Nation Takes Notice of Marcellus Shale

Washington PA  Observer Reporter
6 March 2011

Readers of the Observer-Reporter cannot help but be familiar with Marcellus shale gas development. Our first extensive article on the industry's attempts to extract natural gas trapped in rock a mile below our feet appeared four years ago, in March 2007. A search of our archives, as of last week, turned up 772 articles, letters and editorials in which "Marcellus shale" was the topic.

Until recently, however, all of this was just local news to people living in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and parts of Ohio and New York, Kentucky and Tennessee. It was old news to people in Texas, Wyoming and Colorado, who had been experiencing this type of deep, horizontal drilling for several years. And it was no news at all to everyone living elsewhere.

The words "Marcellus shale" and "fracking fluid" brought nothing but blank stares from people in Indiana and Florida and California until about a year ago, when the world began to notice what has been going on here - when people began to realize what effects one of the world's largest deposits of natural gas could have on our nation's economy, and on our area's environment.

Last Sunday's extensive article in The New York Times, reportedly the result of a seven-month investigation, has caused a stir here, not so much for the spotlight thrown on this area but for the troubling information it contained.

The Times article by Ian Urbina focused on wastewater from Marcellus drilling operations that is sent to treatment plants and then discharged into rivers. The wastewater sometimes contains radioactive materials from deep in the ground, which the industry contends are in tiny amounts and not dangerous, especially when diluted in rivers. But how much radioactive materials like radium are getting into the rivers - and thus our drinking water - is not known because the state has not required plants to regularly test for them.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry advocate based in Canonsburg, criticized the Times article for neglecting to mention that much wastewater from Marcellus drilling is now being recycled rather than sent to treatment plants. An article by the Associated Press published March 1 also made the point that as much as 65 percent of wastewater is now being recycled, but noted that the escalating number of wells being drilled means that the amount of water being treated and discharged in rivers is still likely to grow.

In response to the Times article, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey called on 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."

Also, Pennsylvania American Water Co. and Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority, which draw drinking water from the Monongahela River, announced they will soon begin testing for radioactivity.

All of this underscores the need for increased oversight of gas development and water quality in Pennsylvania, a costly endeavor considering the enormous and rapid growth of the industry here. The most likely way this state can afford to increase that oversight is by enacting a severance tax on gas, something that our Legislature has failed to agree upon and to which our governor is opposed.

For the sake of our health, their attitude had better change.