Appalachian Basin

Activists Guide an Arc of Misinformation Through Troubled Water

If you ask a strident natural gas activist the largest threat to Pennsylvania’s water quality they will likely tell you –without hesitation- that hydraulic fracturing is the main culprit.  Ask someone who truly understands the challenges facing Pennsylvania and you will get a much different answer.  Mainly, an expert will tell you agricultural runoff, sewage overflows, and suburban runoff are more serious culprits as they actually pollute Pennsylvania’s waterways each and every day.

Why the stark difference between the opinions of activists and experts?  It might have something to do with the fact that Marcellus development isn’t even a blip on the radar of impacts to Pa. waters. John Hanger stated this eloquently on his blog in reference to a recent announcement concerning water pollution in the Pittsburgh area. Specifically Hanger stated:

The annual volume of untreated sewage reaching rivers and streams is reported as 9 billion gallons per year and occurs in 30 to 70 storms annually, according to the Post Gazette.  And the bill for stopping this pollution and cleaning up is a staggering $2.8 billion.

To make matters worse, the same problem of untreated sewage flowing into rivers and streams that the Pittsburgh region is confronting is found in many communities across Pennsylvania as well as in New York and other states.  While America’s sewage overflow problem dwarfs the impacts of gas drilling on water quality, it normally attracts little media attention or sustained public concern.  There are no Hollywood stars campaigning to stop these huge amounts of sewage from going into rivers.  There are no HBO movies on the problem.

John Hanger is right. According to EPA, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has 1,662 combined sewer outfalls (CSO) that release raw sewage into the Commonwealth’s waters each time there is a heavy rainfall or snowmelt (page 31).   According to that report:

Pennsylvania has the greatest number of CSO communities (155) and CSO discharge points (1,662) in the nation.

Also, according to EPA, “combined sewer overflows contain not only stormwater but also untreated human and industrial waste, toxic materials, and debris. They are a major water pollution concern for the approximately 772 cities in the U.S. that have combined sewer systems.”

New York City CSO outfall

The story doesn’t end there.  Sewer overflows impact our nation’s waters every year at a significant clip.  In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in their 2004 “Report to Congress on Impacts and Control of Combined Sewer Overflows and Sanitary Sewer Overflows” reports CSO events resulted in the discharge of 850 billion gallons of raw untreated sewage each year.

Pollutants actually impairing watersheds in Pennsylvania aren’t hard to find if you know where to look. Reports from DEP and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) in 2010 — well after natural gas development began in PA – show the largest pollution sources for the river are agriculture followed by urban and suburban runoff; atmospheric deposition (pollutants emanating from other sources and dropping here); and finally combined sewer overflows. No contamination from natural gas activities. Not anywhere on the list.

There’s good reason for that of course. Three presidential administrations — Clinton, Bush, and Obama — and statements made by regulators in over 12 U.S. states, by countless government and academic studies, and by respected environmental groups like the Environmental Defense Fund all show hydraulic fracturing doesn’t pose a threat to water.

Government regulators aren’t the only ones saying the technology doesn’t pose a significant threat to water resources and is therefore not a cause for alarm. Independent academics are saying the same thing as noted by Mark Zoback, a respected Stanford professor of geophysics who also served on the Secretary of Energy Committee on Shale Gas Development.  Zoback stated:

“We think the mystery surrounding hydraulic fracturing has actually been exacerbated and people have been paranoid, really for no reason.” (March 5, 2012)

In spite of these facts, environmental groups with an agenda, and pseudo-celebrities, are ignoring these real and enormous sources of water contamination to focus on a process that hasn’t caused a single case of water pollution in over sixty years of use.

So the question remains. If the protection of water is the end goal, and hydraulic fracturing hasn’t had a significant impact on waterways in Pennsylvania, or anywhere else for that matter, then why are activists ignoring every source of pollution actually affecting our state’s hydrology?  It might just be that potential impacts on water are a convenient excuse to protest an energy source they don’t personally agree with.

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