February 27, 2011 – By Mason Williams
Health concerns about hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, used to drill for natural gas have been growing lately. The biggest health concern stemming from hydrofracking is the introduction of radioactive decay into drinking water and the failure of sewage treatment plants to remove these deadly toxins.
The documentary Gasland, an expose in the New York Times, and a series of articles in ProPublica have focused the public’s attention on the dangers of hydrofracking. Hydrofracking is a relatively new drilling technique that permits the extraction of natural gas reserves that otherwise would have been inaccessible.
With hydrofracking, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals are injected at high pressure into rock formations. This breaks up the shale and surrounding rocks, thereby releasing the natural gas. An obvious byproduct of this process is the massive amounts of wastewater discharged, which includes naturally occurring underground carcinogens such as benzene and radium.
This wastewater then needs to be treated so it can be safely returned to the water cycle. However, according to EPA documents obtained by the New York Times, the wastewater is sometimes shipped to sewage treatment plants that are not designed to properly remove the toxins. Thus, the wastewater is released by the sewage treatment plant back into the natural water system without being properly cleaned. This wastewater then becomes part of a region’s drinking water source.
The health effects of natural gas hydrofracking is being seen especially in the states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Texas, Ohio and Colorado. All five of these states have large natural gas deposits and hydrofracking is being widely utilized.
Pennsylvania in particular is experiencing the negative effects of hydrofracking. That state sits on top of one of the largest known natural gas reserves called the Marcellus Shale. This giant rock formation, which also touches Virginia and New York, is believed to hold the biggest natural gas reserve in the country. Extracting much of this natural gas requires hydrofracking, and has resulted in a sharp increase in both water and air pollution in the region.
Surprisingly, despite the increased pollution levels stemming from these operations, little has been done by state and federal regulators to increase oversight of wastewater disposal. In fact, most drinking water intake plants in Pennsylvania that are downstream from sewage treatment plants processing hydrofracking wastewater do not test for radioactivity. What the exact effects of increased radioactive waste in that region’s drinking water is still unclear.