Journalism in the Public Interest

EPA Sees Risks to Water, Workers In New York Fracking Rules

In 47 pages of comments, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency weighs in on New York’s potentially precedent-setting regulations for natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.


The site of one of Canada-based Gastem USA's wells in Otsego County, N.Y., in 2009. The well produced far less wastewater than most Marcellus Shale wells will, but it still took the drillers more than a year to get permission to drill it, because they couldn't find a place to dispose of the water. (Joaquin Sapien/ProPublica)

New York's emerging plan to regulate natural gas drilling in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale needs to go further to safeguard drinking water, environmentally sensitive areas and gas industry workers, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has informed state officials.

The EPA's comments, in a series of letters this week to the state's Department of Environmental Conservation, are significant because they suggest the agency will be watching closely as states in the Northeast and Midwest embrace new drilling technologies to tap vast reserves of shale gas.

New York is in the forefront of the shale gas boom and has been working on regulations for more than three years. Judith Enck, the EPA regional administrator who issued the agency comments, noted that New York "will help set the pace for improved safeguards across the country."

The EPA's comments are among 20,000 the state has received on its proposed plan to regulate the environmental effects of drilling. Many of the EPA's comments focus on how the state DEC will handle the chemically tainted wastewater from the drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

To free the gas trapped in the Marcellus and other shale formations, drillers pump millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals deep underground under pressure. The wastewater can get into drinking water by being disposed of at sewage treatment plants, the EPA wrote.

As ProPublica first reported in 2009, these plants don't typically have the equipment necessary to detect and treat the chemicals in drilling wastewater. Plant operators who accept drilling wastewater simply dilute it with regular sewage and then discharge it into water bodies. DEC wastewater samples had levels of radioactive elements thousands of times higher than drinking water limits, ProPublica reported.

In its comments, the EPA pointed out that New York's current permitting system for water treatment plants doesn't include limits on pollutants frequently contained in drilling wastewater, such as radionuclides, which can cause cancer at high levels.

The EPA said it needs to be more closely involved in analyzing and approving any treatment plant's application to accept drilling wastewater. And while the DEC's proposed rules suggest limits on radioactive elements such as radium, the EPA said it's not clear who would be "responsible for addressing the potential health and safety issues" related to radiation exposure.

The EPA also flagged health risks to workers close to wastewater and other potentially radioactive materials, like the large amounts of soil and mud unearthed by drilling. "At a minimum, the human health risks to the site workers from radon and its decay products should be assessed along with the associated treatment technologies such as aeration systems or holding for decay," the agency wrote.

The EPA raised concerns about the sheer amount of wastewater. To deal with the excess water, the DEC listed a number of out-of-state treatment plants as potential recipients, but the EPA warned that several of the plants probably don't have the capacity to handle more wastewater.

ProPublica reported that neighboring Pennsylvania became overwhelmed by drilling wastewater after the state embraced the industry. The Monongahela River, which provides drinking water to 350,000 people, became contaminated with drilling salts and minerals.

The EPA letters are the latest in a series of federal moves to tighten oversight of gas drilling. In December, the agency scientifically linked underground water pollution to hydraulic fracturing for the first time. Last August, the EPA announced that it would develop its own rules on wastewater disposal instead of leaving it up to states.

Industry and green groups have split over the DEC's proposed regulations, with drillers saying they are too restrictive and environmentalists contending they don't go far enough. Meantime, the EPA has launched a comprehensive review of the environmental impacts of hydrofracking.

In August, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens told ProPublica that he didn't think there would be much to learn from the EPA study and that the state was far ahead of the federal agency in its response to drilling.

The business solution here is to require them to put funds in escrow to cover any potential cleanup required by their business practices.

Let’s see how much would be required to clean up the radium in the drinking supply of NYC?

January 13, 2012. Important new paper for anti-fracking activists: Radon in the Marcellus Shale, from Dr. Marvin Resnikoff of Radioactive Waste Management Associates.
Check it out.
A significant public health hazard associated with drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation must be seriously investigated by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). This hazard is from radioactive radon gas and the potential for large numbers of lung cancer among natural gas customers. This issue, which has been ignored in the DEC’s Draft Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, must be addressed in a revised Impact Statement and before DEC issues any drilling permits.

stan henderson

Jan. 14, 2012, 10:10 a.m.

What else could Joe Martin had said.  I’m sure he’s in bed with the money too. The AMERICAN taxpayer (the sheep) will eventially pay for any dissaster that happens.  It seems to me, that the most educated among us are the biggest thieves, sinners, manipulators, illusionist, actors.  They do and will tell us anything to keep the sheep moving and producing.  And, as sheep, we don’t mind working our ass for you, but there will come a day when the sheep just sit down. If I had my way it would be tomorrow. The fee’s: taxes, user fee, this fee, that fee, bail out, stimulus, lobbyist, greed, in your face insider trading, record bonuses for educated thieves who got bailed out, politicians who say, by their actions, do as I say do, not as I do, the splitting of the english language and dancing around, the housing boom that was an illusion.  It just goes on and on.  The smarter we get the dumber we get.  Who are we really fooling?

Fresh groundwater is the most valuable resource in the universe. Why are these companies being allowed to poison our water? How can they replace that? Debt’s not the only thing our children will hate us for!Really>>The world’s gone nuts!

Research neess to be done, yes. The EPA is a joke however, they have little science when it comes to the method. The government is slowly making it to where you can only be succesful if you work for them. I work in the industry, I am far from rich, i used to work in the aerospace industry that the government killed when all of a sudden private jets are evil. The U.S. auto industry took a hit because they burn so much gas and pollute. But overseas hybrid cause more pollution to make then the 8.0L gas hog will ever put out in its life. We impose emissions regulations and see Electric cars as a life safer. COAL which puts out more emmissions then those bad cars people think do all the bad. Your electric car pollutes more than a CADI ever will. Iso Poly batteries , you environmentalist are smoking crack.

I found it very interesting that thousands of people are protesting plans to allow hydraulic fracturing in Bulgaria but no such wide spread protests in this nation, It makes me wonder what they know that we don’t.

Actually I think you’re the one suffering from hallucinations DRILL. Probably from inhaling all those cancer causing oil and gas fumes.

We don’t need the natural gas. In fact gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel were are biggest exports last year. And the price of natural gas is at record lows and natural gas producers are shuttin-in entire gas fields right now.

So the only big hurry here is to get as many gas wells drilled and fracked as possible before the general public catches on to just how destructive and dangerous hydraulic fracturing really is.

More than just salt and minerals are put into rivers from treatment plants,radioactive elements,heavy metals too.There will be hell to pay if the EPA tries to prosecute the frackers for water pollution,as the Cheney amendment exempts the gas industry from water pollution.gas fracking also releases gas into the air,from leaks,venting and gas coming up thru rock fractures.It bubbles up in ponds,streams,and soil,which is toxic to farm crops,trees,plants.Polluting water aquifers for hundreds of years for 30 years gas at best is too stupid.


Jan. 15, 2012, 4:25 p.m.

Incredible. My suggestion?  If Governor Cuomo approves this? IMPEACH HIS ASS.

This is another simple case of follow the money. Despite the enormous volume of data pointing to the risks in fracking, there is a pell-mell rush to do it by the Pols and the gas industry, and in so doing simply saying to the voter / citizen, “your interests dont matter” one can talk about all the data you want, but in the end, this is about being sold down the road again.

The lack of long term vision in the US is governed by how much $$ is in politics…your rights are for sale and they have been sold in many places to the gas and oil companies. When your land and water is contaminated by their drilling…how do you recover? If you family gets sick, how to do pay for their care? 99% of families do not have the resources to go toe-to-toe with the gas companies legal who loses?

The gas companies know how desparate most people are for some financial security in these times and they are preying on these people. They are betting that people will whistle past the graveyard and ignore the risk, or better yet, pass the risk to their children and neighbors.

But when the water cant be used because of the chemicals in it…and the disease profile, like Love Canal so many decades ago, begins to explode, who solves that problem….people can live without gas, but they cant live without water.

In the end, why do we want to become dependent on another fossil fuel for another 50 years? It only proves that America has to interest in the future it should have, and will simply take the future it gets.

Nick said; “In the end, why do we want to become dependent on another fossil fuel for another 50 years? It only proves that America has to interest in the future it should have, and will simply take the future it gets.”

Good post, Nick.  This is the heart of the problem.  They are running out of fossil fuels and the end result will be more polluted drinking water and more Guilf oil spills.  The oil plutocrats, of course, want to ruin the rest of the planet before they consider alternative energy.

@ Drill:  If government employees are reduced to “smoking crack” it may be from dealing with myopic greedheads all day like the people who run your industry.  Before I retired from the government I spent half my time time reading SEC filings by for-profit companies to prepare for meetings with greedy corporate executives.  Congress is for sale and its a lot worse on the inside (i.e., inside federal agencies) then whining about it from the outside.  Career federal employees need our support.  Stop voting for idiots (and talking like one).

Had we still been under Republican control in the Exec branch this information would never have surfaced. Instead of seeing the potential hazards of FRACKING, the EPA would have been blind to its flaws and pushed full speed ahead with DRILL BABY DRILL.

To be fair, though, while fracking is obviously the wrong approach, there is a pressing need for natural gas.

We’re eternally thirty years away from fusion.  Housing is still higher priority than wind.  Solar cells are expensive, inefficient, and hard on the environment.  Nuclear fission has a bad reputation, making any reactor design suspect (including thorium and other designs).  Oil is getting too expensive.

In my eyes, we need a bridge.  We moved from wood to coal, then from coal to oil.  Each time, we went to something that polluted less, carried more energy, and was easier to harvest.  Each jump (by providing cheap power) kickstarted innovation, including in energy production.

The next step would be gas.

Without it, I don’t know that we’ll ever get solar or wind energy that’s good enough without destroying habitats by blocking the sun or shaking the ground.  I don’t want to choose between feeding people and keeping factories running.  Either option advocates letting people die, which is unacceptable.

And I’m not even sure that fracking—in and of itself—is a problem.  Consider:  If a gas pocket sits between me and an aquifer and I pump clean water into the space to eject the gas, the only things that should come out of the hole are already present.  Therefore, if toxic crap is coming out, then toxic crap is what’s getting pumped in.  And THAT is where the focus needs to be.

Force the companies to disclose their “fracking recipe” and test every step of the way.  “Trust but verify,” as Reagan said.  Live by Reagonomics, die by Reaganomics…

yes, GOP, lets do away with the EPA.  this whole racking/radon thing is just a figment of our imaginations, just like global warming.  vote republican! yeah baby!  talk about sheep. jeezus. we cant get anywhere with half the people in the country voting gop. how bout a year of political “genocide”

We need to get rid or gas, oil, and coal as energy sources but, the government keeps figuring out ways to make them a little cleaner and more expensive so our wealth will be transferred. In the meantime, the cost of these antiquated energy sources will go up and up and we will have less and less money. If the government would stay out of this, we would get rid of oi, gas, and coal.

Julieann Wozniak

Jan. 17, 2012, 1:51 p.m.

And yet, PADEP, the corrupted regulatory agency here in PA is allowed to keep right on enabling industry to kill us quicker by refusing to enforce its own regulations.

The Dimock incident was no fluke. Similar incidents occur all over the Commonwealth and the guilty parties get a slap on the wrist.

More evidence refuting the myth of natural gas being clean. Natural gas, aka methane, emits less carbon dioxide that coal.  It doesn’t emit sulfur when burned like coal does, but where does radioactivity fit into the risk assessment? Fracking may not have been proven to contaminate an aquifer (except in Wyoming) but that is because the lobbyists are paying off the local government to make sure of none of that is found.

The oil & gas industry has not proven that the life cycle of natural gas is cleaner than coal.  Industry propaganda is spending millions on TV ads to brainwash us to that fact. Anything be shoved down your throat that hard and fast should be making you choke. The GOP has plans to increase taxes on everyone but the 1% to pay for an entire new infrastructure to switch from petroleum and coal to natural gas. 

Decay products in natural gas coming from naturally occurring radioactive material (NORM) like radium, radon and polonium builds up on the inner surfaces of the pipes, hindering flow and must be replaced. Gas processing plants have the same problem as equipment gets buildup inside it.  When equipment is serviced or disposed or, it is seriously hazardous material and requires permits and land for disposal.  This has been well-documented oil companies in Canada and the Middle East. Here in the US, we have no plan for what to do with wasted pipelines or contaminated equipment.

Makes me wonder if the natural gas pipeline explosions in neighborhoods of San Bruno, CA and in PA the past few years released radioactivity into the atmosphere.

The system is rigged.

In reply to John, who said: “And I’m not even sure that fracking—in and of itself—is a problem.  Consider:  If a gas pocket sits between me and an aquifer and I pump clean water into the space to eject the gas, the only things that should come out of the hole are already present.  Therefore, if toxic crap is coming out, then toxic crap is what’s getting pumped in.  And THAT is where the focus needs to be.”

Yes, toxic crap is being pumped in, and yes, that is a problem. But the fluid that flows back out of the gas wells can carry with it not only the toxic substances that were pumped in, but also naturally occurring toxic substances from deep within the earth—like radioactive material and heavy metals. And the gas itself (i.e. methane) may enter an aquifer, leading to the risk of explosions in water wells (and homes) drawing water from the aquifer. So even if the fracking fluid were 100% non-toxic (and it isn’t), there would still be an issue with toxic material coming back out of the gas wells.

Also, your visualization of the process—pumping water into a pocket of gas—is not accurate. The gas is tied up in the shale. In order to get it out, they have to pump in very high volumes of fluid at very high pressures to fracture the shale and create pathways along which the freed gas can flow. Also, the gas lies beneath the aquifers, not between you and the aquifer. This, however, is no guarantee that the aquifers will be safe. Faulty or aging gas well casings, natural or manmade fractures in the rock layers, and old, abandoned gas and oil wells can all serve as pathways into the aquifer.

carlos briones

Jan. 17, 2012, 2:52 p.m.

Sapien and Lustgarten can rejoice.  Propublica has won.  Gas drilling will not occur in anny significant way in NY.  NY’s geology is inferior to both PA & Ohio.  While Upstate is prospective for both Marcellus and Utica, it is in the “dry gas window”.  With gas prices sinking, companies are attempting to shift resources to liquids rich formations.

Given that permitting, drilling and completion costs will be radically higher in NY, it highly unlikely that any company will invest in large scale drilling operations - particularly when those wells will have a lower return on investment that wells than in liquids rich plays. 

So ProPublica, Park Foundation, etc can rejoice!  We won’t have widespread drilling. 

Instead we can build an economy based on organic farming, social service organizations, schools and finger lakes wineries.  It’s going to be great!

No to be worried on this issue. Even if lifting border and Canadian oil supply can be delayed for a while. We need to try every avenue to find a instant solution to issues at hand. There will never be any shotage of natural resourceson earth under the solar system.

Steve H said: “So the only big hurry here is to get as many gas wells drilled and fracked as possible before the general public catches on to just how destructive and dangerous hydraulic fracturing really is.”

I would agree that this is part of the reason for the hurry-up mentality of the gas industry. But another huge factor is that they need to drill to hold leases. Back in 2008 when gas prices were much, much higher than they are now, the industry rushed into NY and engaged in a speculative frenzy of leasing. There is an astonishing amount of land under lease, and the gas industry doesn’t want to lose any more of those leases than it has to. So even though the price of gas is in the basement, they need to drill. This is not only an environmental and public health disaster, it’s a potential economic disaster as well. Some of the shale companies are probably going to go belly up, leaving the taxpayers to pay to clean up their messes.

Obama took office in 2008 with a negative US coffer balance-sheet and none of his policies will be failing.
Let him and his good and clearly visible guys to lead all the nations at least for another decade and America will surely become a rich and happy nation again.

Not to be worried on too many men-made issues at one time, they are less troubling than imagined because only monetary greed is the reason and we can wipe clean the accounting bill board to have a fresh start.

Even if lifting border and Canadian oil supply can be delayed for a while. We need to try every avenue to find instant solutions to issues at hand. There will never ever be any shotage of natural resources on earth under the solar system.

No wise man is worried about colors of skins because we are same human race and one mankind on this globe.

James F Traynor

Jan. 17, 2012, 3:50 p.m.

The last thing NewYorkers should do is to trust Andrew C.. His father Mario, was an honest man, but considerable doubt remains about the son. As for the DEC, don’t make me laugh.

Those are good points, Mary, and I was oversimplifying (read “pocket” as metaphorical).  And I definitely overlooked the depth.  Living on Long Island, we basically have sand, more sand, an aquifer, and…I don’t know, I think it’s a portal to Hell or something.  Anything resembling rock is mostly coincidental.

If it’s beneath the aquifer, as you point out, that’s a much worse situation.

And I do agree on the other issues, but I feel like they’re less important.  Pushing some uranium to the surface, for example, isn’t going to cause the widespread illness that often follows drilling.  (When you have people developing sores and the like, for example, that’s more likely organic chemistry than physics.)

I don’t want to make it sound like I’m dismissing it, because it’s still a danger, but I’d rather see people focus on the biggest problems first, because it’s easy for a company researcher to waste your time dismissing small possibilities.  (I’m in software and had a boss who used to do stuff like this all the time.  He’d design small intentional bugs into the product so that we could focus senior management on those easily-fixed defects while we tried to figure out the serious problems.  And I can’t help but notice how much of energy policy is basically that kind of sleight of hand.)

James, at least he’s not Paterson…

I’m kidding, mostly, and don’t trust him either.  The company he keeps (David Dinkins, Bill Clinton, and Sandra Lee) makes me uncomfortable, and his HUD work was an enormous contributor to the subprime crisis, if the Village Voice article wasn’t too far off the mark.

Mary Sweeney, I’d have to see the actual individual leases before I or I would bet anyone else can say if there is a deadline to drill or not. In most cases I’m familiar with there is no deadline to drill and oil and gas companies can buy up leases and sit on them for decades. And that is especially true for leases involving public land.

Also as I’ve explained in another post I’ve been on a few holes that were drilled to hold leases and all we did was drill and set the surface casing and move off because even if there was a deadline for drilling that was not true for putting wells in actual production.

So I am very suspicious of the argument that the gas companies are being forced to drill because of lease requirements. I’m thinking more they are betting on future demand and the fact that they are going to get shut down on hydraulic fracturing in at least some areas.

It’s not just the water. Look at the air around these sites. If you or I where pumping out the TOXIC mess that comes from it, we would be sitting in a Federal Prison.

John: As I understand it, in the Marcellus the main problem as far as radioactive materials are concerned is radium. Unfortunately, it does not seem that adequate precautions are being taken to protect drilling workers or the general public from radium and other contaminants that occur in flowback fluid and drill cuttings. But I agree that the drilling chemicals are a major problem; the sad fact is that there are so many problems, it’s difficult to know which one to put at the top of the list. As Thomas House points out in his comment, air quality is an issue. And water contamination, as we’ve noted. There’s also noise, habitat destruction, reduced residential property values, heavy truck traffic, increased spread of invasive species, accidents such as well blowouts & chemical spills, shortages of rental housing because of the influx of non-resident workers (the shortages then force local residents into the street), increases in crime, etc. etc. 

As far as I am concerned, a very fundamental problem is that shale gas extraction requires large-scale industrialization of the landscape. It would take many tens of thousands of shale gas wells in order to get a significant amount of gas out of the Marcellus. So many wells would be required that huge risks to the environment and to public safety would be inevitable, even if best practices were followed at each well (and at this point having best practices followed at each well site is a fantasy).

The latest estimate from the USGS says there may be 84 tcf of technically recoverable gas in the Marcellus—a less-than-four-year supply for the U.S. at current rates of consumption. So we’re putting a lot at risk for an energy source that doesn’t provide a long-term answer to our energy problems.

A tool for discerning GHG from the perspective of supply: or Location&fid;=&sc=32&so=0&ds=S

A tool for discerning GHG from the perspective of emissions:

A tool for stopping GHG emissions:

Fracking has caused numerous earthquakes in Arkansas and Oklahoma in the past year.  It’s dangerous for people that live near any fracking.  Great article!!

Look at the air around drilling sites and compressor stations with an infrared camera and you’ll see how it is that Cornell scientists might conclude that shale gas is possibly more green-house gas intensive than coal or oil. Does the DEC believe in Climate Change? Does Cuomo? Seems obvious, but maybe we should ask.

Just today, my local newsman said to watch out for wood-burning fireplaces and that anyone that had a wood-burning fireplace should change it to a gas-burning fireplace…..WHAT???  I think I’d rather have a wood-burning fireplace.  Apparently, the reason was that the ashes, etc. from a wood-burning fireplace added to the pollution of the air in California.  I guess gas-burning is cleaner, but let’s not forget the environmental problems it causes getting it to where it needs to go…..

Here’s a little insight. While we are in a drilling and fracking boom and planning a pipeline from Canada so we can export gasoline, diesel, jet fuel, and natural gas I bet if you actually went out to oil and gas fields you would not be able to even count all the solar panels they are using out there these days.

Simple solution. No Fracking !

Don’t worry now. Oil price is going to drop and fracking in the cities will stop.

I personally think we need natural gas n eventually do away with oil and gas. Under one
Condition, it must be done safely. Natural gas
Burns very clean, don’t think all this pollution
That cars produce is healthy for us. It’s bad
For our health and our environment. What
I’m saying is that we need another source
Of energy that’s going to cleaner and
Healthier….again it must be done safely.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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