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Why we (still) don't trust Chesapeake Energy

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

By Leeann Brown, EWG Press Secretary

April was a busy month for the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania, especially for one company in particular - Chesapeake Energy Corporation. And that's saying a lot for one of the country's most active natural gas drilling companies.

Late on the night of April 19, a northern Pennsylvania well being fracked by Chesapeake exploded, causing a mysterious chemical concoction of spew for more than 12 hours as emergency teams scrambled to regain control of the operation.
Seven households had to be evacuated. Thankfully, no injuries were reported, and so far, nobody has detected gas leaks into nearby water wells. But thousands of gallons of chemically contaminated water spilled over containment walls, through grazing fields and into nearby Towanda Creek, which feeds into the Susquehanna River.
 
The company claims "equipment failure" as the cause and has temporarily halted fracturing activities across the state. Pennsylvania and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officials are investigating. Though we tip our hat to both agencies for taking prompt action, I'm curious to see how the investigations actually play out, given Pennsylvania's generally lax regulation of natural gas companies.
 
State advisory board rife with top polluters
 
In March, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett announced a new Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission to oversee gas development and attempt to make drilling environmentally friendly and cost effective. The Marcellus Shale is the rock formation underlying Pennsylvania which is the new mecca for natural gas development.
 
That sounds fine, but since it comes from a governor who has protected the natural gas industry from being taxed, even as he admits that communities affected by drilling deserve compensation, I'm skeptical.
 
Moreover, a Clean Water Action report has found that Pennsylvania regulators have charged fully eight (over 25%) of the drilling companies on the commission with environmental violations in just the last year.
 
One more thing the companies had in common? All contributed to Governor Corbett's campaign. Hmmm, can you say fox guarding the hen house?
 
EPA investigation overdue
 
The EPA issued an "information request" to Chesapeake (on Earth Day, ironically), asking the company to disclose "each hydraulic fracturing fluid formulation/mixture" used at the well. Companies are not currently required to disclose the chemicals in their hydraulic fracturing operations -- which inject millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into underground rock formations, cracking them and allowing trapped gas deposits to flow to the surface. But they should be.
 
By May 2, EPA officials have directed Chesapeake to disclose results of a more thorough investigation, including more substantial testing data, history of operations at the well, and information on all chemicals delivered to the site. As EWG's Dusty Horwitt sees it:
"Until recently, EPA has shown little interest in regulating the drilling industry. One reason is that Congress has stripped the agency's ability to set standards for drilling activities. But now, in response to growing public concern, EPA is finally beginning to take action to ensure that natural gas and oil drilling do not pollute precious water supplies."
 
Dirty drillers
 
A recent Congressional investigation confirmed EWG's 2010 finding that gas companies used diesel for hydraulic fracturing without permits under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act -- an apparent violation of the law.  A second Congressional investigation has found that companies were also injecting other potent chemicals in fracturing operations. A New York Times series examined other ways these companies might be polluting water, including dumping radioactive drilling waste into rivers that serve as sources of drinking water.
 
It's unfortunate that the EPA had to wait for a disaster to insist that Chesapeake disclose the chemicals it is injecting into the ground. People have a right to know exactly how natural gas companies are endangering their families and property. This incident should spur the EPA and Congress to require common-sense safety standards for every company that drills for natural gas and oil.
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