Sunday, July 10, 2011

Beyond Global Warming (UPDATE)

On Friday, I discussed Cornell University professor Robert Howarth's study of the greenhouse gas footprint of the entire process of extraction and use of natural gas. I also discussed the criticisms of Howarth's study, its admitted limitations, and my own sense that a narrow focus on the greenhouse gas emissions misses other, more immediate threats to the environment.

Yesterday, I discovered a treasure trove of primary material, thanks to Ian Urbina's Drilling Down series in the New York Times. Appearing since February, the five articles in the series so far cover issues ranging from the impact of the waste water produced by hydraulic fracturing to questions regarding the reliability of claims on the extent of gas within the Marcellus Shale. Each article also has a link to an indexed, highlighted group of documents, sometimes numbering in the thousands (over eleven hundred for the first article alone) that consist of internal studies and memoranda, press releases and court filings, even (in the case of the first article) a couple hundred pages of hand-written EPA tip sheets. My favorite of these last was the call from a woman claiming to be the wife of Jesus Christ, who was disguised as rock singer Billy Idol. She also claimed to be the Queen of the Earth. How does a government bureaucrat follow up a call like that?

The first article in Urbina's series details the hazards posed by waste water from hydraulic fracturing. These are many, and various. First, the water used is gathered locally, which poses a potential risk to local water tables. Each well can use from 2 million to ten million gallons of water.

Only about twenty percent of the water put in to the well is pumped out and considered waste. That waste water not only contains sand and various salts, but various chemicals - the identity and proportions of which are still unknown - as well as waste products from underground. In the Marcellus Shale, this includes, among other naturally occurring toxins, radioactive isotopes of radon. Along with the shale, some regions of the Marcellus basin have abundant uranium. The radioactive decay has created pockets of radon gas, which can become dissolved in the waste water (as well as create a residential hazard; Utica, NY, in particular, has a high concentration of homes that have possible radon contamination).

Some of this water is collected in to pools. Most, however, is transported and dumped in to public sewage treatment plants. While this seems like a solution, there are several reasons why it is not. First, the sheer volume of water puts pressure on the treatment plants' ability to operate. Second, many of the materials in question cannot be properly filtered through conventional sewage treatment processes. Finally, there are no regulations regarding testing for radiation in drinking water, so there is no reliable way of ensuring the safety of the water.

Tucked away in the middle of the 1,113 pages of accompanying source documents with this article are two different sets of documents that highlight, each in its own way, the real environmental hazards that accompany natural gas drilling using horizontal drill hydraulic fracturing techniques. On page 293 is a news release from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) regarding a $75,000 fine levied against Jersey Shore, PA. Along with discharging fecal matter, the plant also was in violation of an approved plan for accepting gas well waste water on ten occasions, including exceeding the 50,000 gallon limit in the approved plan. The plant also did not keep records of what was in that waste water.

Starting on page 317 is a fifty-five page study DEP conducted on the South Fork Tenmile Creek, which took treated water discharged from a facility that accepted well waste water. Tenmile Creek is in southwestern Pennsylvania, not too far from Pittsburgh. The study was conducted as a Cause and Effect Survey, using, according to the report, standard methodologies and bioassays to determine the effect on aquatic flora and fauna from three sites located downstream from the discharge site. A control site was located upstream.

The fauna used as a measure of the health of the stream are identified in the report as macroinvertebrates, which we non-technical folk usually call bugs, but refers to aquatic insects. The first test results were from Station 1, furthest from the discharge site. They randomly selected samples, then used a metrics called the Index of Biological Integrity (IBI), which covers a wide array of indicators, among which include Taxa Richness (the macroinvertebrates were not identified at the species level, just the genus; the plankton and other microfauna were identified to the species level), Total Taxa Richness, and something called EPT, which specifically refer to mayflies, stoneflies, and caddisflies. They had rated the various taxa on an existing standard scale of tolerance to pollutants, finding that while the range, on a 0-10 scale was 2-9, with a higher number meaning higher tolerance, the majority of the sample bugs were at the higher end of the scale.

If the IBI score was greater that 63.0, then the stream was healthy, the aquatic life "attaining", as written in the report. In fact, ten miles downstream from a site dumping treated waste water into a creek, the score was 28.

The survey of plankton indicated a higher concentration of salt-tolerant taxa, including rotifers and diatoms that prefer a higher salt content. In fact, the report states explicitly that tests showed "very high total dissolved solids (TDS) (over on thousand) with correspondingly high levels of chlorides, typically found in oil and gas wastewater downstream from the STP [Sewage Treatment Plant] discharges."

Long story short - even treated water is hazardous to the ecosystems in streams receiving effluvia from sewage and waste water treatment facilities that include drilling waste water.

Now, one could argue, I suppose, that the death of some bugs hardly matters. First of all, in response, it isn't about the bugs themselves (although that, too, is an issue). It is about what we are putting in the environment that is killing those bugs. One of the assumptions most people have is that, after being treated, water released from such plants is both safe and clean. It shouldn't contain fecal matter, as did the water from the Jersey Shore plant. It shouldn't be high in salt, threatening the sustainability of life in the stream, as in South Fork Tenmile Creek.

Yet, it is.

If it were only South Fork Tenmile Creek that was effected, it wouldn't be an issue. If only Jersey Shore were dumping (literally) crap out of its treatment plants, as well as well waste water after already exceeding its legal capacity and not keeping track of what was in that water, well, I might be frustrated but hardly concerned.

It is repeating these stories over and over and over and over again. There are thousands of communities in Pennsylvania, hundred of waste water treatment facilities accepting well waste water, tens of thousands of miles of small streams like Tenmile Creek taking in higher levels of chlorides and other salts (as well as other solids that were not tested for) than the indigenous fauna can tolerate and remain healthy. These creeks feed rivers, from the Monongahela and Ohio to the Susquehanna and Delaware, which are each and all part of irrigation systems, watersheds, and even sources of drinking water for small towns and even cities.

These studies were conducted in 2009, about a year or so in to the expansion of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania. Current projections see sustained drilling for decades. That is years and years of pouring filth and poisons in to our water ways, killing the fragile life that exists there, threatening the soil, irrigation, and drinking water. We do not yet know the total cost - environmental, economic - of hydraulic fracturing on the environment, but it seems it is already being paid, in part, by the ecosystem of South Fork Tenmile Creek.

UPDATE: On the main page for the Drilling Down Series, to which I linked above, there is a downloadable Excel Spreadsheet listing the contaminants found in over 200 tested wells across Pennsylvania. The sheet lists two different isotopes of radium in water, those same two in solids, two isotopes of uranium in water, one isotope of uranium in solids, something referred to as "Gross Alpha", a reference to alpha-particle radiation, and benzene. The radiation levels are listed at picoCuries per Liter, or pCi/L. The international standard is the Bequerel, one decay per second. The relationship between the two standards of measure per volume is 1 pCi/L = 37 Bq/m3. The EPA safety threshold is 1.91 pCi/L. The volume of radioactive radium in a tested well in Bradford County, PA, is 506.

As so many fret about possible radioactive contamination from fallout from the Fukushima meltdown in Japan, we already have extremely high levels of radiation in wells from domestic gas production.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More