The former head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is not happy with The New York Times’s Ian Urbina and his series about risks and regulations related to natural-gas drilling, a rapidly growing industry.
After the series launched with a long article on the front page of Sunday’s newspaper, John Hanger—who left Pennsylvania’s top environmental regulatory agency in January, following the ascent of a new governor—let loose with a string of seven posts on his personal blog explaining why he thought Urbina’s work was “deliberately” misleading.
Under the headline, “Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers,” the series opener homed in on radioactive materials in drilling waste. In a process called hydraulic fracturing, or hydro-fracking, large amounts of water, sand, and chemicals are injected into rock formations, usually shale, deep underground in order to break up the rock and release the gas they contain. Some of the mixture then returns to the surface as wastewater, some of which, the Times reported, is being discharged into Pennsylvania rivers:
While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of internal documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.
The documents reveal that the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle.
At his personal blog, Hanger criticized the story for what he felt was a predetermined “narrative of lax regulation and lax regulation and lax oversight of gas drilling in Pennsylvania.” He accused Urbina of “willful reporting errors and omissions,” but almost all of his complaints concern the latter.
The crux of Hanger’s disapproval is that Urbina did not mention a suite of strong regulatory and oversight that Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection enforced during the time period covered in the article. That includes, Hanger wrote, four new drilling policies and rules enacted under his tenure: finalizing water withdrawal policies designed to protect rivers and streams; putting an end to Pennsylvania’s “decades long practice” of allowing the unlimited discharge of wastewater untreated for total dissolved solids (salts, etc.) in rivers and streams; strengthening rules governing drilling well design, materials, construction, monitoring, testing, and disclosure of chemicals; and enacting a 150-foot buffer requirement between all development and “High Quality” streams. Other measures included increasing the department’s gas staff from eighty-eight to 202 positions and issuing 1,400 violations to the gas industry between January 2008 and June 2010.
Hanger also griped that Urbina did not mention a 2010 report from an independent auditing agency called STRONGER, for State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations, whose board includes representatives from government, industry, and environmental organizations. The report issued a number of recommendations for improvement, but concluded that “the Pennsylvania program is, over all, well-managed, professional and meeting its program objectives.” Hanger felt that should have been the takeaway message from Urbina’s article, and he was irked that it wasn’t.
While Hanger has a point—Urbina’s article does use a specific example of poor oversight to make a much more sweeping statement about “lax regulation”—complaints focusing on errors of omission rather than errors of commission often seem like sour grapes. Indeed, Hanger found no fault with the main thrust of Urbina’s article, writing:
The most serious issue raised by the NYT is whether or not unhealthy levels of radium are in the drinking water as a result of gas drilling wastewater.
Good reasons exist to believe that the answer is no, including the new drilling wastewater disposal rule that went into effect in August 2010 and the now widespread use of recycling technology to manage at least 70% of drilling wastewater. But belief is not good enough.
We must not drift into a war of competing theories or studies. We need the facts. Pennsylvanians deserve nothing less.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection should order today all public water systems in Pennsylvania to test immediately for radium or radioactive pollutants and report as soon as good testing allows the results to the public. Only testing of the drinking water for these pollutants can resolve the issue raised by the NYT.