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Our Chunky Fracking Water

December 23, 2008 - Some Pittsburgher's never liked the taste of our Mon River drinking water. Maybe drinking it for nearly 6 decades desensitized me, but this fall I agreed with them, our water was PUTRID! Officials said our drinking (..and bathing, washing, and cleaning) water had become “chunky.”

The Monongahela River provides drinking water for 350,000 people near Pittsburgh
Towboat on the Mon River near Monongahela, Pa.
The Mon River joins with the Allegheny River at Pittsburgh Pa to form the Ohio River.

The explanation goes like this… the late summer and early fall drought here in Pittsburgh caused low river flow. That’s true, because I don’t recall a drier fall growing season in decades, and a “drought watch” was issued for 29 central and western Pennsylvania counties on November 7th. OK, but where does the “chunky” part come from?
TDS, or total dissolved solids in our drinking water were blamed for its chunky state. But water company officials were quick to tell us that even though it may spot glasses in your dishwasher, there is nothing to worry about -- the water is safe to drink. Sure, if you can get past drinking something tasting nearly as bad as the prep for your last colonoscopy!

Rainbow colors on the surface of this Marcellus Shale brine pit
Marcellus Shale Brine Pit
Recovered frac fluid and brine are stored in plastic lined pits

Turns out some of the low river flow, and much of the TDS chunkiness, resulted from the Marcellus Shale gas boom. Unless you have been sleeping, or residing on Mars for the past year, you know about this madhatter gas drilling boom that’s going on, with the epicenter in Hickory, Pennsylvania. Estimates indicate the Marcellus Shale holds enough gas to supply the entire US for 14 years, so main players ante up like it’s the California Gold Rush.

Water is pumped out of streams anytime, anywhere. This spot in front of the Washington County Fire Training Academy in Chartiers Township is very popular.
Water tankers pumping water out of Chartiers Run stream

The Pennsylvania Clean Streams Law is supposed to protect drought- stricken streams from de-watering, but is this law being enforced?

Using a new drilling method that fractures the shale substrates deep in the earth, these gas ventures are able to extract huge amounts of natural gas. It’s pretty amazing to imagine drilling down a mile and then drilling sideways another ½ mile or more from there. But your wonder gives way to worry when you realize the environmental costs, both immediate and long term. This type of drilling requires millions of gallons of water for each well, mixed with secret chemical additives to assist in the drilling process.

Fracing on Marcellus Shale

Frac job underway in Buffalo, Pa
Seven wells being fracked all at once. Neighbors say drilling and pre-frac work lasted a year, and they are growing weary of it all.
The gas well process called "hydraulic-fracturing" is exempt from portions of the Safe Drinking Water Act, The Clean Water Act, The Clean Air Act, and The Right-to-Know-Act.

If you find it worrisome these additives are being left in the ground, you definitely don’t want to hear that most of the reclaimed ‘salty cocktail mix’ is being only partially treated in our municipal sewage plants, instead of specialized plants that also take heavy metals and salt out of this wastewater. The only treatment is dilution with treated sewage before it gets dumped in the same rivers that me and 350,000 or more other people get our drinking water from. With a bold confidence that resembles the captain of the Titanic, we are told, “Don’t worry, you and the environment are safe. Drink the water!”

The Pennsylvania Constitution guarantees its citizens the "right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment."

My interest was piqued enough by these recent events to do some internet research. If you want to follow my research trail just Google the keywords “fracking water.” It will bring on a déjà vu reminiscent of Love Canal and Agent Orange. Remember the Army officer who drank a glass of Agent Orange just to show it was safe? He’s probably sick or prematurely dead like so many of our other AO-exposed Vietnam veterans.

"The 2005 Energy Policy Act exempted hydraulic fracturing from the Safe Drinking Water Act. Also exempted from federal control and water protection laws are the drilling industry's construction activities..." (full story)

Gas well flameWhat I read about fracking water motivated me to contact all of my local legislators and ask them to make sure we aren’t moving too fast with all this drilling before we are fully aware of the consequences, or have answered all the questions. Why are these chemical processes exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act? What gives them the right to draw massive amounts of water from streams and rivers, especially during a drought? Why doesn't Pennsylvania get a cut of gas drilling profits, like other states with a severance tax? Why don’t producers have to reveal exactly what is in drilling fluid formulas and wastewater?
Here’s an eye-opening introduction to the 50+ chemicals used in fracking fluids (Off site PDF - 277KB – “What’s in the fracking fluid?”)

Medical center nurse sickened by Frac fluid
Contact with contaminated clothing put
her in intensive care for 30 hours

There are lots of jokes about the funny effects of “something in the water,” hopefully we don’t become the butts of our own fracking joke. While fossil fuels often appear to be our most valuable natural resources, that distinction belongs to water. Nothing on the planet lives without it. We’re lucky to have an abundant water supply in western Pennsylvania, lets not frac it up!


2008 Annual Water Quality Report
Pittsburgh, McMurray, Mon-Valley
Source: Pennsylvania American Water

2008 Water Quality Results
(Click image to enlarge report)


2009 Drinking Water Alert
Tri-County in Fredericktown, Pa - 6/19/09
[PDF version]
Tri-County Joint Municipal Authority has levels of Total Trihalomethanes (TTHMs) above Drinking Water Standards

Professional comments on the above water report:

"Not good at all.  Trihalomethanes (THM) can cause cancer, and some research has also linked it to miscarriages.  Very unusual to see a public drinking water system have an annual violation for this.  It’s a result of contaminants in the water reacting with the chlorine they add at the drinking water treatment plant.
I know that DEP and the Allegheny County Health Department are both aware that this is a potential problem that can happen when the drilling wastewater gets chlorinated and used for drinking water.  ...I don’t think anyone has reported an actual THM violation previously.
On the what people should do right now level – a Brita (carbon) filter will take out THM, I’m pretty sure.  But be aware that most of your exposure is from showering, not drinking the water.  The steam in your shower will cause the THM to gas off out of the water and into your lungs.  Important to make sure your bathroom is well ventilated."

Pennsylvania DEP Summary of Hydraulic Fracture Solutions Marcellus Shale - May 2009 (PDF 411KB)

Dust Baby Dust!
Gas drilling rig near Hickory spewing rock dust everywhere..
a layer of dust covered the entire farm, inside and out!


Open Letter to the Editor of the
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
(..yet to be published)

April 12, 2009
Someday we’ll awaken to the reality that oil, coal and natural gas weren’t our most precious natural resources, it was water. Nothing lives without water -- some say future wars will be fought over water. Locals already know how mineral rights play like a Royal Flush in a poker game, trumping all. Gas rights are no different. This latest madhatter’s rush is for a Pennsylvania fossil fuel with a limited lifespan, Marcellus Shale natural gas. The good news: it burns clean. The bad news is how dirty natural gas is to produce. Then consider the tens of thousands of wells yet to be drilled here. It takes one to two million gallons of water to hydro-fracture one well, with a secret sauce of chemicals mixed in, often including diesel fuel. Some wells are fractured over and over again. Fracking fluids were exempted from the Clean Drinking Water Act in 2005. If your Mon River drinking water tasted foul last Fall, it was partly due to massive quantities of water being drawn off for gas drilling, even during an official state drought watch. The real ringer is that this special mix of frac cocktails returns to the surface from the drilling process in salty underground water, is trucked away and processed to varying degrees, then dumped back into our waterways where we get our drinking water. Congress will soon be debating a new energy bill, so if you feel they should respect Pittsburgh’s water quality, ask for full accountability on gas industry water usage and fracking fluids by calling or sending a letter today.



Fracking at Marcellus Shale Site: Hydraulic Fracturing Increases Radionuclides

Scientists: Drilling threat to water

As Pennsylvania Implements New Wastewater Rules, Some State Waterways Still Face Problems

Photos of Marcellus Shale drilling near Hickory, Pa



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