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Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Modeling study adds fuel to fire on needed Marcellus science and data

A new modeling study by researchers at Stony Brook University finds that the disposal of contaminated wastewater from hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale region poses substantial potential risks of water pollution and calls for additional regulation to reduce the potential of drinking water contamination.

In “Water Pollution Risk Associated with Natural Gas Extraction from the Marcellus Shale,” which appears in the August 2012 issue of the journal Risk Analysis, published by the Society for Risk  Analysis, the researchers found that disposal of fracking wastewater presents risks from salts and radioactive materials; from spills and leaks; and from well casing failures.  It relied on an analytical approach called “probability bounds analysis” that the authors say is suitable “when data are sparse and parameters highly uncertain.”  

The fact hat the study was hypothetical as opposed to incident-based drew swift industry dismissal of the study.  Judge for yourself.

One thing is certain.  Data are indeed sparse, at least publicly.  Prior to 2011, Pennsylvania significantly strengthened its drilling regulations.  And in 2011, Pennsylvania’s DEP asked municipal treatment plants to stop accepting drilling wastewater for treatment.  That request has yet to be turned into a regulatory requirement.  Some claim that more than 90 percent of drilling wastewater is now being recycled. Recycling is inarguably a good thing, but are we really at 90 percent?  While state law requires well operators and wastewater haulers to keep detailed records for 5 years, this information must only be made available to DEP upon request, and to be submitted to DEP by drillers only biannually. There’s not enough transparency and disclosure around the issue to verify the claims - or to put legitimate concerns to rest. 

The Stony Brook authors support more research on wastewater disposal and “specifically on the efficacy of contaminant removal by industrial and municipal wastewater treatment facilities,” and suggest that “regulators should explore the option of mandating alternative fracking technologies that would substantially reduce the amount of wastewater generated.

More research, more data, and more disclosure are essential to defining what is – and isn’t - a problem in Pennsylvania’s natural gas drilling boom, in addressing public concerns, and directing needed regulatory improvements

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