Sunday, April 25, 2010

EWG Investigation shows that Hydro-fracking Threatens Drinking Water

Last week Dusty Horwitt, senior counsel for Washington DC-based Environmental Working Group, spoke to citizens, scientists and elected representatives in communities across Upstate NY. His message: hydraulic fracturing shouldn't be done in places where people get their drinking water.

The practice, Horwitt said, is threatening drinking water supplies from Pennsylvania and New York to Wyoming. One of the problems is the use of petroleum distillates in the fracking fluid.

Gas drillers have switched from injecting diesel (used as a friction reducer in drilling) to other petroleum distillates. That's largely due to the regulation of diesel. Under the Safe Drinking Water Act, EPA requires a permit for injecting diesel because of its high benzene content. Ironically, EPA does not regulate other benzene-containing petroleum distillates.

In late January Horwitt released “Drilling Around the Law”, an investigation into the petroleum-based fracking chemicals used by companies drilling for natural gas. Because of exemptions allowed for fracking, drilling companies are allowed to inject kerosene, mineral spirits and a number of other petroleum distillates into wells. 

The problem, Horwitt said, is that these distillates often contain levels of benzene much higher than the EPA "safe" level of 5 parts per billion (ppb). That’s equivalent to five drops of benzene in 500 barrels of water.

“Ironically, these other petroleum distillates – chemicals that drillers are allowed inject without permits – can contain up to 93 times more benzene than diesel,” Horwitt said. For exanple, Kerosene contains 5,000 parts per million (ppm) benzene - five times as much as diesel. Petroleum naphtha wins the prize with 93,000 ppm benzene - a level that exceeds EPA standards by 18.6 million.

Citing the DEC’s Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS), Horwitt noted that horizontal wells in Marcellus and other shales will require from one to 8 million gallons of water and fracking chemicals. “These are massive operations,” Horwitt said, “pumping fluids into wells at pressures of 12,000 pounds per square inch (psi).” Even before fracking occurs, there are opportunities for spills.

Now the companies will tell you there is no problem, Horwitt said. These are the same petroleum distillates used in cosmetics. “But these very same chemicals are banned from cosmetics in the European Union,” he clarified.

Drilling companies also insist that they only add small amounts into the frack fluid, Horwitt said. “Point zero eight (.08) percent. It sounds like a miniscule amount, but do the math.” Horwitt’s calculations show that even at that very low level, anywhere from 800 – 6400 gallons of petroleum distillates could be injected for a single frack job.

"That's enough to contaminate more than 100 billion gallons of water," Horwitt exclaimed. "More than ten times the amount the state of New York uses in a single day!" Horwitt recommends eliminating the federal exemptions for oil and gas drilling; drilling companies should obtain a permit for any chemical they inject. "Why require a permit for only one type of petroleum chemical?" 

Furthermore, when Horwitt asked NY Department of Environmental Conservation officials - and officials from agencies in other states - whether they checked to see what chemicals companies are injecting, the response was an overwhelming "No".

They [drillers] could easily be injecting diesel,” Horwitt said. Indeed, Halliburton, Schlumberger and other companies admitted, during a Congressional inquiry, that they have continued to inject diesel in some states.

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