LOS ANGELES — EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson testified before Congress on May 24, saying, “I am not aware of any proven case where the ‘fracking’ process itself has affected water, although there are investigations ongoing.”
It was a classic case of non-denial denial by a federal agency enjoying observer status courtesy of a law assigning natural gas drilling oversight to the states.
Jackson wasn’t saying there have been no cases of ground water contamination from this controversial new mining technology; she was just saying she wasn’t “aware” of a “proven” one.
So why have New Jersey, North Carolina and New York, the cities of Buffalo and Pittsburgh, the Canadian province of Quebec and all of France banned or issued moratoriums on fracking?
With fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, a well is drilled thousands of feet deep into rock. Then millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and toxic chemicals — including asbenzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene and formaldehyde — are blasted into the shale, fracturing it and releasing the natural gas.
Suddenly, the inaccessible is accessible, and the gas rush is on with tens of thousands of new wells popping up in Arkansas, Colorado, Louisiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Texas, West Virginia, Utah and Wyoming, and residents in those states reaping lucrative leases.
And why not? Natural gas burns cleaner than oil or coal, it’s cheaper than foreign oil and it creates jobs. That’s what industry is pitching, and it’s what Lisa Jackson pitched to Congress. And it’s probably safer than nuclear energy.
Or is it?
When a well broke in Bradford County, Pa., tens of thousands of gallons of fracking fluids leaked into the Susquehanna River, just like the 8,000 gallons that seeped into a creek near Dimock, Pa.
It’s not just chemicals. Duke University researchers found elevated methane in 13 of 26 wells tested in northeastern Pennsylvania, to the point where the water could catch fire — just like the Wyoming sink water in the documentary film “Gasland.”
The New York Times obtained EPA documents revealing that wastewater from fracking is often much more radioactive than federal regulators deem safe for treatment plants to handle — water that is eventually fed into rivers.
A 2009 ProPublica investigation found more than a thousand reports of water contamination. No wonder New Jersey and New York live in constant fear that Pennsylvania’s fracking boom will contaminate the Delaware River, where all three states draw drinking water.
Then there was the dramatic drop in the number and intensity of earthquakes in central Arkansas when fracking was halted, as well as the dramatic increase in air pollution in otherwise pristine northeastern Utah and southwestern Wyoming since fracking began.
When I first sat down to write, the absurd idea of bringing back underground nuclear testing came to mind. That would crack the shale with no chemical mess. Imagine my surprise when I learned that this preposterous idea had already been executed!
During the 1960s and 1970s, a series of test explosions, five times that of Hiroshima, were set off in New Mexico and Colorado to get at the natural gas. Unfortunately, the gas came up radioactive, and fear of contaminating water supplies put an end to what was to have been a nationwide bonanza.
So what needs to be done about fracking? At the very least, what’s needed is a moratorium on the helter-skelter drilling of new fracking wells, until the process is proved safe or made safe. Preliminary results of an EPA study are due in a couple of years. Until then, all Americans should be aware that fracking is another genie that — once unleashed — cannot be forced back into the bottle.
• Mann is author of “They’re Poisoning Us! From the Gulf War to the Gulf of Mexico, An Investigative Report.”