Few people know fracking better than Paul Hetzler. He’s an environmental engineering technician who for years worked for New York’s Department for Environmental Conservation (DEC). Mr. Hetzler managed dozens of groundwater remediation projects in the 1990s. He’s pored over “thousands of lab results from contaminated wells,” and he’s intimately familiar with the movement of contaminants through fractured rock formations.
In an intensifying national debate brimming with so-called experts, by all accounts, Mr. Hetzler is the real deal – and he’s speaking out about the dangers tied to the fastest growing sector of our new energy economy. In a recent “letter to the editor” published in the Watertown Daily News, he wrote:
Hydraulic fracturing as it’s practiced today will contaminate our aquifers.
Not might contaminate our aquifers. Hydraulic fracturing will contaminate New York’s aquifers. If you were looking for a way to poison the drinking water supply, here in the Northeast you couldn’t find a more chillingly effective and thorough method of doing so than with hydraulic fracturing.
In addition to the poisoning of a water supply that reaches 15 million Americans, there will also be an economic price that will come out of all our pockets. More from Mr. Hetzler:
When contamination occurs – and it will occur – we will all pay for it, regardless of where we live. Proving responsibility for groundwater contamination is difficult, costly and time-consuming, and while corporate lawyers drag out proceedings for years, everyone’s taxes will pay for the subsurface investigations, the whole-house filtration systems, the unending lab analyses.
As New York legislators debate whether to extend the state’s fracking moratorium, Mr. Hetzler’s words of warning should be taken seriously. Other states and localities considering the pros and cons of fracking should also take note. Clearly what can (or will) happen in New York, can happen anywhere. Here’s the legislative background from a Jan. 6 Reuters report:
State Assembly Environmental Committee Chair Robert Sweeney said on Friday he would soon introduce a proposal to have a moratorium on fracking until June 1, 2013. Sweeney pointed to recent reports that fracking may have caused a series of small earthquakes in Ohio and contaminated drinking water in Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania.
“As time goes by, more information comes forward and there continues to be a lack of strong public support, specifically in upstate areas that will be directly affected by this,” said Sweeney, a Democrat from Long Island.
The Democrat-dominated assembly has twice passed moratoriums on fracking. The first, in 2010, was vetoed by then-Governor David Paterson, who replaced it with a narrower ban that expired last year. An extension was approved by the assembly last year, but stalled in the Republican-led Senate.
Sen. Greg Ball, a Republican from Putnam County who recently became a vocal opponent of fracking after visiting communities in neighboring Pennsylvania, recently called for a one-year ban on drilling.
As lawmakers in New York (and elsewhere) scramble to adequately regulate fracking and look for ways to safely implement the controversial practice, there is one problem that no amount of research or legislation can fix. According to Mr. Hetzler, that problem is “leakage” of contaminants:
My experience investigating and remediating contaminated groundwater taught me some lessons. There’s no such thing as a perfect well seal. Occasionally sooner, often later, well seals can and do fail, period.
No confining layer is completely competent; all geologic strata leak to some extent. The fact that a less-transmissive layer lies between the drill zone and a well does not protect the well from contamination.
A drinking water well is never in “solid” rock. If it were, it would be a dry hole in the ground. As water moves through joints, fissures and bedding planes into a well, so do contaminants. In fractured media such as shale, water follows preferential pathways, moving fast and far, miles per week in some cases.
It remains to be seen whether those fundamental engineering and geological realities can somehow be altered to make fracking a safe process.
Mr. Hetzler, like many other Americans familiar with fracking, acknowledges one of the industry’s main selling points: job creation. But even in a down economy, jobs shouldn’t trump public health and safety. More from Mr. Hetzler:
I’d love to see hundreds more jobs created. But not if it means hundreds of thousands using well water will be at a high risk of contamination. Not if it means every New Yorker will be on the hook for the cost for cleanup and for creating alternate water supplies. If your well goes bad, neither you, nor your children, nor their children will ever be able to get safe, clean water back. That’s too high a price.
Read Paul Hetzler’s letter in its entirety: http://www.watertowndailytimes.com/article/20111213/OPINION02/712139975/
Read the Reuters report here: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/06/us-fracking-newyork-idUSTRE80521M20120106
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