BETHLEHEM – Drilling in the Marcellus Shale could make drinking water in the Lehigh Valley flammable, radioactive and full of cancer-causing chemicals, according to the chairman of the Sierra Club of the Lehigh Valley.
Don Miles, chairman of the local Sierra Club, said hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” will pollute wells and rivers in Pennsylvania, Delaware, New York and New Jersey if it’s allowed to continue unchecked.
“The Marcellus natural gas drilling boom is the greatest natural threat to Pennsylvania in the last 50 years,” Miles said to a classroom of mostly senior citizens at Northampton Community College on Tuesday morning.
Fracking is the process of extracting natural gas by drilling a well and pumping it full of highly pressurized liquid. The liquid causes rock to fracture, releasing natural gas for companies to collect. The practice has been commonplace for years in Texas, Oklahoma, Colorado and other western states.
In the past few years, companies have focused on the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation spanning from West Virginia to New York. Experts estimate it could hold as much as $1 trillion worth of natural gas.
Environmental advocates claim the pressurized liquid contains carcinogens. Pumping it underground to break rock formations could allow natural gas and cancer-causing agents to mix with drinking water, Miles said. On top of that, the Marcellus Shale has radium, a naturally occurring radioactive element, Miller said. He cited a New York Times article that found radioactive fracking waste in the Monongahela River, which provides drinking water to roughly 800,000.
While the Marcellus Shale does not extend into Lehigh or Northampton counties, Miles said, the Delaware and Lehigh rivers extend into those areas and face possible pollution. Those rivers provide the drinking water for much of the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia, he said.
However, officials in the natural gas industry insist there is no documented case of fracking causing ground water contamination.
Travis Windle, spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, pointed to recent comments from Taury Smith, New York’s state official geologist, as proof. In a March 14 interview with The Albany Times-Union, Smith said the reported cases of well contamination near fracking sites were caused by unrelated factors.
“Hydraulic fracturing has a long and clear record of environmental safety,” Windle said.
Miles urged members of the audience to write their state representatives asking for strict regulations on fracking or to at least tax the gas companies. Pennsylvania is the only state allowing natural gas drilling without a tax, he said.
“I never thought we’d have Pennsylvania trying to emulate the high environmental standards of West Virginia,” Miles said sarcastically.