Is fracking safe? Flaming drinking water ought to give a clue

Waste pit on hydraulic fracturing site. Photo by TXsharon, Photobucket.

By Michelle Haefele

Last week I testified in front of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board Environmental Engineering Committee on their study of the Potential Relationship between Hydraulic Fracturing and Drinking Water Resources. The Science Advisory Board was accepting public comments and testimony on the methodology of the EPA’s soon-to-be-initiated study on hydraulic fracturing. The meeting brought together a wide variety of stakeholders, ranging from environmental groups to representatives of the gas industry, who were not shy in repeating their worn-out talking points that hydraulic fracturing is safe.

You may not have heard of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking as it’s also called, but according to the gas industry it’s used on 90% of the natural gas wells in this country. My testimony made clear that a study on the effects of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water must examine the full lifecycle of the process, from the site preparation to the gas being extracted and delivered. It should also analyze the risks posed to America’s private water wells, the source of drinking water for many of us in rural America. With the help of a PowerPoint presentation, I focused on three elements that the EPA must consider when conducting this study:

  1. The effects of hydraulic fracturing on “karst”: areas with distinctive landforms and hydrology that are characterized by sinkholes, caves, seeps, and springs that often supply drinking water. Karst is prevalent in many areas where natural gas drilling takes place.
  2. The water sources and quantities used for hydraulic fracturing—the process involves the use of huge amounts of water, often four-seven million gallons or more per well.
  3. Provisions that ensure that both the quantity and quality of drinking water from private water wells will not be negatively affected.

My testimony built on our work at The Wilderness Society to make sure that natural gas drilling is “done right.” One of the most important components of “doing it right” is to make sure that drinking water quantity and quality is protected.

The gas industry tried to argue that the scope of the EPA’s study was too broad. Representatives from the industry testified that looking at the impacts of drilling on “community health and environmental justice issues” would “distract” the EPA from studying the relationship to drinking water. I was disappointed that Big Gas would come right out and argue that the EPA should not study community health and environmental justice, when the effects on people’s health, with a likely focus on poor rural communities where gas drilling often takes place, is clearly a central focus of the study. It’s like saying, “study a river, but not what happens if the river floods.”

The gas industry also reiterated their main talking points that there has never been a documented incidence of drinking water contamination directly related to hydraulic fracturing. But we know that families’ water has turned brown, caught on fire, and people have gotten sick after living on or near a “frack job” drill site. The Wilderness Society supports the EPA’s study, but it is clear that there is enough evidence to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act, and make sure that families are safe.

As I said in my testimony, “Exempting hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act creates a regulatory black hole that unnecessarily puts public safety in jeopardy.”

This hearing was the first of many steps that will hopefully lead to our drinking water being safe again. When drinking water has dirt and silt in it, catches on fire, and makes you sick, you know something is wrong.

We here at The Wilderness Society urge Congress to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the Save Drinking Water Act.

Background on Hydraulic Fracturing

Hydraulic fracturing is a drilling process that injects millions of gallons of water and thousands of gallons of sand and potentially deadly and cancer-causing chemicals underground under high pressure in order to extract natural gas. Unfortunately, there have been many reports of water contamination after drilling has occurred, but it is difficult to link the contamination to hydraulic fracturing as companies are not required to disclose the chemicals they put underground, nor to do baseline testing in an area before they drill. Moreover, hydraulic fracturing and the disclosure of these chemical cocktails are exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act due to a loophole inserted in the 2005 energy bill.

photo: Waste pit on hydraulic fracturing site. Photo by TXsharon, Photobucket.