Ohio lawmakers must remain vigilant over fracking

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“All that glitters is not gold.” Shakespeare’s warning in The Merchant of Venice may apply to fracking, where large quantities of high-pr essured fluids are discharged underground in order to dislodge natural gas. Fracking’s glitter is the promise of bountiful energy and jobs.  So seductive is this promise that people can easily be persuaded to rationalize the significant environmental risks that the drilling companies will always minimize.

The two most significant risks appear to be contamination of underground water and problems associated with the discharge of drilling wastewater. Fracking is exempt from federal law that regulates underground operations that may impact drinking water. Consequently, drillers do not have to disclose the contents of the fracking fluids they use.

The EPA announced in December2011 that fracking was the possible cause for the contamination of wells in Pavillion, Wyo. The water reeks, and residents were warned not to drink well water which contains hydrocarbons. Pavillion may be unique in that the drilling was conducted at more shallow depths than is typical. The company doing the fracking, Encana, believes the EPA is wrong.

Two lawsuits alleging water contamination have been filed in federal court in Pennsylvania. In both suits, the plaintiffs allege that fracking has resulted in methane, natural gas and other toxins contaminating their land and underground water. Some of the plaintiffs live less than 2000 feet from a fracking site.

In November 2011, The New York Times Magazine carried a story about fracking conducted by Range Resources in Amity, Pa. More than 4000 wells are on the Marcellus Shale Deposit in Pennsylvania, with projections of 2500 new wells each year; the total may one day exceed 100,000.  Residents complain of the smell of raw sewage, and pets and livestock dying because of alleged contamination.

Some residents have suffered vomiting and discovered elevated levels of toxins, such as arsenic and solvents, in their blood. Banks are reportedly reticent to make mortgage loans for properties within three miles of a well. Range Resources denies liability and asserts that 40 percent of Pennsylvania water wells had at least one pre-existing contamination problem.

Just 1500 feet from one Amity resident’s house is a five-acre pond, filled with chemically treated water. Though the pond is lined, the liner suffers from tears. Range Resources confirmed the existence of acetone, barium and heavy metals in adjacent surface pools but denies these compounds have been found in drinking water.

ProPublica reported that Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Montana, Pennsylvania and Wyoming require drilling companies to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking, but the breadth of these laws may not be adequate. Proposed legislation in Ohio exempts drillers from disclosing chemicals regarded as trade secrets.

Dealing with the wastewater is a growing problem. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported in May 2011 about increased levels of bromide in the Allegheny River. When exposed to disinfectant processes in water treatment plants, bromide facilitates formation of brominated trihalomethanes (THMs), which are linked to certain cancers and birth defects. According to the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, THM levels have increased and “are threatening” safety standards; the elevated levels could come from municipal sewage treatment plants handling Marcellus Shale drilling wastewater.

The Post-Gazette reported that each Marcellus Shale well uses four million gallons of water. Supposedly, 70 percent of that is recycled, but “millions of gallons” still flow through sewage and brine treatment plans and are then discharged into rivers and streams. Range Resources maintains that “those [bromide] increases are not an impact of Marcellus Shale.”

The Insurance & Financial Advisor reported last November that 40 suits have been filed across the U.S. concerning injuries and contamination allegedly caused by fracking. While the correlation between fracking and contamination seems obvious, the challenge comes with actually proving the link. It’s difficult and expensive to do to prove what lies underground.

Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine has called for “full disclosure” of chemicals pumped into the ground and wants higher environmental fines. Gov. John Kasich has called for “tough environmental regulations.” The Ohio Oil and Gas Association sees these views as “off base.”  Let’s applaud DeWine and Kasich for taking a cautious approach and encourage them to stay the course.

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