Dems seek EPA natural gas drilling controls on heels of exposé

A top House Democrat is urging EPA to quickly toughen regulation of natural gas drilling following a New York Times report on the discharge of dangerous pollutants into rivers that supply drinking water.

The Times – citing internal documents from EPA and elsewhere – claims that chemicals and radioactive elements in wastewater from gas projects are creating “dangers to the environment and health [that] are greater than previously understood.”

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sent EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson a detailed letter Saturday calling for “immediate action.”

“I am outraged that state and federal regulators were evidently well aware of the risks that the wastewater might pose, but instead chose to adopt a ‘see no evil, hear no evil’ approach to regulation by ignoring them,” writes Markey, the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee.


The 3,800-word Times story is on the front page Sunday and was published online Saturday. It notes that a common drilling method hydraulic fracturing produces large volumes of wastewater that’s naturally laced with carcinogens including benzene and radioactive elements including radium, and that chemicals used in the drilling process can add other carcinogens.

Here are a few key paragraphs:

While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.

The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.

Other documents and interviews show that many E.P.A. scientists are alarmed, warning that the drilling waste is a threat to drinking water in Pennsylvania. Their concern is based partly on a 2009 study, never made public, written by an E.P.A. consultant who concluded that some sewage treatment plants were incapable of removing certain drilling waste contaminants and were probably violating the law.

Markey’s letter seeks a suite of EPA documents and calls for several actions.

The letter states:

“Please list all steps (and timeframes associated with each step) that EPA plans to take to revise its regulations to require immediate, (and thereafter, frequent) tests of a) wastewater discharged from facilities that accept drilling waste into sources of drinking water, b) drinking water intake facilities located downstream from wastewater facilities that accept drilling waste, and c) drinking water that is provided by facilities that utilize sources of drinking water that are located downstream from wastewater facilities that accept drilling waste. If no such steps are planned, please justify this decision in light of the New York Times report.”

The story will fuel a wider political battle over regulation of natural gas amid a drilling boom in states ranging from Pennsylvania to Texas to Colorado.

Environmentalists and some Democrats are seeking new controls on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which involves high-pressure injections of chemicals, water and sand to break apart rock formations and enable trapped gas to flow.

Industry groups say that pollution concerns have been badly overblown and that state-level regulation is getting the job done.

Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.) used the Times report to renew his call for legislation that would require EPA regulation of the practice under the Safe Drinking Water Act and disclosure of chemicals used.

“The news that radioactive waste from the hydraulic fracturing process is being sent through wastewater treatment plants unequipped to handle it and then dumped into rivers and streams that supply drinking water to millions of people is alarming and must be immediately addressed,” he said in a statement Saturday.

EPA is currently studying the environmental and health effects of fracking.

The Times story is likely to be discussed on Capitol Hill this week, when EPA’s Jackson appears before House and Senate committees to defend EPA’s fiscal year 2012 budget plan.

And fracking is also making it to the red carpet. The film “Gasland” – a critical look at safety risks associated with the gas drilling boom that has drawn industry attacks – is up for best documentary feature at Sunday night’s Academy Awards.