed water returns to rivers and streams.

The numbers?  The story reports that of 680 million gallons of total waste water from natural gas operations in PA in the 18 months ending in December, at least 260 million gallons were (after treatment) poured into rivers. That's a lot of gallons. That's enough, Urbina reports, that if put in tanker trucks  - 28,800 or so - they could form a bumper to bumper line stretching from New York to Richmond, Va.

Don't drink the water in a truck like that. It'll probably be brown, smelly, and too radioactive and salty and lots of other things to risk your stomach on. But really. A line of trucks has as much water in it, at a given moment, as a modest stream of the same length. Imagine how little this is compared to all the water that has flowed in a year and a half through all the rivers and streams of the state. Want some more numbers?  In 1995, according to this document from the USGS that  I found on the web, the state of Pennsylvania withdrew 8.8 billion gallons of water from reservoirs and rivers and stuff, including 1.4 billion gallons for public (ie non-ag or industrial) use. That's not for the whole year. That's the average use every day. Lets just assume the rates today are the same as then, even though they must be larger. This means that in the year and a half it took to generate those 260 million gallons of toxic sludgy crud that got treatment and then went into the rivers, some 760 billion gallons of drinking water were used in the state. So even if the waste were not treated at all, it would be diluted by a factor of about 3,000 if it were to have been put straight into the pipes to homes. But it was not put in the pipes straight, but put in rivers. So, it was heavily diluted right off the bat and most of it went to the sea. And it was treated before being dumped in. And the water removed for drinking presumably got further treatment.

You get the point. Nobody could say that such quicky calculations as these absolve the natural gas industry of anything. It is solid fact that industrial waste in the US, China, Europe, and elsewhere has overwhelmed and killed many rivers. We've all heard of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio that caught fire in 1969. But good as it is and necessary as it and the many other reports by other news agencies have been, this one in the NYTimes should present such calculations, double and triple check them with the people practiced at such things, and then explain the problem in context.

- Charlie Petit


Thanks Caroline for the remark - My calculations are not analysis. I hope they were not taken that way. The wish they reflect is that the story had paused for a moment to examine, in the sort of careful way you propose, the argument by some defenders of existing practice that dilution greatly reduces pollution problems that critics worry about. Frustrated, I ran a few numbers that came easily to hand as an exercise - enough to show there is potentially an immense dilution factor. That would count for something. It should be part of the conversation. My arithmetic should not convince anybody that industry or regulators are off the hook. But deeper reporting on this topic might move the needle on that question. The Times has performed a service. It makes a convincing case that hydraulic fracturing needs more careful regulation. But that does not mean the Times's stories are immaculate.

What I don't get is why compare the contamination in the 260 million gallons of wastewater to ALL of the surface water withdrawn in the state over that period? It's not like this wastewater is all piped directly into one big pool, like a reservoir. Instead, it's dumped into rivers by treatment plants across the state -- and the level of dilution can vary in those rivers, depending on how much water flows through the river at that moment. I think you're putting the wastewater in the wrong bucket.

The issue as I understand it is that some contaminants in the waste are NOT properly treated -- either at the sewage plant or at the drinking water intake. You draw an interesting theoretical comparison, I suppose -- but it has very little to do with how this waste is actually handled, so I don't see it as a step forward in terms of providing proper context.

You might want to check out the study by the EPA that modeled dilution in actual Pennsylvania rivers and considered whether there was still a reasonable potential for the waste to cause problems during low flows etc.... It's posted here:

Also interesting how many water quality problems come from just plain old nutrient load, in stormwater and agriculture runoff.

The radioactive angle gives a dramatic hook, but the nutrient load is the big issue for the PA rivers that drain right into Chesapeake and Delaware Bay, and has been a problem for what, 30 years? 40? 50?
Yet it doesn't really get solved.

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