Drilling Practices May Harm Phila. Water Supply
Although gas drilling is an important development, it must be monitored to ensure that it doesn't produce excess radiation
While few experts doubt that Philadelphia’s water supply is safe at the moment, they advise that current gas drilling practices can push radiation in the water supply to harmful levels in the near future.
Drilling companies recently developed a method of extracting natural gases thousands of feet below shale rock. This method, hydrofracking, became popular in Pennsylvania during 2007 due to the Marcellus Shale, a large natural gas reserve that runs along the state down to West Virginia.
“I think we’re at the edge. If we don’t do a good job now, we could have terrible problems,” Chairman of the Earth and Environmental Science Department Frederick Scatena said.
“We’re talking months,” he continued. “If we just let them drill like crazy, we could see problems soon … this definitely isn’t a hypothetical issue.”
The problem stems from the fact that drilling companies do not know what to do with fracking fluid — a mixture of water, sand and chemicals used to break the shale rock and retrieve the gas containing radioactive material — after it comes back up above the surface.
“The extraction of Marcellus Shale gas involves radioactive, toxic and cancer-causing chemicals and complex hydro-geological processes,” Institute for Environmental Studies professor Walter Lyon wrote in an as-of-yet unpublished article.
“We’re moving [radioactive material] from places where it was relatively diluted and dormant to places where it’s more concentrated and we’re more exposed to it,” said School of Engineering and Applied Science professor Noam Lior, who added that hydrofracking in the state has grown exponentially.
Shale drilling licenses grew from 117 in 2007 to 3,300 in 2010 in Pennsylvania, according to a Feb. 26 New York Times article.
Scatena said that some companies try to recirculate the water by treating it in plants and putting it back into the rivers, a practice that is only allowed in Pennsylvania, according to the Times.
“You can bring the water to a treatment plant, but apparently the radiation gets through since water treatment plants aren’t really designed to take out radiation,” Scatena said.
Treated fracking fluid has been released into the Delaware River, which provides water to Philadelphia, other parts of Eastern Pennsylvania and New York. In fact, fracking fluid was behind American Rivers’ June 2010 report naming the Upper Delaware the country’s most endangered river.
All of University City’s water comes from the Schuylkill River, according to the Philadelphia Water Department Office of Watersheds. However, some of the water does get mixed, Scatena said.
Furthermore, Scatena noted that the upper part of the Schuylkill might soon be affected by drilling under the Marcellus Shale.
While many acknowledge this problem, few call for a total cease of the drilling since the gas deposits are too important.
“The discovery of this gas was wonderful news for the United States and the rest of the world,” Lior said. “I would definitely go for the gas. It’s there and it should be used.”
“We need to use the gas, that’s not the issue,” Scatena said, expressing similar sentiment. “But we have to do it properly.”
Both agree that the status quo is undesirable and that changes must be implemented before radiation levels rise too much. They called for new technologies, including waterless fracking, as well as more careful monitoring, stricter regulations and better enforcement.
“We went into this much more rapidly than the necessary regulations were developed, so the regulatory part is lagging behind,” Lior said.
Despite this potentially bleak future, Scatena and Lior were both optimistic, saying respectively, that radiation levels likely will not exceed Environmental Protection Agency maximums due to public pressure and legal liability.