“Frack”-tious Reactions

Skirmishes follow recent coverage of shale-gas drilling

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.

Thanks to the Times, that wish might come true. The Scranton Times Tribune in northeastern Pennsylvania reported Wednesday that “U.S. Sen. Bob Casey [D-Penn.] joined a chorus of lawmakers on Tuesday seeking additional testing of public water supplies following” the Urbina’s article:

“Alarming information has been raised that must be fully investigated,” Mr. Casey said and asked both the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to “increase inspections of Pennsylvania drinking water resources for radioactive material and to account for why sufficient inspections haven’t taken place.”

In a tacit nod to the Times, Hanger acknowledged that asking why he didn’t take such steps while he was secretary of the department “is a fair question”:

[T]he main reason is that I was not presented with information in the manner that the NYT does in this article. The NYT references confidential reports, anonymous statements supposedly made by EPA scientists, and other material that I have never seen until this article. I was informed by agency radiation experts that the radiation levels were not a threat to truck drivers, workers at sewage treatment facilities or the public. To be clear the buck stopped with me up to January 18th, 2011 and I believe the agency staff were handling this issue in a serious, careful manner. I still believe that to be in the case.

The case for action has been growing for a while, however. Urbina noted that his article built on similar investigative reporting by ProPublica and The Associated Press. When the latter published an article on January 3 about the gas industry discharging polluted wastewater via treatment plants, however, Hanger—who was still head of the Department of Environmental Protection at the time—had the same reaction he did to Urbina’s piece. In a letter to the editor of The Morning Call in Allentown, Hanger called the article “appalling” because of the “sensational premise that Pennsylvania isn’t protecting drinking water sources from drilling wastewater.”

According to a post at Hanger’s blog, he and former Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell (a one-time “booster” of shale drilling who banned gas development on state forest land in October, only to have the order reversed by his successor in late February) submitted a similar letter to the Times on Wednesday, which will likely run soon, and attempted to contact the public editor about their grievances. (ProPublica—which has probably expended more effort than any other outlet covering the natural gas boom and shale drilling in the U.S. since it latched onto the story in 2008—featured an interesting Q&A with Hanger in February, in which he expanded on the strengths and weaknesses of Pennsylvania’s regulation and oversight.) On his blog, at least, Hanger has not taken issue with the second article in Urbina’s series, which ran on the Times’s front page on Wednesday. He is not the only one who has taken issue with the work, however.

The Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit didn’t seem to have a problem, as Hanger did, with the overall narrative of lax regulation, but he did fault the first and second installments of the series for the same problem (the latter focused on the recycling of wastewater, an alternative discharge, though one the Times called insufficient). While lauding the articles for being “well modulated in tone,” not once flatly declaring “that people are drinking water that is demonstrably poisonous or carcinogenic,” Petit wanted to see Urbina take a harder look at the repeated assertion by government and industry that wastewater discharges are adequately diluted by fresh water in rivers and streams.

Indeed, in the first article of the series, Urbina provided links to a study from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, suggesting the dilution is sufficient, and one for the American Petroleum Institute, suggesting it isn’t—but he doesn’t attempt to resolve the two, leaving the reader with little more than a he-said-she-said debate. Petit argued that with data about river flow rates readily available, Urbina should have crunched the numbers and been more conclusive.

There is also an odd contradiction between the AP’s January article about wastewater and the first article in the Times series. The former reported that “treatment plant operators” say their facilities can remove most toxic pollutants without much trouble, including radioactive elements, but that removing dissolved solids (salts, etc.) is more difficult. In the Times, however, “treatment plant operators” say their facilities aren’t equipped to remove radioactive material (the story didn’t mention dissolved solids). Thus, there seems to be some need for clarification of what these plants can and cannot effectively treat. Regardless, it’s nice to see major outlets like the Times, the AP, and ProPublica all digging into the drilling story with such gusto.

Elsewhere, the reaction to coverage has been equally “frack”-tious (pun intended). On Saturday, bloggers chastised The Wall Street Journal for removing an unusual quote from an article about the gas industry’s displeasure that the film Gasland, which criticized the destructive nature of drilling, had been nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (it failed to win the Oscar on Sunday night). The original version of the article quoted a spokesman for Range Resources-Appalachia, a natural gas company, saying, “We have to stop blaming documentaries [for public concerns about drilling] and take a look in the mirror.” The quote quickly disappeared, however, although Josh Fox, Gasland’s director, posted a screenshot of the comment on the film’s Facebook page.

The online news site Press Action contacted the Journal article’s author, Ben Casselman, on February 26 to ask about the deletion:

In an e-mail response, Casselman wrote: “As a matter of policy, the Journal doesn’t discuss its editorial decisions, so I can’t get into details. But stories are edited all the time between editions, for all sorts of reasons (space, clarity, etc.). So it’s not unusual for the early versions of a story to look different from the final version.”

Casselman is right, of course. Articles can pass through multiple iterations online, which are often quite different from one another. But that doesn’t answer the entirely valid question about why the Journal nixed the quote from Range Resource’s spokesman.

Whatever the case, the incident is further evidence that coverage of the natural gas boom and hydraulic fracturing is taking place within a fraught environment—one in which reporters must think carefully about the facts and the tone presented in their articles, and be prepared to explain or defend them.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , ,