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May 04, 2012

New Yorkers Get Fractious About Fracking Wastewater



New Yorkers are fighting mad about the intentions of a Niagara Falls utility to treat fracking wastewater once shale extraction becomes more widespread in the state. In fact, there has been a national groundswell of objections to fracking—and more specifically, to current methods of fracking wastewater disposal—this year, harking back to the earthquakes experienced in the Youngstown, Ohio area on Christmas Eve 2011 and again on New Year’s Eve 2012.

And not without reason, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) has confirmed that the recent seismic events in the state were induced by injecting leftover fracking fluids, known as "brine," into subterranean rock formations.

What is fracking (also known as hydraulic fracturing or hydrofracking)?  It is a process that involves drilling into “confining formations” of shale rock beneath the crust of the earth and then injecting water and some chemicals under pressure into those areas to extract natural gas and oil. The approximately 144,000 Class II wells in operation in the United States inject over 2 billion gallons of brine every day, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The good news is that fracking has the potential to greatly reduce U.S. dependence on imported fossil fuels and create thousands, even millions, of jobs.

However, fracking wastewater often contains toxic metals and radioactive substances that can be very damaging to the environment and public health if it is discharged above-ground.  Just last month, the EPA released new guidelines to prevent surface and groundwater pollution from fracking— and on May 4, the Obama Administration ordered additional safeguards for fracking on national and tribal lands. However, it still is legal to use brine as a de-icer on highways, where it can flow into ditches and pose a threat to groundwater.

Discharged below-ground, fracking wastewater may cause groundwater contamination—or as recently established, generate seismic waves severe enough to rupture geological faults.

Now utilities have come up with another method of disposal—wastewater treatment at their sewage plants–but the idea is making waves among environmental advocates. In fact, the Albany-based Environmental Advocates of New York released a report on May 4, warning of the dangers of fracking on a large scale in the state because, “Fracking waste is a toxic cocktail that should be handled with great care. Although the chemical composition of the waste will vary from well to well, our research shows that in at least one case, drilling waste would be considered ‘hazardous waste’ and should be subject to rigorous handling and disposal standards.”

The report notes that, at this time, there is only one public wastewater treatment plant in New York State that is legally permitted to process brine—the Auburn Wastewater Treatment Plant, located about 35 miles west of Syracuse in the heart of the scenic Finger Lakes region —and that is “a dubious distinction that is causing heated public debate.”  (That plant actually is reapplying for its permit, according to various sources, after public opinion forced it out of the fracking wastewater business for a few months.)

As for the industry’s efforts to reuse brine, the group says that studies show that less fracking wastewater actually is being recycled than the trade groups’ claim. “In Pennsylvania, the gas industry falsely claims to reuse as much as 90 percent of its wastewater. According to The New York Times (March 2011), recycling rates have ranged from 20 percent to 65 percent of the total produced wastewater. Recycling and/or reusing wastewater would use less fresh water and reduce the quantity of wastewater ultimately produced. But there will always be recycling byproducts (e.g., residuals and sludges) that must be treated, and those byproducts [comprise] toxic wastes much more concentrated than those found in the wastewater itself,” said the Environmental Advocates of New York.

The Advocates are joined in their opposition to hydrofracking by a Brooktondale, New York-based organization known as ROUSE (Residents Opposing Unsafe Shale Gas Extraction), which asserts, “New York’s Southern Tier sits atop the Marcellus Shale—a rock layer that has the gas industry and some large landowners excited about the large profits they hope to gain by extracting its natural gas. Sounds great, right?  But everyone will suffer the many nasty impacts: poisoning of our clean water and air, inflation and increased local taxes, economic decline of local businesses and communities, massive increases in tanker truck traffic, destruction of local roads, and the intense industrialization of our beautiful rural countryside.”

Meanwhile, the population of Niagara Falls, New York, is “just saying no” to hydrofracking—and to wastewater treatment at its municipal utility plant. On March 5, the City Council voted unanimously in favor of a new law that bans fracking-related activities, including the treatment of brine, within city limits.

According to the Niagara Gazette, the city leaders also sent a letter to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, asking him to impose a statewide moratorium on the controversial natural extraction process until more is known about its impact on public health and the environment.“The subject of hydrofracking is something that is going to affect everyone in our community,” said Councilman Glenn Choolokian, an employee of the city’s water board who pushed for the anti-fracking measures. “This dangerous process must be addressed now. It can’t be talked about in secret meetings anymore. If hydrofracking is such a great thing, let some other city be the test case.”

Finally, the shale industry remains optimistic about its chances of expanding in New York State. In an interview with The New York Times, John Holko, president of Lanape Resources, a company with interests in 500 conventional gas wells in New York, who is a spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, stated, “As the development moves to New York, the infrastructure will be [created] here.”




Edited by Brooke Neuman

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