January 28, 2010

Frack, Baby, Frack
With all the excitement over fracking -- the process of freeing huge amount of natural gas trapped within rock formations such as the Marcellus Shale by injecting water and chemicals at high pressure -- in Pennsylvania and New York, it's tempting to forget that the environmental cost to getting the gas out of the ground may turn out to be severe. In NY, the concern is radioactive contamination of New York City's upstate water supply. In Pennsylvania, the problem is more mundane -- constant industrial accidents (via Pro Publica):
Earlier this month, Pennsylvania's environmental officials fined Pennsylvania-based Atlas Resources after a series of violations at 13 wells, including spills of fracturing fluids and other contaminants onto the ground around the sites. And just last week the agency fined M.R. Dirt, a company that removes waste from drilling sites, $6,000 for spilling more than seven tons of drilling dirt along a public road.

The reports come on the heels of a string of other incidents that have killed fish in one of the state's most prized recreational lakes and released toxic chemicals into the environment.

The Atlas spills are significant because they are among the latest and because they happened repeatedly during the routine transfer of fluids. Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection fined [1] Atlas Resources $85,000 for the offenses, which took place between May and December of 2009. Many of the spills were discovered by DEP inspectors.

..."If you look at this series of violations -- it's not only that there are multiple violations," said DEP spokeswoman Helen Humphreys, pointing to the fact that the same three violations were turning up at each site. "This is a pattern, and it's a problem."

Newsweek has a nice piece on the dangers of fracking fluids -- the stuff they inject into rock to bust the natural gas out -- and the fact that, despite their highly toxic, often corrosive, nature, such fluids were exempted from clean water regulations by Congress back in 2005. The NYT also covered a series of drilling-related spills in Pennsylvania a month ago.

But no matter the technique, Pennsylvanians should know by now that extractive industries have a tendency to poison the environments they exploit. The state has been actively cheerleading the industry (although given the potential windfall also strangely resistant to taxing it -- Gov. Rendell seems to prefer putting the tax burden on casino gamblers). But there ain't no such thing as a free lunch, especially where hydrocholoric acid, benzene and diesel fuel (favorite ingredients for frackers everywhere) are concerned. Like the saying goes, frack around too much and there's sure to be trouble in the end.

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