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Two Big Decisions Loom on the Fate of Drinking Water for 15 Million People Living Near the Marcellus Shale

Decisions about whether to allow fracking in NY, PA, NJ and DE may be decided in just a few weeks.
 
 
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The fate of fracking in the Northeast may be determined soon.

On Nov. 21, the Delaware River Basin Commission, comprising representatives from four states (New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware) and the federal government, will vote on whether to allow the intensive method of natural-gas drilling in the river's watershed. The watershed, which supplies drinking water for more than 15 million people, overlaps the eastern end of the Marcellus Shale, an underground geological formation touted as the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas."

The commission's rules, which will apply in the Delaware watershed, will overlap with state regulations. Pennsylvania already allows fracking. New York is in the process of developing regulations about where it might be allowed and under what conditions. The state Department of Environmental Conservation will hold public hearings in November, and says it will decide sometime next year. Many environmental activists believe Gov. Andrew Cuomo is fast-tracking the issue.

The Background

Fracking is currently on hold in New York and the Delaware watershed while regulations are being developed. In Pennsylvania west of the Delaware watershed, more than 4,000 wells have been drilled since 2005, with almost 1,500 started this year.

The proposed Delaware River regulations will be released Nov. 7. Environmental activists are pessimistic about both processes. "We know they're going to going to be bad," says Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of Delaware Riverkeeper. "We don't know how bad."

"The fix is in in both," says Bruce Ferguson of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy. "Cuomo's going to shove it down our throats."

Fracking -- a nickname for "high-volume hydraulic fracturing" -- involves drilling down into shale layers thousands of feet underground, then pumping in thousands of gallons of water, sand and often toxic additives to shatter the shale and enable gas trapped in it to bubble up through the pipes. Unlike traditional gas wells, which go straight up and down, fracking wells are drilled out horizontally once they reach the shale. The process is fraught with environmental hazards, from aboveground spills to the possibility of gas and the toxic chemicals used leaking into groundwater.

The Marcellus Shale is a layer of black shale rich in organic materials along the west side of the Appalachian Mountains. Formed about 400 million years ago, it covers the area under eastern Ohio, most of Pennsylvania, almost all of West Virginia, the Maryland panhandle, and upstate New York from the Southern Tier counties along the Pennsylvania border to the Catskill Mountains. Most of it is more than a mile underground, but the areas where it is closer to the surface -- northern Pennsylvania and upstate New York -- are where the gas is purest and most easily accessible.

NY Learning from Pennsylvania's Mistakes?

Pennsylvania has relatively loose regulations. It allows drilling as little as 100 feet away from streams or wetlands and 200 feet from a structure. While it prohibits companies from dumping drilling waste into streams or unlined pits, it lets them store it in open-air pits, as long as the pits are lined with a synthetic material.

The proposed New York regulations, at least the draft issued in September, would be somewhat stricter. They would allow fracking in an estimated 80 percent of the Marcellus Shale, but would ban it within 2,000 feet of public drinking-water supplies and within 500 feet of private wells. They would require "flowback" -- the water that returns to the Earth's surface after fracking, which contains numerous toxic chemicals used in the process -- to be stored in watertight tanks. Most important for both political and environmental reasons, they would prohibit fracking within 4,000 feet of the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, as both cities do not filter their water supplies, and it would cost billions of dollars to build filtration plants.

"In developing the permitting process for high-volume hydraulic fracturing, DEC's number one priority is to protect drinking water for all New Yorkers," says a Department of Environmental Conservation spokesperson. "New York has taken a cautious and deliberate approach to propose the strictest standards in the nation that are based on sound science and engineering principles. The draft SGEIS [supplemental generic environmental impact statement] contains multiple barriers to protect the state's drinking water and public health, which include generous buffers around water supplies."

Richard Young, a geology professor at the State University of New York at Geneseo, calls the buffers "ridiculous." In fracking, he says, water is pumped underground at pressures of 15,000 pounds per square inch, capable of lifting an 8,000-foot column of rock. This would force the gas and the chemicals used up into fractures in the earth, where they then would inevitably wind up in groundwater.

"There's lots of faults and fractures in New York State that nobody has mapped. Once you start pressurizing them, there's no controlling where things go," he explains. "The cleanup costs would be astronomical even if you could do it. Once you contaminate water underground over a broad area, there's nothing you can do about it. There's no bailout plan."

A Duke University study released in May found methane gas concentrations averaging 19.2 milligrams per liter in water from wells within 1,000 meters of shale-gas well pads in Pennsylvania and upstate New York-17 times the amount of methane in wells farther away. The methane found was distinctly "thermogenic," prehistoric and from deep underground, rather than "biogenic," from recent organic decay near the surface. The study listed three possible sources of water contamination: that the process itself had forced gas and toxic chemicals up into aquifers; leaks from defective drill pipes closer to the surface; and spills aboveground.

"Methane migration through the 1- to 2-km-thick geological formations that overlie the Marcellus and Utica shales is less likely as a mechanism for methane contamination than leaky well casings," it said, "but might be possible due to both the extensive fracture systems reported for these formations and the many older, uncased wells drilled and abandoned over the last century and a half in Pennsylvania and New York."

"Every time you drill a well, be it a water well or a gas well, you're breaking a seal, says William Kappel, a hydrologist with the United States Geological Service office in Ithaca, New York. Still, he says the chances are "nil" that fracking would force toxins up into groundwater. The intense pressure used, he explains, is to balance the high pressure underground, and the actual pumping takes only 15 to 20 minutes. Underground vertical faults are very small, he adds, sometimes as thin as a sheet of paper. They can be as much as 1,000 feet long at depths of 7,000 feet, but closer to the surface, they are shorter and much more likely to be horizontal.

From the data he's seen, he says, leaks from vertical drilling pipes are a far more likely hazard.

That is what happened in Dimock, Pennsylvania, a town of 1,400 people near the New York border, in April 2010. The cement casing around a drill pipe cracked, allowing methane to leak into the groundwater, poisoning 19 wells. The water in those wells contained so much methane that there was a risk it might explode. The gas that leaked in Dimock, says Kappel, was not from the Marcellus shale, but from a slightly higher geological layer. Drilling was banned in a nine-square-mile area after the leak. Cabot Energy, the operator of the defective well, signed a consent decree that it would provide water to the 19 households affected. Originally, it was going to build a pipeline to bring water from the nearby town of Montrose, but it decided that supplying 550-gallon "water buffalo" tanks was cheaper.

On Oct. 18, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said that Cabot could stop providing water to the affected households after Nov. 30.

"They said they weren't going to spend any more money testing our water," says Dimock resident Craig Sauter. "They said it was a done deal. One of our neighbors turned on his water today, and it came out brown and orange."

Sauter and his wife signed a lease for $2,500 an acre in June 2008 to let Cabot drill on their land. The company promised to restore his water if it was degraded, he says, but "they never have." When the air in his well was tested Sept. 15, he says, it contained 20 percent methane. His tap water "looked like coffee with milk in it."

Cabot is required to give the affected households gas mitigators. "We've been down that road before, and it didn't do the job," says Sauter. The device got a lot of the methane out, he says, but his water was still contaminated with arsenic, barium, and uranium. Cabot insists those elements were there naturally.

Lawyers for the affected households may appeal the decision, but Sauter doesn't have much faith in the courts. "I know money talks, and that's not reassuring," he says. The New York DEC says that properly cementing the vertical drilling pipes would have prevented the Dimock gas leaks, as well as several others that occurred in nearby wells. It contends that because the Dimock well was located on a steep hill, it would have flagged the permit application and required "site-specific permit conditions designed to address the risks associated with hillside locations."

Other fracking hazards include the huge numbers of truck trips required to carry supplies, the amount of water needed for the process, and waste storage. Flowback contains significant amounts of toxic volatile hydrocarbons, such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene, as well as lead and halogenated hydrocarbons such as dichlorobromomethane. In Pennsylvania, the ponds that contain the flowback are "the size of an Olympic swimming pool and lined with plastic slightly stronger than a trash bag," says Gloria Forouzan of Marcellus Protest in Pittsburgh. "There's no facility in Pennsylvania that can treat this fluid."

The New York DEC claims that its proposed testing procedures would have averted an April incident in LeRoy Township, Pennsylvania, when, after a heavy rainstorm, a valve flange at a wellhead failed and 60,000 gallons of fracking fluids spurted out. About 10,000 gallons overflowed the edges of the containment pond, and some wound up in a nearby creek. Chesapeake Energy, the well's operator, says it had passed all safety tests before the accident.

Companies are generally not required to disclose the exact chemicals contained in specific products used in fracking, because that information is considered a "trade secret." The Bush administration exempted fracking fluids from the Safe Drinking Water Act's restrictions. The Earthworks Action Web site calls that the "Halliburton loophole," because "it is widely perceived to have come about as a result of the efforts of Vice President Dick Cheney's Energy Task Force." Halliburton is one of the top three manufacturers of fracking fluids. There are huge loopholes in the proposed New York regulations, argues Roger Downs, legislative director for the Atlantic branch of the Sierra Club. The regulations cover only wells that will use more than 300,000 gallons of water, he explains; about 5,000 are expected to use less. And the state has not considered the effect of 10,000 fracking wells, with an average of 1,200 truck trips to each one.

"They refuse to do a cumulative environmental impact statement," he says. "They just concentrate on the impact of individual wells." Organizing and financing the regulations is another concern. Downs estimates that the DEC would need to hire 220 new staff and spend $20 million a year to have adequate inspections and enforcement. If that doesn't happen, he says, there will be "pandemonium," and rules "will be negotiated at the well pad." If the state doesn't have solid regulations, he continues, it will be impossible for the public to sue to have them enforced.

There is no federal Environmental Protection Agency standard limiting the amount of methane in drinking water, notes Emily Wurth of Food & Water Watch. Some occurs naturally. Downs also questions whether the regulations will actually prohibit fracking in the New York and Syracuse watersheds. In any case, he adds, most people in rural central and western New York get their water from wells, so they're also drinking unfiltered water. 

Many activists believe that in order to enable fracking, Gov. Cuomo is planning to sacrifice upstate to protect New York City. "They certainly are deciding to drill around political boundaries," Downs says.

Rural Towns Threatened

The politics of the issue come down to large gas companies versus local residents worried about having their environment poisoned, with the companies trying to win local support from the money drilling generates-in jobs and in payments to landowners. In October, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry announced that there were more than 20,000 jobs directly linked to Marcellus Shale gas development, more than twice the number in 2008, although jobs in other areas related to the gas industry fell slightly.

"This data further reinforces the undeniable fact that responsible American natural gas production is an unmatched, private-sector job-creation machine," said a statement by Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group based in Pennsylavania.

Elmira, New York, a depressed industrial city just over the border from Pennsylvania, "is indirectly benefiting from the gas boom," says a local environmental activist. "The influx of gas drilling service industries is using more and more of Chemung County's underutilized industrial infrastructure. High-paying, low-skilled jobs, albeit temporary, are creating enthusiasm with the working class."

"It's a really complicated issue," says Autumn Stoschek of ShaleShock, an Ithaca-based activist group. She lives in Van Etten, a small town nearby. "It's a depressed area, but on the other hand, it's a rural area, and people really like the outdoors." The rural residents are more likely to display gas-company logos in their yards than the anti-fracking signs that dot the college town of Ithaca, she explains, but they're suspicious of both environmentalists and corporations. 

The Southern Tier has a long history of gas drilling, she says, but when fracking came in, "it was a big turning point," as large corporations replaced "mom-and-pop gas companies." Her parents signed a gas lease for $2 an acre in 1999. In 2005, Fortuna Energy drilled a horizontal well on their farm. Some now "regret that they signed the lease," says upstate activist Lisa Wright. The gas-company "landsmen" who arranged the deals, she explains, didn't tell them "it's a huge industrial process. It involves hundreds of truck trips per well."

"People had no idea what they were dealing with," says Stoschek. "When they don't restore your fields and leave a rubble pile, they tell you to sue them." The pressure on homeowners to settle lawsuits is huge, says Gloria Forouzan. When people can't live in their home because the water is destroyed, they can't sell it either, so they are desperate-and gas companies demand silence as part of the settlement, she says.

"Working-class people don't have the means to get a corporate lawyer to fight this kind of thing," says Wright.

"We're a sacrifice zone," Stoschek concludes.

In New York's Sullivan and Delaware counties, in the Catskill Mountains on the eastern side of the Delaware, a poll taken in early October found more than two-thirds of residents willing to support a fracking ban. The practice would bring money to the area, says Bruce Ferguson, but at the expense of tourism, farming, and land values. "People value above all the rural character," he says. "They don't want to live in an industrial zone."

The Big Decision

The Delaware River Basin Commission received more than 69,000 comments from the public after its draft regulations were released last December. When it extended the comment period to April 15, the Marcellus Shale Coalition complained that it would "undermine dialogue" by "detracting from the voices of the key stakeholders... landowners, residents of the Basin, and our member companies who are investing capital and creating jobs in the region."

The Hess company, a member of the coalition, objected to proposed restrictions on drilling within flood-hazard zones, on steep hills, or within 500 feet of water sources, saying they would affect 60 percent of the land the company has leased in the area. It urged more flexible, case-by-case rules.

Tracy Carluccio of Delaware Riverkeeper calls the draft regulations "totally inadequate" to protect the watershed. The commission has not done either a comparative environmental analysis of fracking or a cumulative-impact study, she says.

"They haven't done the analysis to see if it could be done safely," she says-and given the record of accidents in Pennsylvania, she adds, it can't be done safely. "They are now putting in place the ruination of our aquifers."

DRBC spokesperson Clarke Rupert responds that the commission's work "was not created in an information vacuum." It looked closely at how other areas of the country were handling fracking, he adds, and it is not required by federal law to do an environmental-impact statement.

States can enact stronger regulations than the ones the commission creates, Rupert says. The commission can also establish regulations stronger than state laws, but they would apply only to the areas within the Delaware watershed. In Pennsylvania, that would mean the counties along the river, not the western three-fourths of the state.

Activists suspect the commission has agreed not to propose regulations that would be stronger than those of any of the four states in the area. "They are opting out of anything stricter," says Carluccio.

In May, New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman sued the federal government, demanding that it undertake a full environmental review before it allows gas drilling in the Delaware watershed. On Oct. 13, the Philadelphia City Council voted to join the suit.

Three of the five members' votes are needed for the commission to approve regulations. Pennsylvania is considered a sure yes, as Gov. Tom Corbett is a strong supporter of fracking. He considers it a panacea for the state's economy, and he received more than $1 million from oil and gas interests in his 2010 campaign. In April, after he proposed slashing the state's higher education budget by half, he suggested that state colleges could offset the cuts by putting well pads on campus.

The other members' votes are in play, activists say. In New Jersey, the state legislature recently passed a bill to ban fracking, but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it. Delaware, which is at the mouth of the river, might be more likely to vote no. Andrew Cuomo may want fracking in New York, but may also want to get his own state's regulations through first. Environmentalists have been urging the Obama administration to vote no.

Ultimately, says William Kappel, the question is of "relative risk." He's worked on drilling rigs, and "accidents do occur."

All industrial processes cause some environmental degradation; it's the price we pay for living at a standard above hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers. Yet there is only so much damage the Earth can take. Is the risk that fracking poses to our drinking water worth the amount of energy it creates and the money it provides?  

Steven Wishnia is a New York-based journalist and musician. The author of Exit 25 Utopia and The Cannabis Companion, he has won two New York City Independent Press Association awards for his coverage of housing issues.
 
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