Steve Klingaman

Steve Klingaman
Minneapolis, Minnesota,
January 01
Steve Klingaman is a nonprofit development consultant and nonfiction writer specializing in personal finance and public policy. His music reviews can be found at

Editor’s Pick
MARCH 3, 2011 8:29AM

“Green” Gas Drilling? No Fracking Way

Rate: 15 Flag


The New York Times may be in the midst of publishing another Pulitzer Prize contender, in the form of its series on the environmental effects of hydrofracking for gas (“Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers”). Hydrofracking, or fracking, is the practice of sending pressurized bursts of water, sand and chemicals down into shale formations containing gas.  The pressurized injections break up the shale releasing the gas. In gas-rich areas like Pennsylvania, with its gargantuan Marcellus Shale formation that covers four-fifths of the state, business is booming.

Marcellus map 

            The Times has found that gas well operators and the regulatory agencies charged with overseeing them share some strange notions of what constitutes safe handling of waste products such as benzene and toluene, and even more importantly, radioactive waste water.  How are these waste products being disposed of?  They’re being dumped into Pennsylvania’s primary rivers close to drinking water intake units for cities like Pittsburgh.

            Sweetheart deals with the regulatory agencies have created standard practices such that no one even tests for contamination—and even if they did, current capacities of wastewater treatment plants don’t come close to being able to handle the toxicity of the waste. Pennsylvania, I see some major cancer clusters in your future.

            Where much of the past reporting of the effects of fracking on the environment have focused on polluted wells in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Wyoming, those admittedly horrible consequences of drilling were more localized.  The New York Times article, by Ian Urbina, printed in its Sunday edition on February 27, reports on pollution that could affect millions of people.

            Fracking-based drilling is experiencing explosive growth.  Last year, some 3,000 permits were issued in Pennsylvania, “up from just 117 in 2007,” according to the Times. Standard operating procedure for disposing of the waste sludge in other states involves injecting it into supposedly impermeable dry wells.  Not in Pennsylvania.  Its Marcellus Shall formations don’t remain impermeable.  So, into the rivers it goes. By 2008, problems were detected with a concentration of salts so high that downriver utilities complained that their submerged pipes, outlets and pumping units were being corroded by fully treated byproducts. 

            Jamie Legenos, spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, claims that the wastewater treatment facilities can handle whatever they get.  “The wastewater treatment plants are effective at what they’re designed to do—remove material from wastewater,” said Legenos.  But the plants have received roughly 1 billion gallons of wastewater compounds they were never designed to handle.  And at the heart of the problem we find radium and uranium.

Careful, the Water's Hot

            Radioactive materials exist naturally in the soils of many areas of the country.  They are found in high concentrations deep underground in the shale below Pennsylvania. One hundred sixteen gas wells in the state reported levels of radium and uranium more than 100 times higher the maximum levels set by federal clean water standards.  Fifteen of those wells generate radioactive water 1,000 times more radioactive than federal guidelines allow in drinking water.  And guess what?  Wastewater treatment facilities have no way of treating such contamination.  What do they do?  They dilute it—to a point.  And when river levels are low, that point is dangerously low.


            Gas industry officials don’t care. They’ve said as much.  They have said these levels of contamination on all counts, chemicals and radioactivity, pose “no threat” to humans.  How do they know?  They don’t.  Federal and state regulators require that Pennsylvania test its drinking water for radioactivity “only once every six to nine years.”  That means there has been almost no testing since the boom began—and little is scheduled.  Oh, and did I mention?  Some 50,000 new gas wells are planned.

            In the sporadic spot testing that did occur at waste treatment plants in the last three years radioactivity levels 2,122 times higher than allowed in drinking water were measured at intake.  Yes, you read correctly.

            How does it get there?  Trucks.  Thousands of trucks.  Right about now it might be useful to pause and consider that these wastewater plants and the roads to them were all built with taxpayer money to serve the common needs of people, municipalities and industry.  But not this.  Not by a long shot.  But because the gas is there, demand is strong and greed is omnipresent, elected officials and environmental regulators have looked the other way as if nothing was happening—all this in the midst of a boom that could be compared to the oils sands of Alberta.

            This continues despite the fact that problems were found with the radioactivity dilution strategy as early as 2009.  The EPA—and this is inexcusable because they know what is going on—told water treatment engineers in New York that sewage treatment plants should not accept radium levels higher than 12 times the “drinking water standard.”  And get this:  they said “plants should never discharge radioactive contaminants at levels higher than the drinking water standard.”  Clearly, this is nothing but a regulatory farce on a mind-boggling scale. 

            So these trucks pull up to the treatment facilities and dump their loads.  There must be paperwork, right? Several plant operators told the Times “they were not sure of the waste’s contents because the limited information drillers provide usually goes to state officials.”  One of those plants in Elk County is taking in 20,000 gallons a day.  And I suppose we should consider ourselves lucky with that.  Some operators are just dumping out in the open, in little creeks that flow, well, who knows where?

            But Pennsylvania’s DEP doesn’t want to be too hard on those doing the dumping for fear the companies “might just stop reporting their mistakes.”  What we have here is the paradigm of regulatory capture in full bloom—and perhaps another national sacrifice zone in the making.  The legacy of this boom may well be a lifetime—maybe a shortened lifetime—of disease and compromised health outcomes for the people, and especially the children, of Pennsylvania. A culture of “cutting corners” is already firmly entrenched in the boom.  It will soon be bolstered by a slate of laws coming from Washington, D.C. that will continue to roll back already poor EPA enforcement and oversight.  This, then, is our most robust alternative energy strategy since the meltdown. This, then, is what we mean when we say green energy?


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This is the first I've heard of fracking. Thanks for sharing this. I will be doing more research.
Green energy - when your complexion turns green and your fingers fall off.
text book example of why we don't want guys like the Koch brothers taking over our country...if we don't stop them - this is our American dream...this is our future in corporate hands
Y, I'm sure you heard that part of the Wisconsin budget bill calls for the governor to have the power to sell Wisconsin power plants off to private parties on a no-bid basis. One blogger said Walker had Koch Industries in mind. Koch Industries isn't in the business of running power plants, but I am sure if someone studied Walker's campaign contributor list in detail the origins of that clause would be found.
Hey Steve - yep, I've heard. I believe 30ish some state owned power plants are at really makes me wonder why we've allowed this to happen. I have become nearly radical. I think the days are coming that we'll just become drones OR truly activist. There is no middle ground any more when fighting evil.
I gotta go so this will be short. I worked for Halliburton in Wyoming and they had the most progressive health, safety and environment program of any company I've ever worked for. Shortly after that, the environazi's succeeded in chasing Halliburton out of the USA. They're an Arab company now!

The oil and gas they are mining, are natural minerals that come out of the earth. Of course, make sure they're working safely and ... we need big government to "well regulate" big business.
It is like when the coal industry starts blathering about "CO2 sequestration".
Mother earth already has the best CO2 sequestration there ever could be....
It's called coal, natural gas, oil, shale, and tar sands.
Why let the djinn (Arabic for demon) out of the bottle in the first place, if you just have to chase it down and sequester it in the second place?
We are currently riding the wave of technology available to us in a window that may not be available tomorrow.
We must act now to establish a viable alternative energy collection, creation, and distribution system while the window is open to us.
And P.S. up with Anglo-Saxon verbiage, down with prissy and less satisfactory euphemisms!
Everyone should rent and see the movie Gasland. What an eye opener. I've been following this motherfracking story ever since. 50,000 wells. Just imagine the devestation.
You know what's really sad? All I know about fracking, I learned from watching a CSI episode about a month ago. Glad this is getting the attention it deserves.
I worked on a fracking crew. It was hard work, but fun.

I agree that it needs to be well regulated, but mining the earth is a perfectly legitimate business. I also agree that we should be developing alternative sources of energy as fast as possible. Nuclear is one of my favorites, because our nuclear energy industry will spin off our transmutation of elements industry. We'll be able to produce as much of any element we need at our industrial scale nuclear power plants.

Commercial power plants will be the size of a refrigerator or less, and supply plenty of energy for our house, farm and cars. The universe is made out of energy. There is no shortage of energy. Just a corrupt economic system that enables of few bullies to hoard our resources and take advantage of the vast majority of the people of earth.
Water contaminated by fracking/drilling is flammable. Residents of some Pennsylvania towns have videotaped how the water from their sink flames like a blowtorch when a lighter is placed near the water. That's right, the water turns into fire. Pennsylvania politicians should be forced to drink some of that Fracked Up water.
The meek shall inherit the earth -- when no one else wants it.
Thanks for this, Steve - enlightening and disturbing. Applicable world-wide too.
@Earthling 155 - Halliburton moved to Dubai for tax purposes, last I read.

Matthew Brockovich: This girl's about my age. Is she one of the people you're helping?
Erin Brockovich: Yeah, she's really sick so I'm going to get her some medicine to feel better.
Matthew Brockovich: Why doesn't her own mom get her medicine?
Erin Brockovich: Because her mom's really sick too.
Matthew Brockovich: Oh.

Did none of these operators ever watch that movie ?
Brilliant! I loved this article and I salute you for using a Battlestar Galactica reference in your title. As a nerd and libertarian socialist I tip my hat in your general direction good sir.
Fred- Can you explain to me how any CO2 was captured by the process of gas, oil etc being formed? Considering that petro chemicals contain no Oxygen.
Steve, Apparently you're not up on your free market doctrine. Companies would never do anything that would really be bad for the public because it would harm their reputations and, ultimately hurt their business. This is why we can count on them to regulate themselves effectively. It's really not that difficult.
Bib, thanks for the news! So I can just close down this blog and do Charlie Sheen 24/7.
This sounds like the same problem they have with “Clean Coal,” which as far as I know originally meant that they used scrubbers to make the smoke a little cleaned than the typical coal plants. Being slightly cleaned than that doesn’t mean much. Now it is supposed to mean something about a different way of processing it; which still doesn’t stop the damage they do when mining it even if this technology works. Sounds like public relations to brainwash the intellectually lazy. If they repeat this crap often enough the zombies will believe.
Steve -

Thanks for your comment on my post, and for this excellent summary of the issue that the NY times has covered so thoroughly. The Pro Publica series on fracking is another amazing read.

The sad thing is that so many Americans don't know about the fracking issue, but everyone seems to know that Charlie Sheen went on a rant.

Now if Charlie would start ranting about fracking....
Margaret, You nailed it--get Charlie Sheen to rant about fracking. Then he could use his million-person Twitter feed to some good effect.
Great article. I am surprised 'Gasland' wasn't mentioned in the article in the New York Times. This whole affair with 'fracking' reminds me again of how 'temporally myopic' human beings are: only when we are confronted with the horrible consequences of polluted drinking water will we act, but by then it will be too late. What will happen when the ex-Governor Paterson's moratorium on fracking ends in June?
And yesterday the PA governor announced a 50% cut in state financing to higher education. In the same news conference, he said that the state can't possibly tax the gas industry lest it go elsewhere. (because there's gas shale everywhere else, he supposes?) This is one of those things, like sub-prime mortgages and the New Orleans levee system where in a couple of years when the damage is done, those responsible or in charge will tell us that 'no one could have foreseen that PA's drinking water would be too contaminated to drink..."
this should scare the pants off you. but then, it hasn't happened yet, on your street, so turn to the sports channel.

good post, sk, but 40 years of reporting chunks of fallen sky to uninterested americans, suggests you better add color photos of near-naked women, and a door prize if you actually want them to read it.

this is a perfect example of the old commie story, that some capitalist would sell the rope to hang other capitalists with.

but this is better: they are actually knocking off pieces of wood from the life boat to toast their marshmallows.

rw, there's only one quest for these guys: "where's the money?"