Thursday, April 21, 2011

Drilling Spills and Hydrofracking

The one-year anniversary of the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon rig and subsequent massive oil spill was marked by yet another drilling accident. This time, the accident occurred at a drilling site for natural gas in Pennsylvania when a well blew out and started spewing toxic fluids.
Chesapeake Energy officials said a piece of equipment on the well failed.

Now a major response is underway to stop the leak of frack fluid and get control of the well.

Water is gushing from the earth at the Chesapeake well pad.  It has been all hands on deck to put a stop to the leak of fracking fluid that, according to company officials, spilled thousands and thousands of gallons into nearby land and waterways.

"We've been able to limit the flow. We're still doing additional work to regain full control," said Brian Grove of Chesapeake Energy. He added there is no telling yet how much of that extremely salty water mixed with chemicals and sand has impacted the nearby Towanda Creek, but no gas has escaped into the air....

Officials with DEP said the flow of frack fluid has stopped flowing into the nearby creek and its tributary.

Public safety officials in Bradford County said they, along with DEP, will continue to monitor the Towanda Creek which empties into the Susquehanna River. According to officials with Chesapeake Energy, the fluids that spilled all over farm land and into the creek have a very high salt content and contain numerous chemicals used to fracture the rock below.
Environmentalists have been warning about the potential dangers of fracking for quite some time. "Fracking" refers to a drilling process formally called "hydraulic fracturing," which involves injecting fluids into underground rock formations to break up the rocks and release the natural gas they contain. The major concern is that the fluids used for fracking – which often contain toxic chemicals – may leak from gas wells into aquifers and render the groundwater undrinkable for the people who depended on it. Another concern is that fluids from such wells are diverted to wastewater treatment plants, even though the plants are not equipped to process and remove the toxic chemicals found in fracking fluids. Only some of these chemicals are known to the public due to a lack of transparency on the part of energy companies. According to a recent government report:
Some ingredients mixed into the hydraulic fracturing fluids were common and generally harmless, like salt and citric acid. Others were unexpected, like instant coffee and walnut hulls, the report said. Many ingredients were “extremely toxic,” including benzene, a known human carcinogen, and lead.

Companies injected large amounts of other hazardous chemicals, including 11.4 million gallons of fluids containing at least one of the toxic or carcinogenic B.T.E.X. chemicals — benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene. The companies used the highest volume of fluids containing one or more carcinogens in Colorado, Oklahoma and Texas.

The report comes two and a half months after an initial report by the same three lawmakers that found that 32.2 millions of gallons of fluids containing diesel, considered an especially hazardous pollutant because it contains benzene, were injected into the ground during hydrofracking by a dozen companies from 2005 to 2009, in possible violation of the drinking water act.
As yesterday's incident illustrates, blowouts and the resulting contamination of farmland and watersheds are serious concerns as well.

The blowout occurred just as Pennsylvania was beginning closer oversight of the fracking operations.
The DEP and the industry appear to have been influenced by complaints from public water suppliers in Western Pennsylvania, which say they are challenged by bromide levels whose concentrations have increased concurrently with the drilling boom.

The bromides themselves are not a public health risk - they account for a tiny part of the salty dissolved solids that create an unpleasant taste in water at elevated levels.

But bromides react with the chlorine disinfectants used by drinking water to form brominated trihalomethanes (THMs), a volatile organic compound. Studies have linked the prolonged ingestion of high levels of THMs to several types of cancer and birth defects.

Officials at several water authorities in the Pittsburgh area say their facilities have failed several tests for trihalomethanes in recent years....

Bromides, chlorides, and some heavy metals occur naturally in deep rock formations such as the Marcellus Shale, the massive deposit that underlies much of Pennsylvania and parts of several surrounding states.

In other regions where shale production has taken off, operators dispose of the wastewater in deep, federally regulated injection wells. But Pennsylvania's geology is insufficiently porous to accept large volumes of wastewater.
This week's incident ought to prompt closer examination and oversight of fracking operations, whether in the form of voluntary programs like Pennsylvania's or stronger regulations. Aquifers and watersheds are too important to risk contamination.