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Leaked EPA Documents Expose Decades-Old Effort to Hide Dangers of Natural Gas Extraction

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Efforts by lawmakers and regulators to force the federal government to better police the natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” have been thwarted for the past 25 years, according to an exposé in the New York Times. Studies by scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on fracking have been repeatedly narrowed in scope by superiors, and important findings have been removed under pressure from the industry. The news comes as the EPA is conducting a broad study of the risks of natural gas drilling with preliminary results scheduled to be delivered next year. Joining us is Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, a firm that tracks environmental spills and releases across the country, based in Ithaca, New York, where fracking is currently taking place. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryFeb 23, 2010Congress to Investigate Safety of Natural Gas Drilling Practice Known as Hydraulic Fracturing
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Efforts by lawmakers and regulators to force the federal government to better police [the] natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” have been thwarted for the past 25 years, according to an exposé in the past week in the New York Times. Studies by scientists at the Environmental Protection Agency on fracking have been repeatedly narrowed in scope by superiors, and important findings have been removed under pressure from the industry, according to the Times. For example, last year, the EPA planned to call for a moratorium on fracking in the New York City watershed, but the advice was removed from the publicly released letter sent to officials in New York. The news comes as the EPA is conducting a broad study of the risks of natural gas drilling, with preliminary results scheduled to be delivered next year.

AMY GOODMAN: Walter Hang is the president of Toxics Targeting, a firm that tracks environmental spills and releases across the country. He’s joining us from Ithaca. And joining us via Democracy Now! video stream is Josh Fox, director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Gasland. In it, Josh travels the United States to meet people whose lives have been impacted by natural gas drilling. The film was awarded the Special Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last year.

But let’s start with Walter Hang. Walter, talk about the significance of this exposé and the information about the industry thwarting EPA’s efforts to regulate fracking for over a quarter of a century.

WALTER HANG: Well, the most important thing is that the natural gas industry has said all along that there’s never been a confirmed problem with horizontal hydrofracking in Marcellus Shale. They’ve said this practice has been used for decades, it’s safe, it’s not problematic. The first installment of the New York Times series basically brought to light that in the autumn of 2008, there was so much natural gas drilling wastewater being dumped into municipal treatment plants along the Monongahela River near Pittsburgh, and these plants were not designed, constructed or maintained in any way to take out the very high salt content, the toxic chemicals associated with petroleum, or the radioactive nucleotides. And so, this contamination was going into the river in such incredible volumes that essentially it impacted a 70-mile stretch of the river, and 850,000 people didn’t have any drinking water. Subsequent studies show that actually the water became brackish. They started to find salt-loving diatoms flourishing in the water.

And so, this is when basically the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency tried to recommend to the state of New York, don’t go forward with horizontal hydrofracking in New York, where there’s been a de facto moratorium against that practice for two-and-a-half years, until you deal with the wastewater hazards, until you safeguard New York City’s drinking water. And that’s when the recommendation came: no drilling in the watershed. And amazingly, they actually proposed to allow the drilling in the rest of upstate New York, so that the Department of Environmental Conservation could essentially get experience regulating this practice. But then none of those recommendations made it into the final document submitted to the Department of Environmental Conservation. So this is an incredible revelation about how the EPA knew about these problems, didn’t tell New York, and that’s why we’re calling for these regulations to be withdrawn, the scope revised, so that, for the first time, this kind of practice can be adequately safeguarded.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Walter, what kind of public attention was there when the drinking water of 800,000 people in Pennsylvania was endangered? Did the EPA or any of the other environmental agencies in the state of Pennsylvania sound a warning to the public about it?

WALTER HANG: Well, basically, it was just a catastrophic crisis that had never happened before. There had been a drought during that time. And so, they tried desperately to release water from big reservoirs, and basically none of that worked. But the key thing is, they never really spelled out that this problem with high total dissolved solids in the river was associated with wastewater treatment plants taking up to 40 percent of their influent as natural gas drilling wastewater. So it was never really made clear. For example, in New York, when this 700-page document came out about how the state was proposing to regulate natural gas drilling wastewater, there’s not a single mention about this crisis. So it’s really never come to light, until the New York Times got these incredible internal EPA documents.

And that’s how come we’re now saying to Andrew Cuomo, the governor of New York, expand the scope of this proceeding, go back to the drawing board. You know, there’s so much that’s been hidden from public review that it’s just really a shocking situation. It’s really an outrage. And I’m sure that the Mayor of New York is going to be extremely unhappy to find out that EPA was so concerned about this practice that they proposed to keep it off-limits from the watershed and then didn’t finally make that proposal known.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the industry that is putting pressure, that has thwarted the EPA from regulating fracking for a quarter-century. Who are they?

WALTER HANG: Well, it’s basically the biggest corporations on the planet. It’s the oil and gas industry. It’s basically that they want to tap into this giant underground reserve of natural gas, the Marcellus Shale formation. It’s the biggest reserve, arguably, on the entire planet. They think that they’re just going to wallow in money. It’s “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” And they’re spending incredible amounts of money trying to influence decision makers to allow this practice to go forward. And in New York, for example, yesterday in the legislature, the halls were reportedly overrun with lobbyists from the natural gas industry. They’re watching the bread being taken from their mouths, potentially, and so they’re going to be trying to do everything that they can to essentially allow this practice to go forward.

But let me note that the drilling in shale with horizontal hydrofracking is essentially regulated by the states. The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t issue the drilling permits. For example, in New York, the State Department of Environmental Conservation issues the permits. So it’s really the call of Governor Cuomo. It’s the call of the other governors. If they want to make this practice safe, if they want to require financial surety, if they want to require that this wastewater is dealt with properly, all they have to do is read those internal EPA documents, which say you can’t accept this wastewater unless the treatment plants are specifically equipped to take out the radionucleotides, the toxics, the high salt. In New York, for example, there isn’t a single publicly owned treatment plant that accept that. And in little Ithaca, New York, where I live, the Cayuga Heights wastewater treatment plant accepted three million gallons of this drilling wastewater and discharged it into the southern end of Cayuga Lake, about a mile upgradient from the drinking water intake for 30,000 people.

So when all of these facts begin to come to light, when the influence of industry begins to come to light, people are just, you know, jumping up and down and saying, “What can we do?” And the answer is, they have to lean on the officials. They have to call Andrew Cuomo. At, there’s a coalition letter. More than 3,500 people have signed this letter. And it’s basically saying to Andrew Cuomo, start over again with these draft regulations. There’s an executive order that Governor Paterson signed just before checking out of office, and he basically said we’ve just got to open up the proceeding, we’ve got to address all the issues that the state authorities tried to exclude at the behest of the industry.

And if we want to make this an honest process, if we want to make sure that this extraction mining is properly regulated, there’s no better time than right now. We’ve never seen these documents before. I’ve been doing this work for 34 years. All of those internal communications, as you know, are excluded from Freedom of Information, so this is really a cornucopia of documents revealing how the EPA thinks. And that’s how come, for the first time, we know what they wanted to do, to their credit, to protect the environment. And in fact, there’s even one document that said that the authorities didn’t want EPA to write down what their best hopes were, because if it ever came to light, the public could hold their feet to the fire to implement it. So this is a tremendous opportunity to regulate an industry that’s really never been regulated before.

And the epicenter of that fight is in New York, because there’s not one horizontal hydrofrack Marcellus Shale well in New York, and it isn’t going to be allowed until these final regulations are adopted. So, I urge every one of your listeners, go to, sign the coalition letter to Andrew Cuomo, look at the alerts, and then call him. Call Lisa Jackson. Call EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck, and just express your outrage, express your anger, and say, “We want this process to be open and honest. We don’t want this practice, basically, in New York to turn out to the way it turned out in Pennsylvania.”

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Walter, specifically about all of these — this trove of internal documents that the Times obtained, there clearly has been a raging battle within the EPA between the scientists and the various political appointees from different administrations over the years on this issue. In terms of — one of the things you mentioned was the whole issue of radioactivity in some of the wastewater. Could you specifically talk about that and the battle that’s gone on within the agency on that issue?

WALTER HANG: I think that the thing that most impressed me was how you could read these technical recommendations from the scientists within the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and they recognize — they said it right there in the documents — these are elevated concentrations of toxic radionucleotides. And there has to be a program, essentially not only to protect the environment, protect the public health, but actually to protect the workers. And so, they made their recommendations. They were totally blunt: you have to regulate what’s called the flowback wastewater, which is what they use to fracture the rock, and then it comes back up out of the well. But they also said you have to regulate what’s called the brine. And this is the wastewater that comes out of the well for the entire lifetime of the well. And a Marcellus Shale horizontally fracked well can produce for 30 years. So they were very clear. They really recognize that the levels were high. They recognize that there was a lot more data. But again, as was noted in the Times piece, they came right up against the issue of the politics, of the money.

So again, for the first time, you can see a PowerPoint that was made to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency headquarters on August 9th, 2009. You can see exactly what this EPA scientist, Amy Bergdale, presented to the powers that be at the top. You can see how she talked about the radionucleotide hazard. You can see how she identified a mine void dumping. So not only were they spreading this on the roads, they were actually dumping it into abandoned mines that weren’t equipped to, again, break down or remove the radionucleotides, the toxics, the high salt. And most importantly, she revealed this problem in 2008 along the Monongahela River. So I invite all of your listeners, go to the New York Times website, look at these documents, or look at some of the selected documents that Toxics Targeting has posted. You can read them, and we’ve highlighted the sections that are the most telling. And it’s just unbelievable. I mean, people are going to be shocked. They’re going to just be so angry that the government tried to do the right thing and then basically ran up against the barriers of internal politics.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Walter Hang. He’s the head of Toxics Targeting. He’s speaking to us from Ithaca College.

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Natural Gas Industry Attacks Oscar-Nominated Film “Gasland” for Chronicling Devastating Impact of Hydraulic Fracking

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