Greens pounce on 'fracking' blowout, say 'enough is enough'

One year after a well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico resulted in the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history, a smaller blowout Tuesday at a natural-gas well in Pennsylvania is reviving familiar questions about drilling safety.

Late Tuesday night, a blowout at a Chesapeake Energy natural-gas well in Bradford County, Pa.,  spewed thousands of gallons of fluid containing chemicals into a nearby stream.

Chesapeake Energy was engaged in a natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” in which large quantities of water, sand and chemicals are injected into the ground in order to gain access to valuable natural gas reserves.

The blowout comes at a time when fracking is coming under increased scrutiny from state and federal officials, spurred in part by a series of investigative stories that have raised questions about the safety of the practice.

Chesapeake Energy said Thursday that there has been “little, if any” major contamination of nearby waterways from the blowout

“There have been no injuries, and there continues to be no danger to the public,” Brian Grove, senior director for corporate development at Chesapeake Energy, said in a statement.

But environmentalists, for their part, have long decried fracking, pointing to the potential for chemicals to contaminate drinking water, and they pounced on the Chesapeake Energy blowout Wednesday.

“How many wells need to blow out, how many people need to get sick, how many communities need to be devastated before elected leaders say ‘enough is enough,’” Earthjustice Managing Attorney Deborah Goldberg said in a statement. “The gas has been there for millions of years, it can stay there a little longer until we figure how — and if — we can extract it safely.”

Andrew Fahlund, senior vice president for conservation at American Rivers, called on Congress to take action to restore the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate hydraulic fracturing under the Safe Drinking Water Act. EPA’s authority to regulate the practice was removed in a 2005 energy bill in what activists have dubbed the “Halliburton loophole.”

“In case last year’s BP oil spill wasn’t enough of a wake-up call, now we have another disaster, this time in Pennsylvania. The American people have had it with the industry’s false assurances,” Fahlund said in a statement. “It’s time for Congress to close the 'Halliburton loophole' and put real safeguards in place for our clean water and public health."

Lawmakers in both the House and the Senate have introduced legislation to give the EPA authority to regulate fracking. But the bill faces major hurdles in both chambers. The EPA is currently conducting a study on the risks associated with fracking.

While EPA doesn't directly regulate fracking, the agency does have some minor authority over the practice, including when diesel fuel is injected into a well.

Deputy EPA Administrator Robert Perciasepe said in testimony submitted to a Senate panel this month, "Where we know problems exist, EPA will not hesitate to protect Americans whose health may be at risk, and we remain committed to working with state officials, who are on the front lines of permitting and regulating natural gas production activities."

The New York Times has published a series of investigative stories in recent months on the potential dangers of fracking.

But fracking has many defenders in Congress and in the states that boast large natural gas reserves. Fracking, they say, can be done safely and it's a process for gaining access to low-cost, low-emissions natural gas that has been found in abundance throughout much of the United States.

In a statement Wednesday, Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) underscored the importance of natural gas, while also emphasizing the need for greater safety.

"Natural gas drilling offers Pennsylvania a great economic opportunity," he said. "However, incidents like this blowback are a reminder that there are dangers and that precautions must be taken to protect the health and well-being of Pennsylvanians.”

The blowout in Bradford County sent thousands of gallons of fracking fluid into a nearby stream, a tributary of the Towanda Creek.

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It was not immediately clear Thursday exactly what proportion of the fluid included potentially harmful chemicals, Katherine Gresh, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection said Wednesday afternoon.

“It was likely mixed with those fluids, but we don’t know volumes, we don’t know how much was water versus sand versus chemicals,” Gresh said.

As of Thursday morning, “the well is stable but not killed. A small amount of flow back is discharging but being collected by vacuum trucks,” Pennsylvania DEP spokesman Daniel Spadoni said in an email.

Boots and Coots, a well-control company, will begin plugging the blown-out well later Thursday.  They will pump “ground up tires, plastic bits, and other rubber material” into the well, Spadoni said.

The Pennsylvania DEP is conducting water sampling at a number of locations around the well, including at seven homes and in the tributary of the Towanda Creek. The results of those tests should be available in the coming days, Spadoni said.

Two families living near the creek have evacuated their homes, while several others have elected to stay, Spadoni said.

Grove of Chesapeake Energy, said in a statement that initial testing indicated there was “little, if any, significant effect to local waterways” from the blowout.

Grove added that the well has "emitted limited amounts of gas beginning early [Thursday] morning." But modeling "any natural-gas releases will not pose a risk to the area’s public safety," Grove said.

Ben Geman contributed to this story.

This story was updated at 11:15 a.m.