Toxic-Free Zone: One City’s Approach to Protecting Residents from Fracking


As New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) prepares to lift a ban that would re-open the Empire State to the controversial natural gas drilling process known as “fracking,” one upstate city is taking a unique approach to protecting its residents from the dangers posed by one of the fastest-growing sectors of the energy industry. The City Council in Auburn – located 20 miles west of Syracuse in the heart of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale region – is considering a resolution that would prohibit the city’s wastewater treatment plant from accepting any “water produced as a by-product from natural gas drilling.”

So why is that a big deal for fracking communities like Auburn? It’s all about how to dispose of billions of gallons of toxic, radioactive wastewater.

The fracking process involves injecting massive volumes of water – mixed with sand and a witch’s brew of toxic chemicals – deep into the ground to break up rock formations (i.e., shale) and release natural gas. That flood of water eventually returns to the earth’s surface as a waste stream and must be disposed of by drilling companies. But where, if not local treatment plants? New York Times reporter Ian Urbina offers some additional context:

With hydrofracking, a (single) well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.

Much of that wastewater is trucked directly to municipal water treatment plants, like the one in Auburn, for “cleaning.” Unfortunately, for those of us who prefer our water nontoxic, treatment plants are not equipped to remove radioactive contaminants. They simply don’t have the technology to do so. What that means is the “treated” water that is discharged into nearby rivers and streams still contains radioactive elements like radium-226 and radium-228. And in many instances, treatment plants release the radioactive water just upstream from drinking water intake facilities – posing an undeniable public health risk (see link below to my previous post on fracking wastewater).

It isn’t difficult to understand the enormous problem the Auburn ban would present for frackers in New York’s Marcellus Shale region, and beyond. What will they do with their billions of gallons of toxic wastewater if treatment plants won’t take it? Whether the alternative is shipping the wastewater to plants that can and will accept it or processing it into a form that can be used as fertilizer (see link to my previous post below), the cost will surely cut into the industry’s monster profit margins. Heaven forbid.

It’s unknown how exactly frackers circumvented regulators and snuck in the back door of these municipal treatment plants to dispose of their wastewater – but it is clearly a violation of the Clean Water Act.

My guess – and hope – is that we’ll see more localities institute bans like the one being considered in Auburn. In lieu of any real leadership from federal and state regulators, such bans are an effective way to protect the public and the environment from the ravages of fracking.

Stay tuned, as we’ll continue to cover this important story out of the Marcellus Shale region of New York.

Read up on the Auburn resolution here:

Here’s the link to my previous post on fracking wastewater:

Read my post on using radioactive wastewater as fertilizer. You can’t make this stuff up:

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

Add comment

Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
Cooper Law Firm

Follow Us

© Stuart H Smith, LLC
Share This