Regulation lax as waste from gas wells hits water supplies
NEW YORK — The American landscape is dotted with hundreds of thousands of new wells and thousands of drilling rigs as the country scrambles to tap into this century’s gold rush — for natural gas.
The gas has always been there, of course, trapped deep underground in countless tiny bubbles between thin layers of shale. But drilling companies have only in recent years developed techniques to unlock the enormous reserves, thought to be enough to supply the country with gas for up to 100 years.
So energy companies are clamoring to drill. And they are getting rare support from their usual sparring partners. Environmentalists say using natural gas will help slow climate change because it burns more cleanly than coal and oil. Lawmakers hail the gas as a source of jobs. They also see it as a way to wean the United States from its dependency on other countries for oil.
But the relatively new drilling method — known as high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking — carries significant environmental risks. It involves injecting huge amounts of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, at high pressures to break up rock and release the gas.
A well can produce more than a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene, and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground.
While the existence of the waste has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators, and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.
The documents reveal that the wastewater, sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.
Other documents and interviews show that many EPA scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an EPA consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.
But the EPA has not intervened. In fact, federal and state regulators are allowing most sewage treatment plants that accept drilling waste not to test for radioactivity. And most drinking-water intake plants downstream from those sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania, with the blessing of regulators, have not tested for radioactivity since before 2006, even though the drilling boom began in 2008.
The risks are particularly severe in Pennsylvania, which has seen a sharp increase in drilling, with roughly 71,000 active gas wells, up from about 36,000 in 2000.
There were more than 493,000 active US natural-gas wells in 2009, almost double the number in 1990. Around 90 percent have used hydrofracking to get more gas flowing, according to the drilling industry.
Gas has seeped into underground water supplies in at least five states, including Colorado, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia, and residents blamed drilling.