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Safety of hydrofracking chemicals questioned

By: Todd Etshman//September 19, 2011

Safety of hydrofracking chemicals questioned

By: Todd Etshman//September 19, 2011

A group of 59 scientists from New York and across the country sent a warning letter last week asking Gov. Andrew Cuomo to consider certain safety implications surrounding chemicals used in the hydrofracking process.

Specifically, the letter emphasized that municipal drinking water filtration systems could not provide adequate protection to users from chemicals such as benzene and other volatile hydrocarbons that could migrate into municipal water supplies.

“We urge the state to reconsider its position that existing water filtration systems provide adequate protection against the risk of hydraulic fracturing, should materials from flow-back fluids migrate to lakes, reservoirs, or groundwaters used for municipal water supplies,” stated Robert Howarth, Cornell University professor of ecology, in the letter, sent on behalf of Physicians Scientists & Engineers for Healthy Energy, an independent organization of scientists studying hydrofracking and/or shale gas development.

Howarth said municipal water filtration systems use 100-year-old technology to effectively remove microorganisms but “there is no reason to think it protects against fracking fluids. It wasn’t designed for that.”

In addition, although a municipal water filtration system could be altered to provide protection, Howarth said it would be extremely expensive for municipalities to do so.

The fracking guidelines proposed by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation request that New York City and Syracuse watersheds be exempt from fracking, because those cities do not filter their water. However, Howarth and his colleagues say there needs to be equal treatment for all New York cities to protect against fracking waste chemicals.

Opinions and viewpoints regarding the environmental effects of fracking are diverse and sometimes contentious, but a spokesperson for the fracking industry lobbying group, the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York, said Howarth and his colleagues are right in that municipal water filtration systems can’t handle fracking chemical additives and high salinity wastewater.

“The authors are correct in pointing out that there is not enough municipal treatment capacity, but DEC already knows that and there are already regulatory protections in place,” said Hydrogeologist John Conrad, president of Conrad Geoscience, an environmental consulting company in Poughkeepsie and an Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York member.

Conrad said the municipal water systems would not be allowed to accept the fracking wastewater to filter.

“They literally would not be allowed to accept it,” he said. “The industry has to bring it to a permitted facility and they won’t be able to get a permit unless it’s to the DEC’s satisfaction.

“The technology exists but we might need to build more facilities,” Conrad said. “It will be up to the industry to build and provide capable systems.”

However, Sharon Moran, associate professor of environmental studies at Syracuse University, one of the scientists who signed the letter, said, “You can’t design a system to handle something you can’t predict. There are too many unknowns at present. Even at Superfund sites — complex stews of old chemical waste — testing always precedes treatment, so the engineers know what they are working with before they design a treatment system.”

The DEC said it is committed to ensuring that only treated wastewater with hazardous chemicals removed will reach rivers and streams.

“DEC’s number one priority is to protect the state’s drinking water and environment in concert with exploring options to safely and efficiently extract the state’s natural gas,” DEC Commissioner Joe Martins said in a press release last week.

Haworth and Moran they are glad the governor is using “science-based decision making” in shaping the state’s hydrofracking policy and regulation.

“I’m optimistic because he is so concerned with good stewardship of New York state, and plus he has that great background as attorney general, so he understands how a regulatory system works, and what happens when it gets skirted,” Moran said.

“Regulators lean on scientists and engineers to help them make sensible decisions about risk management. But when there simply isn’t enough information to proceed, we have to call it as we see it.”

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