Potential gas-fracking health hazards draw media spotlight, re-energize calls for federal oversight

A video segment leading off a "Colorado State of Mind" PBS show on gas fracking shows this controversial flaming faucet scene from "Gasland."

Natural gas hydraulic fracturing took an alarming star turn in the national media this weekend, spurring lawmakers to call again on their colleagues to pass the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act, a bill first introduced by Colorado lawmakers Diana DeGette and Jared Polis in 2009. An Academy award-nominated documentary and a Sunday New York Times expose underlined the chemical and radioactive hazards “fracking” poses to drinking water.

Over the last decade, gas companies have turned increasingly to fracking, a process in which water and sand and chemicals are injected under high pressure into deep wells to break up sandstone formations and free up previously inaccessible gas. The identity of the chemical ingredients in fracking fluid have so far been shielded by energy company arguments that the recipes are proprietary, a kind of secret sauce they have the right to keep from competitors.

As government and media reports have made clear, however, the fracking-fluid chemicals pose only a part of the environmental risks posed by the process. Hydro-fracturing loosens more than gas from the earth. It also frees up high concentrations of salt and toxic minerals and radioactivity, all of which rise to the surface in the millions of gallons of fracking waste-water and can seep into ground-water sources.

Although the documentary Gasland didn’t win an award Sunday night, it featured toxic and flammable tap water from Weld and Garfield Counties in Colorado, where activists and property owners have been warning about the negative effects of fracking for years. And the New York Times report explained that taps that pour out gas and chemicals may well be pouring out unacceptable levels of radioactivity, too.

“The industry keeps telling everyone that nothing is wrong, but more and more investigations like the ones conducted by The New York Times and Congressional investigators show a very different reality,” Rep. Polis told the Colorado Independent in an email. “This is exactly why we need the FRAC Act, which requires basic common sense safeguards, not a patchwork of laws or lack thereof from state to state. We need to… keep science and safety at the forefront of our nation’s energy policy.  Hopefully this investigation will give further credence to the need for reform and the real troubles that can accompany gas drilling, and will further support action by the EPA and Congress regarding violations of the Safe Drinking Water Act.”

Reporters for the New York Times found that drilling companies were sending billions of gallons of waste-water to sewage treatment plants ill-equipped to remove toxic fracking materials. It also found that sewage plants in at least three states were releasing inadequately treated fracking water into rivers, lakes and streams, and that nearly 200 fracking wells were producing waste-water that contained hundreds and even a thousand times the amount of radioactive material considered acceptable according to water safety standards.

In January Polis and DeGette called on the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate whether oil and gas service companies violated the Safe Drinking Water Act by using more than 32 million gallons of diesel fuel in their fracking operations.

DeGette and Polis were responding to an investigation conducted by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which found that drilling companies used 32.2 million gallons of diesel fuel or fluids containing diesel fuel in fracking operations in 19 state between 2005 and 2009. The companies admitted using diesel fuel in testimony to the committee. The committee found that 1.3 million gallons of diesel fuel had been used in Colorado fracking operations.

Fracking was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act under the Energy Policy Act passed by the Bush administration in 2005. The exemption did not cover cases where fracking included the use of diesel fuel.
Oil and gas companies and sympathetic politicians have fought against efforts to further regulate fracking. State regulators in Colorado at least have also come out against the need for federal oversight.

The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), for example, the primary state regulator of oil and gas drilling, has long maintained the FRAC Act is unnecessary because fracking is covered by state rules.

Yet the COGCC interactions with the Energy Committee that investigated diesel-fuel fracking inspire little confidence.

“In some instances, the officials we contacted expressed doubt that companies still used diesel as a hydraulic fracturing fluid or additive or were unaware of continued diesel fuel use,” the Energy committee wrote, after detailing how oil and gas companies admitted to using diesel fuel– including the million-plus gallons used in Colorado.

“An engineer from the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission (COGCC), for example, said that diesel is ‘rarely used’ and said he knew of only one time diesel fuel was used in hydraulic fracturing in Colorado.”

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