Long-Awaited EPA Study Says Fracking Pollutes Drinking Water
In 2010, Congress commissioned the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study the impact of fracking on drinking water. The U.S. EPA released its long-awaited final draft of its report today, assessing how fracking for oil and gas can impact access to safe drinking water. The report refuted the conclusion arrived at by the U.S. EPA's 2004 study that fracking poses no threat to drinking water, a conclusion used to exempt the fracking process from the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The report found that fracking for shale oil and gas has not led to "widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the United States," but said fracking could contaminate drinking water under certain conditions, such as when fluids used in the process leaked into the water table, and found isolated cases of water contamination.
The report looked at water use at five stages of the water-intensive process: use of the available water supply for fracking; the mixing of chemicals with water to create fracking fluid; the flowback of the fluid after it has been injected underground to fracture shale deposits to release oil or gas; treatment of the wastewater byproduct of fracking; and the injection wells frequently used to dispose of fracking wastewater when the process is complete.
"Hydraulic fracturing in combination with advanced directional drilling techniques has made it possible to economically extract oil and gas from unconventional resources, such as shale, tight formations and coalbeds," the report says. "The growth in domestic oil and gas exploration and production made possible by the expanded use of hydraulic fracturing, has raised concerns about its potential for impacts to human health and the environment. Specific concerns have been raised by the public about the effects of hydraulic fracturing on the quality and quantity of drinking water resources."
It noted the reason for that concern: "Millions of people live in areas where their drinking water resources are located near hydraulically fractured wells. While most hydraulic fracturing activity from 2000 to 2013 did not occur in close proximity to public water supplies, a sizeable number of hydraulically fractured wells (21,900) were located within 1 mile of at least one PWS source (e.g., infiltration galleries, intakes, reservoirs, springs and ground water wells). Approximately 6,800 sources of drinking water for public water systems, serving more than 8.6 million people year-round, were located within 1 mile of at least one hydraulically fractured well. An additional 3.6 million people obtain drinking water from private water systems."
The report also pointed out the declining amount of water that could be available for drinking purposes due to extended drought, saying, "The future availability of drinking water sources that are considered fresh in the U.S. will be affected by changes in climate and water use. Declines in surface water resources have already led to increased withdrawals and cumulative net depletions of groundwater in some areas."
The study, nearly 1,000 pages long, presents some of the copious research being done on the impacts of fracking and identifies the ways in which fracking operations could affect drinking water supplies. And while the EPA did warn that lack of complete information on these operations as well as changes in the industry limited a complete assessment of these impacts, it identified "potential mechanisms by which hydraulic fracturing could affect drinking water resources."
The EPA notes in its executive summary that data used in its assessment of wells came from FracFocus, a publicly accessible website managed by the Ground Water Protection Council and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission where oil and gas production well operators may disclose information voluntarily or pursuant to state requirements about the ingredients used in hydraulic fracturing fluids at individual wells.
As a result of this limited and voluntary information provided by oil and gas companies for the EPA study, Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, pointed out, "The study released today falls far short of the level of scrutiny and government oversight needed to protect and health and safety of the millions of American people affected by drilling and fracking for oil and gas. It is outrageous that the oil and gas industry refused to cooperate with the EPA on a single ‘prospective case study.’ This reveals the undue influence the industry has over the government and shows that the industry is afraid to allow careful monitoring of their operations.”
Lauren Pagel, policy director at Earthworks, agrees. "Industry data and independent studies tell us that 1 - 6 percent of unconventional fracked wells fail immediately, meaning tens of thousands of failed wells litter our country," she said. "Despite industry’s obstruction, EPA found that fracking pollutes water in a number of ways. That’s why industry didn’t cooperate. They know fracking is an inherently risky, dirty process that doesn’t bear close, independent examination."
Though the draft report didn't find evidence of "widespread" impacts on drinking water to date, the U.S. EPA report did conclude, "The colocation of hydraulic fracturing activities with drinking water resources increases the potential for these activities to affect the quality and quantity of current and future drinking water resources. While close proximity of hydraulically fractured wells to drinking water resources does not necessarily indicate that an impact has or will occur, information about the relative location of wells and water supplies is an initial step in understanding where impacts might occur."
In response to these findings, Mark Ruffalo, actor and advisory board member of Americans Against Fracking, said, "Today's EPA fracking water contamination study confirms what both the oil and gas industry and the Obama Administration have long denied—that fracking poisons American's drinking water supplies. The EPA study reviewed hundreds of confirmed water contamination cases from drilling and fracking. It's time to stop poisoning the American people and shift rapidly to renewable energy."
John Armstrong of Frack Action agrees. "Like hundreds of peer-reviewed studies, this shows that New York was right to ban fracking. Despite serious shortcomings, including the fact that the oil and gas industry refused access to collect the data needed, the EPA study clearly shows that fracking has been impacting and contaminating drinking water. All water is connected. Any sign of drinking water contamination signals a public health crisis and is a call for a ban.”
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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As concern mounts over the impacts of climate change, many experts are calling for greater use of electricity as a substitute for fossil fuels. Powered by advancements in battery technology, the number of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles on U.S. roads is increasing. And utilities are generating a growing share of their power from renewable fuels, supported by large-scale battery storage systems.