Friday, December 21, 2012

EPA releases update on Hydrofracking Study

Today the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a report that highlights the progress made on its national study to understand the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources. This is not a conclusive study - the results are expected to be released in a draft for public and peer review in 2014. 

In addition to the progress report, EPA will be hosting a one-hour public webinar on Thursday, January 3rd, 2013 at 2:00pm EST, and again on Friday, January 4th, 2013 at 12:00pm EST. The webinar will provide project-specific updates that include research approach, status, and next steps. The webinar will also provide updates on five technical roundtables held in November 2012. To register for a public webinar, please visit:

 For more information on the study, check the EPA Hydrofracking website.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Farmer Jailed for Trying to Stop Illegal Dumping

Last Friday a Pennsylvania farmer was tossed in jail for telling pipeline workers to cease illegally dumping sulfur water on his fields.

Yup, you heard that right.

When 73-year-old Joe Bezjak, of Nicolson Township in Fayette County, PA discovered contractors with Laurel Mountain Midstream pumping sulfur water onto his property, he did what any right-thinking farmer would do: he asked them to stop. And that landed him in the pokey over the weekend.

The irony: the gas pipeline employees were working on Bezjak’s farm against the court’s direction. They, however, got a “get out of jail free” card.

From interviews with the press, it seems that last spring Bezjak signed a contract with Laurel Mountain Midstream of Williams Companies LLC to allow them a right-of-way for a 16-inch gas pipeline through his 700-acre cattle farm. Bezjak raises Black Angus – about 200 head. At the time, the pipeline company agreed to work with him to ensure that the construction work did not interfere with his farming. A promise unfulfilled…

Bezjak and his neighbor discovered cut and broken fences, stray cattle and dead calves. They also discovered a Bentonite spill in a local creek, and reported the violation to the PA Department of Environmental Protection.

A county judge ordered Laurel Mountain to replace fencing. But because Bezjak and his neighbor had tried to run the pipeline folk off their fields, he ordered the landowners to remain at least 50 feet away from the company’s right-of-way until the project is finished.

At the same time, PA state environmental inspectors halted the project indefinitely, due to the contamination from the bentonite spill.

So, when Bezjak saw pipeline workers – who weren’t supposed to be on his land by DEP order – dumping pollution illegally, he did what any right-thinking person would do. He told them to stop. He told them to leave. And he was the one tossed in jail.

“I couldn’t stop myself,” he told the press. “I am not against drilling but I do believe in being a good steward of the land.”

Read today's article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sunday Opinion Page: Marcellus Side Effects
 There are a lot of side effects to Marcellus Shale drilling: compressor explosions, pipeline explosions, air pollution, spills, injection well earthquakes, fugitive greenhouse gas emissions… But perhaps the most serious side effect is that we get so involved in focusing on the impacts of industrialized gas drilling that we forget the problem isn’t fracking.

The real problem is our addiction to fossil fuels. And the lack of vision of our elected officials and captains of industry.

I know; it’s nigh to heresy mentioning this up on day 5 of the 30-day comment period New York’s proposed high volume hydrofracking regulations. But maybe it’s the focused attention on gas drilling that has me poking my pen through the paper windows to let in some light (gray day though it is).  

For the last four years I have happily scribbled my name on the bottom of tuition checks so my son could study engineering. In return, he educated me on how engineers work. The most important lesson: how one frames the problem to be solved.

Right now energy companies are focusing their talent, money and resources to exploit gas and oil reserves. As those reserves become more difficult to reach, they develop increasingly invasive technologies for mineral extraction. Like fracking. Developing those technologies means lots of research, lots of grants, and billions of dollars in subsidies – not to mention rock-bottom lease prices on public lands.

What if we ask different questions:
  • How to heat and cool buildings
  • How to provide light
  • How to provide energy to run pumps, machinery
  • How to cook and refrigerate things
  • How to move people and freight
Finding an answer to “how to move things” or “how to light an interior space” is very different from solving the problem of “how to get really tiny bits of hydrocarbon out of rocks”.  For example, putting sun tubes into buildings can bring natural light into the interior and decrease the need for electricity. So can changing the light bulbs to fluorescent or LED and even going to bed earlier in the winter.

People like to say that wind and solar energy “can’t solve our country’s energy needs.” We don’t need them to “solve” it all – just provide appropriate energy solutions. And we need to broaden our mind regarding how these resources are tapped.

Wind, for example: do we need huge turbines? There are vertical turbines, and smaller wind collectors that can fit on the sides of buildings or even under eaves. Scientists are even looking at how materials, blown out of shape by wind, create energy when they snap back to their original position – like aspen leaves fluttering in the breeze.

There are just as many ways to harness the sun’s power – from passive building features that warm or cool homes to solar arrays that produce electricity. Why not use them?

Why not harvest the methane produced in landfills and dairy barns? Why not use marginal land to grow willows and other renewable biofuels? Why not harness the power of human movement? What if we generated electricity with treadmills in fitness centers?

Bradford County, PA south of Troy
What if (gasp!) we simply used our resources more efficiently? We could lower the speed limit to 55 (saves fuel), turn down the thermostat and put on a sweater, fix the leaks in gas pipelines, and maybe even give some of those energy subsidies to renewable energy projects. In 2011 DBL Investors, a San Francisco-based venture capital fund specializing in renewable energy, published a report showing how early subsidization of energy sources in the US helped secure their respective dominant places in the energy marketplace. Nuclear subsidies accounted for more than one percent of the federal budget in their first 15 years, oil and gas subsidies made up one-half of one percent of the total federal budget in their first 15 years.

But subsidies for renewables? They’ve constituted only about one-tenth of a percent. That’s a frackin’ big handicap to overcome, by any standard.

Friday, December 14, 2012

NY Fracking Regs (proposed) on Radioactive Waste

Road spreading Marcellus well brine in PA (photo provided)
New York's proposed hydrofracking regulations mention  NORM (naturally occurring radioactive material) in section 560.7 Waste Management and Reclamation. According to the new regs, flowback fluids “must be tested for naturally occurring radioactive material prior to removal from the site”. Soils adjacent to tanks storing flowback and production brine must be measured as well.

But there is no requirement to track any radioactive waste fluids – nor is there anything requiring drilling companies to prevent the release of these radioactive substance into the environment in the first place – something Sandra Steingraber notes in today’s entry at 30 Days of Fracking Regs. As she notes, radioactive waste could be stored as close as 500 feet to a home or school, possibly closer to playgrounds and soccer fields, and definitely much closer to barns, pastures and fields where our food is grown.

Four years ago the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) submitted 13 brine samples from twelve actively-producing Marcellus wells. Test results (appendix 13) showed that some brines had levels of radium-226 as high as 250 times the allowable level for discharge into the environment and thousands of times higher than the maximum allowed in drinking water.
Radioactivity in Marcellus shale shows up as trace elements uranium-238, thorium-232, radium-222, radium-226, and radium-228. Over time these radioactive particles decay, with half-lives anywhere from 4 days to 1600 years. Exposure to some radionuclides – even at low levels – can cause bone cancer, stomach and lung cancers and other health problems. Radon gas, long known to be associated with Marcellus shale, has been shown to be the primary cause of lung cancer among people who have never smoked. So the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has established guidelines for certain radionuclides: the maximum contaminant level of radium in drinking water as 5 picocuries per liter (pCi/L), for uranium is 30 pCi/L and for the total alpha emitters is 15 pCi/L. They've also established levels that can be put into the environment: the maximum level of radium-226 allowed to be discharged in wastewater is 60 pCi/L and the maximum levels in soil are 5 pCi/g on the surface and 15 pCi/g in subsurface soils.

But in some of the Marcellus brines, DEC found levels of radium-226 ranging up to 16,030 pCi/L - more than 3200 times higher than the allowable levels in groundwater and 267 times higher than what’s allowed to be discharged into streams.

On December 30, 2009 Region 2 of the EPA sent 17 pages of formal comments to DEC regarding proposed rules in the SGEIS for drilling in Marcellus and shales. Included in those comments are concerns regarding the management of  NORM. EPA noted that NORM concentrations in production brine of Marcellus wells have the potential to far exceed the Maximum Contamination Limits (MCLs) specified in the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). They also question the inconsistency of reporting concentration levels; levels of some radionuclides are reported in pico-Curies per gram (pCi/g) while others are reported in parts per million (ppm). Using ppm as an analytical tool could "significantly underestimate the uranium concentrations," says EPA.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Let the Countdown Begin: 30 Days of Fracking Regs

There are eight days of Hanukkah, twelve days of Christmas, and 30 days for sending comments to NY Department of Environmental Conservation regarding the new fracking regulations (unless the world really does come to an end on the 21st, which NASA and the US government promise won’t happen).

So Sandra Steingraber came up with a nifty idea: 30 comments in 30 days. And she has a website to go with it. It’s kind of like an advent calendar, but without the candy. Each day you click on the date and open the door to see … a regulation, with some explanation about what it means. The deal is: she provides the info; we provide the comments.

Today’s focus is Section 560 560.4 Setbacks. Sandra explains, in clear English, what the regulation states, and puts those setback distances into perspective. At the bottom of the page there’s a button to click to email your comment, and one to get the snail-mail address.

Will it take time? Yes, but it’s worth it to learn more about what these new regulations offer to oil and gas drillers. And it will take some time to write comments, too. But again, it’s always worth sending your 2-cents to the folks who (you hope) will ensure that your water stays drinkable and your air breatheable.

Will it cost money? Most assuredly – at most $13.20 in postage ($9.60 if you send postcards; less than $4 if the world ends next Friday). But, seriously, $13 doesn’t even qualify as Hanukkah gelt!

What happens if I miss a day? Unlike some medications, there are no serious side effects if you open two (or more) days at a time and write more than one comment in a letter. The important thing is that you let your state environmental agency know your concerns and/or approval of the regulations they have devised.

You may mail your comments to:

Attn: Draft HVHF Regulations Comments
New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
625 Broadway
Albany, NY 12233-6510