By Ronald Fraser
History tells us that engineering advances not only solve problems, they also create new ones. The environmental problems created today by advanced natural gas drilling techniques are not unlike the environmental problems created 150 years ago when American cities began building urban water systems.
As cities grew rapidly in the 19th century, wells supplying drinking water became polluted from overflowing cesspools and privies. Hundreds of cities and towns installed municipal waterworks to supply safe drinking water – but not sewer systems to safely dispose of the toxic wastewaters.
At first, cities used horse-drawn water tankers to keep the cesspool and privy vaults from overflowing. But the new technology simply overwhelmed the old disposal systems. Cities then turned to pipes to handle both storm water and sewage waste, creating yet another problem: As the disposal systems channeled massive amounts of untreated sewage into streams, rivers and lakes, they created new health hazards for downstream communities.
Typhoid fever and other water-borne diseases skyrocketed in the late 1800s. The anticipated health benefits for the cities installing the new water systems were offset by the increased health hazards borne by the downstream water users.
Only in the early 20th century did cities get serious and build combination sanitary/storm water sewers leading into treatment plants.
Disposal of toxic drilling fluids has long been an environmental challenge for well operators. Even traditional gas wells in New York State – shallow and using less than 80,000 gallons of drilling fluid to fracture gas-bearing rocks – failed to safely dispose of millions of gallons of toxic drilling wastes.
A 2012 review of state-approved drilling permits found the Department of Environmental Conservation allowed drillers to use questionable disposal methods.
Any day now, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo could start issuing high-volume horizontal hydrofracking drilling permits for wells using up to 8 million gallons of drilling fluid per well. The enormous increase in the waste stream from these wells will further overwhelm the ability of drillers to safely dispose of their toxic wastes. Municipal waste treatment plants can’t handle the wastes. And routine accidents and spills involving these wastes in other states are known to have polluted drinking water wells, caused serious human health problems and domestic livestock deaths.
Will the governor, like 19th century city mayors, foolishly put the health of New Yorkers at risk by giving high-volume, horizontal hydrofracking the green light long before drilling water disposal risks are properly measured and resolved?
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., is a member of the Environmental Planning Board in the Town of Colden.