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February 26, 2011

Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted


Water Hits Rivers
By IAN URBINA
The Am erican landscape is dotted with hundreds of thousands of new wells and
drilling rigs, as the country scram bles to tap into this century ’s gold rush — for
natural gas.

The gas has alway s been there, of course, trapped deep underground in countless
tiny bubbles, like frozen spills of seltzer water between thin lay ers of shale rock.
But drilling com panies hav e only in recent y ears dev eloped techniques to unlock
the enorm ous reserv es, thought to be enough to supply the country with gas for
heating buildings, generating electricity and powering v ehicles for up to a
hundred y ears.

So energy com panies are clam oring to drill. And they are getting rare support
from their usual sparring partners. Env ironm entalists say using natural gas will
help slow clim ate change because it burns m ore cleanly than coal and oil.
Lawm akers hail the gas as a source of jobs. They also see it as a w ay to wean the
United States from its dependency on other countries for oil.

But the relativ ely new drilling m ethod — known as high-v olum e horizontal
hy draulic fracturing, or hy drofracking — carries significant env ironm ental
risks. It inv olv es injecting huge am ounts of water, m ixed with sand and
chem icals, at high pressures to break up rock form ations and release the gas.

With hy drofracking, a well can produce ov er a m illion gallons of wastewater that


is often laced with highly corrosiv e salts, carcinogens like benzene and
radioactiv e elem ents like radium , all of which can occur naturally thousands of
feet underground. Other carcinogenic m aterials can be added to the wastewater
by the chem icals used in the hy drofracking itself.

While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal
docum ents obtained by The New York Tim es from the Env ironm ental Protection
Agency , state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the env ironm ent

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and health are greater than prev iously understood.

The docum ents rev eal that the wastewater, which is som etim es hauled to sewage
plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into riv ers that supply
drinking water, contains radioactiv ity at lev els higher than prev iously known,
and far higher than the lev el that federal regulators say is safe for these
treatm ent plants to handle.

Other docum ents and interv iews show that m any E.P.A. scientists are alarm ed,
warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsy lv ania.
Their concern is based partly on a 2 009 study , nev er m ade public, written by an
E.P.A. consultant who concluded that som e sewage treatm ent plants were
incapable of rem ov ing certain drilling waste contam inants and were probably
v iolating the law.

The Tim es also found nev er-reported studies by the E.P.A. and a confidential
study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactiv ity in drilling
waste cannot be fully diluted in riv ers and other waterway s.

But the E.P.A. has not interv ened. In fact, federal and state regulators are
allowing m ost sewage treatm ent plants that accept drilling waste not to test for
radioactiv ity . And m ost drinking-water intake plants downstream from those
sewage treatm ent plants in Pennsy lv ania, with the blessing of regulators, hav e
not tested for radioactiv ity since before 2 006, ev en though the drilling boom
began in 2 008.

In other words, there is no way of guaranteeing that the drinking water taken in
by all these plants is safe.

That has experts worried.

“We’re burning the furniture to heat the house,” said John H. Quigley , who left
last m onth as secretary of Pennsy lv ania’s Departm ent of Conserv ation and
Natural Resources. “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re
try ing for cleaner air, but we’re producing m assiv e am ounts of toxic wastewater
with salts and naturally occurring radioactiv e m aterials, and it’s not clear we
hav e a plan for properly handling this waste.”

The risks are particularly sev ere in Pennsy lv ania, which has seen a sharp
increase in drilling, w ith roughly 7 1 ,000 activ e gas wells, up from about 3 6,000
in 2 000. The lev el of radioactiv ity in the w astewater has som etim es been
hundreds or ev en thousands of tim es the m axim um allowed by the federal

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standard for drinking water. While people clearly do not drink drilling
wastewater, the reason to use the drinking-water standard for com parison is that
there is no com prehensiv e federal standard for what constitutes safe lev els of
radioactiv ity in drilling wastewater.

Drillers trucked at least half of this waste to public sewage treatm ent plants in
Pennsy lv ania in 2 008 and 2 009, according to state officials. Som e of it has been
sent to other states, including New York and West Virginia.

Yet sewage treatm ent plant operators say they are far less capable of rem ov ing
radioactiv e contam inants than m ost other toxic substances. Indeed, m ost of these
facilities cannot rem ov e enough of the radioactiv e m aterial to m eet federal
drinking-water standards before discharging the wastewater into riv ers,
som etim es just m iles upstream from drinking-water intake plants.

In Pennsy lv ania, these treatm ent plants discharged waste into som e of the state’s
m ajor riv er basins. Greater am ounts of the wastewater went to the Monongahela
Riv er, which prov ides drinking water to m ore than 800,000 people in the
western part of the state, including Pittsbu rgh, and to the Susquehanna Riv er,
which feeds into Chesapeake Bay and prov ides drinking water to m ore than six
m illion people, including som e in Harrisbu rg and Baltim ore.

Lower am ounts hav e been discharged into the Delaware Riv er, which prov ides
drinking water for m ore than 1 5 m illion people in Philadelphia and eastern
Pennsy lv ania.

In New York, the wastewater was sent to at least one plant that discharges into
Southern Cay uga Lake, near Ithaca, and another that discharges into Owasco
Outlet, near Auburn. In West Virginia, a plant in Wheeling discharged
gas-drilling wastewater into the Ohio Riv er.

“Hy drofracking im pacts associated with health problem s as well as widespread


air and water contam ination hav e been reported in at least a dozen states,” said
Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, a business in Ithaca, N.Y., that
com piles data on gas drilling.

Problems in Ot her Regions

While Pennsy lv ania is an extrem e case, the risks posed by hy drofracking extend
across the country .

There were m ore than 493 ,000 activ e natural-gas wells in the United States in

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2 009, alm ost double the num ber in 1 990. Around 90 percent hav e used
hy drofracking to get m ore gas flowing, according to the drilling industry .

Gas has seeped into underground drinking-water supplies in at least fiv e states,
including Colorado, Ohio, Pennsy lv ania, Texas and West Virginia, and residents
blam ed natural-gas drilling.

Air pollution caused by natural-gas drilling is a growing threat, too. Wy om ing,


for exam ple, failed in 2 009 to m eet federal standards for air quality for the first
tim e in its history partly because of the fum es containing benzene and toluene
from roughly 2 7 ,000 wells, the v ast m ajority drilled in the past fiv e y ears.

In a sparsely populated Sublette County in Wy om ing, which has som e of the


highest concentrations of wells, v apors reacting to sunlight hav e contributed to
lev els of ozone higher than those recorded in Houston and Los Angeles.

Industry officials say any dangerous waste from the wells is handled in
com pliance with state and federal laws, adding that drilling com panies are
recy cling m ore wastewater now. They also say that hy drofracking is well
regulated by the states and that it has been used safely for decades.

But hy drofracking technology has becom e m ore powerful and m ore widely used
in recent y ears, producing far m ore wastew ater. Som e of the problem s with this
drilling, including its env ironm ental im pact and the challenge of disposing of
waste, hav e been docum ented by ProPublica, The Associated Press and other news
organizations, especially out West.

And recent incidents underscore the dangers. In late 2 008, drilling and
coal-m ine waste released during a drought so ov erwhelm ed the Monongahela
that local officials adv ised people in the Pittsburgh area to drink bottled water.
E.P.A. officials described the incident in an internal m em orandu m as “one of the
largest failures in U.S. history to supply clean drinking water to the public.”

In Texas, which now has about 93 ,000 natural-gas wells, up from around 58,000
a dozen y ears ago, a hospital sy stem in six counties with som e of the heav iest
drilling said in 2 01 0 that it found a 2 5 percent asthm a rate for y oung children,
m ore than three tim es the state rate of about 7 percent.

“It’s ruining us,” said Kelly Gant, whose 1 4 -y ear-old daughter and 1 1 -y ear-old
son hav e experienced sev ere asthm a attacks, dizzy spells and headaches since a
com pressor station and a gas well were set up about two y ears ago near her house
in Bartonv ille, Tex. The industry and state regulators hav e said it is not clear

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what role the gas industry has play ed in causing such problem s, since the area
has had high air pollution for a while.

“I’m not an activ ist, an alarm ist, a Dem ocrat, env ironm entalist or any thing like
that,” Ms. Gant said. “I’m just a person who isn’t able to m anage the health of m y
fam ily because of all this drilling.”

And y et, for all its problem s, natural gas offers som e clear env ironm ental
adv antages ov er coal, which is used m ore than any other fuel to generate
electricity in the United States. Coal-fired power plants without updated
equipm ent to capture pollutants are a m ajor source of radioactiv e pollution. Coal
m ines annually produce m illions of tons of toxic waste.

But the hazards associated with natural-gas production and drilling are far less
understood than those associated with other fossil fuels, and the regulations hav e
not kept pace with the natural-gas industry ’s expansion.

Pennsy lvania, Ground Zero

Pennsy lv ania, which sits atop an enorm ous reserv e called the Marcellus Shale,
has been called the Saudi Arabia of natural gas.

This rock form ation, roughly the size of Greece, lies m ore than a m ile beneath the
Appalachian landscape, from Virginia to the southern half of New York. It is
believ ed to hold enough gas to supply the country ’s energy needs for heat and
electricity , at current consum ption rates, for m ore than 1 5 y ears.

Drilling com panies w ere issued roughly 3 ,3 00 Marcellus gas-well perm its in
Pennsy lv ania last y ear, up from just 1 1 7 in 2 007 .

This has brought thousands of jobs, fiv e-figure windfalls for residents who lease
their land to the drillers and rev enue for a state that has struggled with budget
deficits. It has also transform ed the landscape of southwestern Pennsy lv ania and
brought heav y burdens.

Drilling derricks tower ov er barns, lining r ural roads like feed silos. Drilling sites
bustle around the clock with workers, som e in y ellow hazardous m aterial suits,
and 1 8-wheelers haul equipm ent, water and waste along back roads.

The rigs announce their presence with the occasional boom and quiv er of
underground explosions. Sm elling like raw sewage m ixed with gasoline,
drilling-waste pits, som e as large as a football field, sit close to hom es.

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Any where from 1 0 percent to 40 percent of the water sent down the well during
hy drofracking returns to the surface, carry ing drilling chem icals, v ery high
lev els of salts and, at tim es, naturally occurring radioactiv e m aterial.

While m ost states require drillers to dispose of this water in underground storage
wells below im perm eable rock lay ers, Pennsy lv ania has few such wells. It is the
only state that has allowed drillers to discharge m uch of their w aste through
sewage treatm ent plants into riv ers.

Regulators hav e theorized that passing drilling waste through the plants is safe
because m ost toxic m aterial will settle during the treatm ent process into a sludge
that can be trucked to a landfill, and whatev er toxic m aterial rem ains in the
wastewater will be diluted when m ixed into riv ers. But som e plants were taking
such large am ounts of waste with high salt lev els in 2 008 that downstream
utilities started com plaining that the riv er water was eating aw ay at their
m achines.

Regulators and drilling com panies hav e said that these cases, and others, were
isolated.

“The wastewater treatm ent plants are effectiv e at what they ’re designed to do —
rem ov e m aterial from wastewater,” said Jam ie Legenos, a spokeswom an for the
Pennsy lv ania Departm ent of Env ironm ental Protection, adding that the
radioactiv e m aterial and the salts were being properly handled.

Overwhelmed, Underprepared

For proof that radioactiv e elem ents in drilling w aste are not a concern, industry
spokesm en and regulators often point to the results of wastewater tests from a
2 009 draft report conducted by New York State and a 1 995 report by
Pennsy lv ania that found that radioactiv ity in drilling waste was not a threat.
These two reports were based on sam ples from roughly 1 3 gas wells in New York
and 2 9 in Pennsy lv ania.

But a rev iew by The Tim es of m ore than 3 0,000 pages of federal, state and
com pany records relating to m ore than 2 00 gas wells in Pennsy lv ania, 40 in
West Virginia and 2 0 public and priv ate w astewater treatm ent plants offers a
fuller picture of the w astewater such wells produce and the threat it poses.

Most of the inform ation was drawn from drilling reports from the last three
y ears, obtained by v isiting regional offices throughout Pennsy lv ania, and from
docum ents or databases prov ided by state and federal regulators in response to

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records requests.

Am ong The Tim es’s findings:

¶More than 1 .3 billion gallons of wastewater was produced by Pennsy lv ania wells
ov er the past three y ears, far m ore than has been prev iously disclosed. Most of
this water — enough to cov er Manhattan in three inches — was sent to treatm ent
plants not equipped to rem ov e m any of the toxic m aterials in dr illing waste.

¶At least 1 2 sewage treatm ent plants in three states accepted gas industry
wastewater and discharged waste that was only partly treated into riv ers, lakes
and stream s.

¶Of m ore than 1 7 9 wells producing wastewater with high lev els of radiation, at
least 1 1 6 reported lev els of radium or other radioactiv e m aterials 1 00 tim es as
high as the lev els set by federal drinking-w ater standards. At least 1 5 wells
produced wastewater carry ing m ore than 1 ,000 tim es the am ount of radioactiv e
elem ents considered acceptable.

Results cam e from field surv ey s conducted by state and federal regulators,
y ear-end reports filed by drilling com panies and state-ordered tests of som e public
treatm ent plants. Most of the tests m easured drilling wastewater for radium or
for “gross alpha” radiation, which ty pically com es from radium , uranium and
other elem ents.

Industry officials say they are not concerned.

“These low lev els of radioactiv ity pose no threat to the public or w orker safety and
are m ore a public perception issue than a real health threat,” said Jam es E. Grey ,
chief operating officer of Triana Energy .

In interv iews, industry trade groups like the Marcellus Shale Coalition and
Energy in Depth, as w ell as representativ es from energy com panies like Shell and
Chesapeake Energy , said they were producing far less wastewater because they
were recy cling m uch of it rather than disposing of it after each job.

But ev en with recy cling, the am ount of wastewater produced in Pennsy lv ania is
expected to increase because, according to industry projections, m ore than
50,000 new wells are likely to be drilled ov er the next two decades.

The radioactiv ity in the wastewater is not necessarily dangerous to people who
are near it. It can be blocked by thin barriers, including skin, so exposure is

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generally harm less.

Rather, E.P.A. and industry researchers say , the bigger danger of radioactiv e
wastewater is its potential to contam inate drinking water or enter the food chain
through fish or farm ing. Once radium enters a person’s body , by eating, drinking
or breathing, it can cause cancer and other health problem s, m any federal
studies show.

Lit t le Test ing for Radioact ivit y

Under federal law, testing for radioactiv ity in drinking water is required only at
drinking-water plants. But federal and state regulators hav e giv en nearly all
drinking-water intake facilities in Pennsy lv ania perm ission to test only once
ev ery six or nine y ears.

The Tim es rev iewed data from m ore than 6 5 intake plants downstream from
som e of the busiest drilling regions in the state. Not one has tested for
radioactiv ity since 2 008, and m ost hav e not tested since at least 2 005, before
m ost of the drilling w aste was being produced.

And in 2 009 and 2 01 0, public sewage treatm ent plants directly upstream from
som e of these drinking-water intake facilities accepted wastewater that contained
radioactiv ity lev els as high as 2 ,1 2 2 tim es the drinking-water standard. But
m ost sewage plants are not required to m onitor for radioactiv e elem ents in the
water they discharge. So there is v irtually no data on such contam inants as
water leav es these plants. Regulators and gas producers hav e repeatedly said that
the waste is not a threat because it is so diluted in riv ers or by treatm ent plants.
But industry and federal research cast doubt on those statem ents.

A confidential industry study from 1 990, conducted for the Am erican Petroleum
Institute, concluded that “using conserv ativ e assum ptions,” radium in drilling
wastewater dum ped off the Louisiana coast posed “potentially significant risks” of
cancer for people who eat fish from those w aters regularly .

The industry study focused on drilling industry wastewater being dum ped into
the Gulf of Mexico, where it would be far m ore diluted than in riv ers. It also used
estim ates of radium lev els far below those found in Pennsy lv ania’s drilling waste,
according to the study ’s lead author, Anne F. Meinhold, an env ironm ental risk
expert now at NASA.

Other federal, state and academ ic studies hav e also found dilution problem s with
radioactiv e drilling w aste.

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In Decem ber 2 009, these v ery risks led E.P.A. scientists to adv ise in a letter to
New York that sewage treatm ent plants not accept drilling waste with radium
lev els 1 2 or m ore tim es as high as the drinking-water standard. The Tim es found
wastewater containing radium lev els that were hundreds of tim es this standard.
The scientists also said that the plants should nev er discharge radioactiv e
contam inants at lev els higher than the drinking-water standard.

In 2 009 , E.P.A. scientists studied the m atter and also determ ined that certain
Pennsy lv ania riv ers were ineffectiv e at sufficiently diluting the radium -laced
drilling wastewater being discharged into them .

Asked about the studies, Pennsy lv ania regu lators said they were not aware of
them .

“Concerned? I’m alway s concerned,” said Dav e Allard, director of the Bureau of
Radiation Protection. But he added that the threat of this waste is reduced
because “the dilutions are so huge going through those treatm ent plants.”

Three m onths after The Tim es began asking questions about radioactiv e and
other toxic m aterial being discharged into specific riv ers, state regulators placed
m onitors for radioactiv ity near where drilling waste is discharged. Data will not
be av ailable until next m onth, state officials said.

But the m onitor in the Monongahela is placed upstream from the two public
sewage treatm ent plants that the state say s are still discharging large am ounts of
drilling waste into the riv er, leav ing the discharges from these plants unchecked
and Pittsburgh exposed.

Plant Operat ors in t he Dark

In interv iews, fiv e treatm ent plant operators said they did not believ e that the
drilling wastewater posed risks to the public. Sev eral also said they were not sure
of the waste’s contents because the lim ited inform ation drillers prov ide usually
goes to state officials.

“We count on state regulators to m ake sure that that’s properly done,” said Paul
McCurdy , env ironm ental specialist at Ridgway Borough’s public sewage
treatm ent plant, in Elk County , Pa., in the northwest part of the state.

Mr. McCurdy , whose plant discharges into the Clarion Riv er, which flows into the
Ohio and Mississippi Riv ers, said his plant w as taking about 2 0,000 gallons of
drilling waste per day .

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Like m ost of the sewage treatm ent plant operators interv iewed, Mr. McCurdy said
his plant was not equipped to rem ov e radioactiv e m aterial and w as not required
to test for it.

Docum ents filed by drillers with the state, though, show that in 2 009 his facility
was sent water from w ells whose wastewater was laced with radium at 2 7 5 tim es
the drinking-water standard and with other ty pes of radiation at m ore than 7 80
tim es the standard.

Part of the problem is that industry has outpaced regulators. “We sim ply can’t
keep up,” said one inspector with the Pennsy lv ania Departm ent of
Env ironm ental Protection who was not authorized to speak to reporters. “There’s
just too m uch of the waste.”

“If we’re too hard on them ,” the inspector added, “the com panies m ight just stop
reporting their m istakes.”

Recently , Pennsy lv ania has tried to increase its ov ersight, doubling the num ber
of regulators, im prov ing well-design requirem ents and sharply decreasing how
m uch drilling waste m any treatm ent plants can accept or release. The state is
considering whether to require treatm ent plants to begin m onitoring for
radioactiv ity in wastewater.

Ev en so, as of last Nov em ber, 3 1 inspectors were keeping tabs on m ore than
1 2 5,000 oil and gas w ells. The new regulations also allowed at least 1 8 plants to
continue accepting the higher am ounts set by their original perm its.

Furtherm ore, env ironm ental researchers from the Univ ersity of Pittsburgh
tested wastewater late last y ear that had been discharged by two treatm ent
plants. They say these tests will show, when the results are publicly released in
March, that salt lev els were far abov e the legal lim it.

Lax Oversight

Drilling contam ination is entering the env ironm ent in Pennsy lv ania through
spills, too. In the past three y ears, at least 1 6 wells whose records showed high
lev els of radioactiv ity in their wastewater also reported spills, leaks or failures of
pits where hy drofracking fluid or waste is stored, according to state records.

Gas producers are generally left to police them selv es when it com es to spills. In
Pennsy lv ania, regulators do not perform unannounced inspections to check for
signs of spills. Gas producers report their ow n spills, write their ow n spill response

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plans and lead their own cleanup efforts.

A rev iew of response plans for drilling projects at four Pennsy lv ania sites where
there hav e been accidents in the past y ear found that these state-approv ed plans
often appear to be in v iolation of the law.

At one well site where sev eral spills occurred within a week, including one that
flowed into a creek, the well’s operator filed a rev ised spill plan say ing there was
little chance that waste would ev er enter a waterway .

“There are business pressures” on com panies to “cut corners,” John Hanger, who
stepped down as secretary of the Pennsy lv ania Departm ent of Env ironm ental
Protection in January , has said. “It’s cheaper to dum p wastewater than to treat
it.”

Records back up that assertion.

From October 2 008 through October 2 01 0, regulators were m ore than twice as
likely to issue a written warning than to lev y a fine for env ironm ental and safety
v iolations, according to state data. During this period, 1 5 com panies were fined
for drilling-related v iolations in 2 008 and 2 009, and the com panies paid an
av erage of about $44 ,000 each y ear, according to state data.

This av erage was less than half of what som e of the com panies earned in profits in
a day and a tiny fraction of the m ore than $2 m illion that som e of them paid
annually to haul and treat the waste.

And prospects for drillers in Pennsy lv ania are looking brighter.

In Decem ber, the Republican gov ernor-elect, Tom Corbett, who during his
cam paign took m ore gas industry contributions than all his com petitors
com bined, said he would reopen state land to new drilling, rev ersing a decision
m ade by his predecessor, Edward G. Rendell. The change clears the way for as
m any as 1 0,000 wells on public land, up from about 2 5 activ e wells today .

In arguing against a proposed gas-extraction tax on the industry , Mr. Corbett said
regulation of the industry had been too aggressiv e.

“I will direct the Departm ent of Env ironm ental Protection to serv e as a partner
with Pennsy lv ania businesses, com m unities and local gov ernm ents,” Mr. Corbett
say s on his Web site. “It should return to its core m ission protecting the
env ironm ent based on sound science.”

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