Disclosure of Radioactive Fracking Wastewater Prompts Outcry

A hydraulic fracturing expose published over the weekend by The New York Times continues to spark controversy and calls for reform. The Times’ fracking investigation, which drew on thousands of previously secret government and industry documents, reported that potentially unhealthy levels of radioactive chemicals in the wastewater produced by the natural gas drilling technique could be endangering drinking water supplies.

The documents detailed by the Times included studies by the EPA and the drilling industry that found that dumping radioactive fracking waste into waterways does not sufficiently dilute it. Drinking water intake plants downstream from these sewage facilities do not test or treat water for radioactivity, the Times said.

In Pennsylvania, where the Times reported that 116 of 179 Marcellus shale wells had high levels of radiation in wastewater samples, the former head of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said the report raises “serious concerns” about public health, but denied Pennsylvania regulators had been lax in their oversight of the industry.

“Personally I believe there isn’t a [radiation] problem,” John Hanger told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “But test the water.”

On the federal level, two Democrats in the House of Representatives announced yesterday that they were launching an investigation into fracking on public lands. According to TheHill.com, Rep. Edward Markey (Mass.) and Rep. Rush Holt (N.J.) have asked the Interior Department for detailed information on the prevalence of fracking on public lands.

“As industry expands the use of this technology to tap into more oil and gas reserves, we must ensure that the process of hydraulic fracturing is performed in a safe and environmentally sound manner,” the lawmakers said in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. “Extracting natural gas on public lands should not result in a threat to public health.”

This is the second time since the Times published its fracking expose that Rep. Markey has weighed in on the issue. As we reported yesterday, Markey, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, sent a letter to Lisa Jackson, head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), asking why the agency had taken a “see no evil” approach to the issues detailed by the Times.

Another well-known critic of fracking, New York Rep. Maurice Hinchey, also a Democrat, joined in urging the EPA to get tougher with the industry in the wake of the Times report.

“Unfortunately, as you know, EPA is limited in its abilities to regulate hydraulic fracturing due to a number of egregious exemptions the industry enjoys from our nation’s most important environmental safeguards,” Hinchey said a letter he sent to Jackson yesterday. “However, I believe there are several specific actions EPA can and must take to protect the public health in light of these alarming new findings.”

Among other things, Hinchey wants the EPA to speed up a fracking study Congress ordered it to conduct last year, and require that sewage treatment plants that accept fracking wastewater conduct tests for radioactivity.

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