Fracked Gas Lays Waste to Pennsylvania

By Tracy Carluccio, Deputy Director, Delaware Riverkeeper Network

Fracking and its destruction looks a lot like an ocean of harm drowning Pennsylvania. Wave after wave hits communities wherever drilling, fracking and related operations occur. The infrastructure that enables gas development brings its own damage, spreading pollution and degradation. And the methane unavoidably released weighs heavily in the atmosphere, speeding up the global climate change we are supposed to be combating. To stop this assault, we need a sea change – a transformation that pries loose the drilling and fracking industry’s grip on our Commonwealth. At this political moment, it seems impossible to get there except for one phenomenon – the will of people.

Examined here are two among the storm of issues that we face: Liquefied Natural Gas and fracking wastewater.  

Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG), or liquid methane, a form of fracked gas: As gas producers attempt to find a way to market the glut of gas being extracted from shale gas wells, some are inventing novel ways to sell gas. In Wyalusing Township, Bradford County, New Fortress Energy (NFE) has developed a scheme to bring fracked gas from shale wells to a processing facility they want to build on the Susquehanna River to liquefy the gas. They would transport the produced LNG by rail and truck 200 miles through the heart of hundreds of communities across Pennsylvania and New Jersey to the proposed Gibbstown LNG export terminal they plan to build on the Delaware River in New Jersey, just south of Philadelphia and just north of Chester, PA.

Why is this new? If this project goes ahead, it would be the first major facility in the nation to liquefy LNG in a shale region requiring long distance overland delivery for export overseas. This model can release an onslaught of similar inland LNG development projects, especially with the Trump administration’s new federal rule allowing LNG to be transported by rail anywhere in the U.S., upending the longstanding national ban on LNG railcar transport enacted for public safety reasons.

In fact, the Wyalusing to Gibbstown railcar transport of LNG wouldn’t be possible if the Trump administration had not granted a special permit allowing the transport in substandard, unsafe rail cars. A release of the contents from a derailment or other incident would be catastrophic, potentially killing people and destroying with bomb-like force for miles, devastating an entire region.

This is an entirely new terrorizing and polluting footprint. It induces new fracking, which emits toxic air pollution from LNG processing. It exposes communities to extreme danger from LNG storage and transport. The rail transportation targets many Black and brown and low-income communities already overburdened with environmental insults in Philadelphia, Allentown, Wilkes-Barre, Reading and in Camden and Gloucester County in New Jersey. The Gibbstown export terminal, located in proximity to dense populations, would perpetually transload LNG from trains and trucks into waiting ships, a round-the-clock operation fraught with constant danger. The terminal dock would destroy sensitive river habitats, jeopardize the federally endangered Atlantic Sturgeon and would stir up toxic pollution from the former DuPont munitions plant site where it is located. The enormous “bomb ships” would export the LNG overseas through the Delaware River and Bay, passing close to Wilmington and ocean beach and fishing towns. The LNG sales would line the pockets of a private business at the expense of the public, who will bear all the costs, all of the harm.

A four-state coalition of groups and many frontline communities are fighting back to completely stop this reckless project. We are determined to win and have a strategy to get there. Take action with the Philadelphia petition to stop the rail transport here (in English) or here (en español).  Additional information is available here.

Wastewater Produced by Drilling and Fracking

Pennsylvania is awash in toxic waste produced by drilling and fracking. EPA’s 2018 comprehensive report on oil and gas wastewater confirms it contains dangerous pollutants that naturally occur in shale’s deep geology such as radioactive materials, heavy metals, and concentrated salts. It has long been known that the Marcellus shale formation is highly radioactive, and that this radioactivity is brought to the surface through fracking and carried into the produced wastewater. Radium-226 has a half-life of 1600 years.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also confirms that the waste contains toxic fracking fluids injected into the well. Frack wastewater is a complicated mix of components that are so unwieldy that it’s banned from sewage treatment plants and industrial facilities have not been able to prevent polluted discharges. Some of the constituents are carcinogenic; some have other adverse health effects, and some are toxic to aquatic and plant life. A new report published by Physicians for Social Responsibility documents that highly toxic PFAS have been used extensively in fracking, despite their known correlation with serious diseases, including cancer and developmental impacts on the fetus and infants, our most vulnerable populations. The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial board confirmed PFAS were used in Pennsylvania fracking wells. They’re called “Forever Chemicals” because they NEVER break down – they are here to stay. The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) either ignored or approved this contamination and continues to do so today. What will future generations think?

Adding to the injury is a regulatory gap that has kept the public from knowing what is in the fracking fluids through tricky rules that allow companies to hide the ingredients as “trade secrets.” In some instances, even DEP doesn’t know all of the chemicals used. EPA and scientific studies have identified many hundreds of chemicals in frack wastewater, but you can’t find what you don’t know to look for. So, there’s no way to really know what toxins are in our air and water. Not knowing what is in the waste has allowed the fracking industry to avoid accountability, and this ignorance has been enshrined in the current climate of deference afforded to these businesses by government and politicians.

The proof of Pennsylvania’s failure to protect is in the hundreds of reports and studies showing how fracking waste has polluted the Commonwealth. A recent report, “Hot Fracking Mess” by the Natural Resources Defense Council, provides scientific research documenting high levels of radioactive materials from fracking being released in Pennsylvania and the poor enforcement and legal loopholes in federal and state rules that allow it. Justin Nobel’s 2020 Rolling Stone article is based on three years of investigations that found “a sweeping arc of contamination” — mishandling, spills, dumping and legally sanctioned releases have endangered workers and communities in Pennsylvania and across America.

Worse still, the Pennsylvania legislature is pushing to weaken fracking regulations to benefit drillers and the Pennsylvania DEP is considering regulations to allow the expansion of the application of frack wastewater on roadways. Shocking as that is, it is a trend reflected in the Trump Administration’s deregulation of rules that govern fossil fuel development and the Biden Administration’s lack of vigor in repealing them. The result is a kind of frenzied free-for-all by project builders with grassroots communities fighting not to become the next sacrifice zone. Additionally, the induced fracking continues to belch out methane, the most powerful greenhouse gas, on a 20 year time scale, feeding the climate crisis.

As Pennsylvania fills up the last injection wells in Ohio with frack waste, industry is looking desperately for more places to get rid of it. They are now targeting the Delaware River Basin as a dumping ground – a proposal being vehemently fought by the Delaware River Frack Ban Coalition. To help out, sign this petition.  To learn more about this struggle, read here

Yes, we are engulfed in a world of hurt from fracking impacts but, no, we are not taking it lying down. Wish we could say the same for Pennsylvania’s government. 

This blog was included as part of the Fall 2021 Sylvanian newsletter. Please click here to check out more articles from this edition!