A New York Times expose today reveals a thoroughly corrupt system that is effectively allowing natural gas drilling to destroy Pennsylvania’s environment.

The in-depth report comes at a time when the number of Marcellus Shale wells in Pennsylvania are expected to increase from 6,400 today to no fewer than 50,000 in 2031.

Natural gas drilling wastewater
What the waste water looks like. Thumnail of the photo by Jessica Kourkounis.

The article, by Ian Urbina, reveals that, in a process that defies belief, radioactive waste water from the drilling process is being sold to municipalities in our state to use for de-icing roads, because the waste water is high in salts.

Natural gas is extracted from the Marcellus Shale formation in our state by injecting millions of gallons of water to break up rock and release the natural gas. The problem is that 10 to 40 percent of that water comes back to the surface within two weeks of its use. And at that point it is contaminated with salts and radioactive elements including barium and strontium.

One partial solution to this problem has been for drilling corporations to capture this waste water and reuse it at new drilling sites. This is a flawed solution, however, because it leads to waste water with even higher concentrations of contaminants, and the water is not reusable forever—it must eventually be disposed. Adding insult to injury, the New York Times reports that “the total amount of recycling in the state is nowhere near the 90 percent that the industry has been claiming over the past year.” It gets worse:

In the year and a half that ended in December 2010, well operators reported recycling at least 320 million gallons. But at least 260 million gallons of wastewater were sent to plants that discharge their treated waste into rivers, out of a total of more than 680 million gallons of wastewater produced, according to state data posted Tuesday. Those 260 million gallons would fill more than 28,800 tanker trucks, a line of which would stretch from about New York City to Richmond, Va.

On March 11, 2009, a meeting was held between natural gas drilling industry officials and “state regulators and officials from the governor’s office.” The subject of the meeting was a modest proposal requiring drilling corporations to track each load of waste water from the extraction site to the disposal point. Without that requirement, drillers could dump the waste water on the side of the road and no one would be the wiser. What happened during and after that meeting is horrifying:

After initially resisting, state officials agreed, adding that they would try to persuade the secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to agree, according to the notes. In the end, the state’s proposed manifest system for tracking was not carried out.

Three of the top state officials in the meeting — K. Scott Roy, Barbara Sexton and J. Scott Roberts — have since left their posts for jobs in the natural-gas industry.

The article, “Wastewater Recycling No Cure-All in Gas Process,” is required reading for all Pennsylvanians.

Give it a read and leave your thoughts here.

(While I could not have anticipated the details of this ongoing disaster, I told you so.)

2 thoughts on “Marcellus Shale drilling is harming Pennsylvania’s environment, New York Times reports

  1. We have a hunting cabin in Clinton County right in the heart of all the drilling. We used to be able to sit on the front porch and watch deer, bear and any kind of wildlife run through our front yard. The last two times we were up we were lucky if we saw anything. Hunting season this year we only saw one deer, when we would usually see 20 or 30. I think the impact is far greater than what most people think, if you go up there the barrage of dump trucks flying through the quiet back road or the sounds of the drilling took our quiet cabin and ruined it.

  2. That’s a powerful and upsetting story, Bill. I think you’re right that those of us in this area of the state have no clue how big the impact is. It also seems that the people we’ve elected and appointed to protect our interests have rolled over for the corporations that want to get to this natural gas.

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