Responding to yet more revelations from a investigative series in The New York Times on natural gas extraction, Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), the top Democrat on the Natural Resources Committee, and Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources, today sent a letter to Lisa Jackson, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) asking whether her agency had excluded plans to study radioactivity in the waste products from natural gas fracking. The Congressmen also asked for several studies and documents mentioned in the Times article and made inquires about steps EPA is taking to protect workers from exposure to radioactive materials.
"Recent news reporting and Congressional investigations cry out for more study into the impact of natural gas extraction on our environment and human health," Rep. Holt said. "The public has a right to know of any harmful effects."
"Studying the potentially harmful effects from natural gas extraction is not some innocuous academic exercise, it helps ensure this technology is safe, viable and can make the grade," said Rep. Markey. "When a technology involves potential contamination of drinking water in American homes, not completing the assignment is not an option."
The Natural Resources Committee has jurisdiction over the Bureau of Land Management, which manages 40 million acres of subsurface land in 31 eastern states, including management of oil and gas leases on 2 million acres of land in states such as Penn., W.V., N.Y., and Ohio.
Reps. Markey and Holt sent a letter previously this week to the Department of Interior, and Rep. Markey sent a letter earlier this week to the EPA.
Dear Administrator Jackson:
We write to request information and express our concerns regarding efforts to study the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing and oversee the disposal of associated wastes in light of additional disclosures made this week in The New York Times.
As you know, on Sunday The New York Times reported that millions of gallons of drilling wastewater, which often has radioactive radium containments in it at levels that far exceed the safe drinking water standards, have been hauled to treatment plants and dumped into surface waters without first removing the radium. On Tuesday, The New York Times also indicated that residual wastewater salt and sludge, which can contain more concentrated levels of radium and other materials, can be spread as a method to de-ice the roadways in the winter and for dust suppression in the summer, after which it can also migrate into sources of drinking water supplies. Today, The New York Times reported that EPA recently decided not the model and closely assess the threat of radioactive drilling wastewater being discharged into rivers as part of its broader, Congressionally-mandated study on any connection between hydraulic fracturing and the safety of our drinking water supply. This decision, if true and in light of the disclosures made by The New York Times, is unwise, and we urge you to immediately reverse it.
We also request your assistance in responding to the following questions and requests no later than close of business on Friday, March 25, 2011:
Today's The New York Times article reports that as part of its Congressionally-mandated study of hydraulic fracturing, EPA has decided not to study
a). Modeling of wastewater from hydraulic fracturing that contains radioactive radium that is passed through sewage plants before it is discharged into waterways;
b). Toxic air emissions released during the drilling process;
c). The potential that toxic or radioactive substances that are found in wastewater from hydraulic fracturing, the sludge from which can be spread on crops as fertilizer, can enter the food web through absorption into crops.
d). The potential that exposures to the radioactive radium contained in drilling waste could harm workers who handle it.
For each of the above potential topics of study, please indicate i) whether it is true that EPA decided not to pursue information related to the topic, ii) if so, on what basis, iii) whether, in light of the public health concerns raised in The New York Times articles, you intend to reserve any such decisions and iv) if not, why not.
2. Today's The New York Times article states that a draft version of the EPA's 2004 study on hydraulic fracturing cited a case of possible contamination of drinking water aquifer by fracturing fluids, and said that there could be dangerous levels of contamination contained in the fluids. These references were reportedly removed from the final report.
a). Please provide a copy of each draft of this 2004 report
b). Please indicate which EPA (or other) officials were responsible for the decision to delete the information from the final report.
c).Please additionally provide a copy of all documents in EPA's possession (including reports, e-mails, correspondence, memos, phone or meeting minutes or other materials) that relate to any allegation or substantiation of cases in which hydraulic fracturing (including the fluids use to conduct it) has led to the contamination of sources of drinking water or drinking water itself.
3). Today's The New York Times quotes an internal EPA memo that states that "wastewater Treatment plants are not allowed under federal law to process mystery liquids, regardless of what the state tells them," reportedly in reference to a Pennsylvania regulator's decision to allow sewage treatment plants to process drilling wastes even without knowing what substances they contain. Is this true? Please provide legal justification for your response, and, if it is the Agency's view that this statement is true, please describe the steps you are taking to ensure that State regulators promulgate regulations that comply with federal law going forward.
4). Today's The New York Times also quotes an internal EPA document that states "The bottom line is that under the Clean Water Act, dilution is not the solution to pollution," reportedly in reference to a Pennsylvania decision to allow sewage plants to process drilling waste even though they do not remove radioactive radium from materials before releasing them into waterways. According to the article, an EPA memo also states, "Sewage treatment plants are legally obligated to treat not dilute the waste." "These plants are breaking the law." "Everyone is looking the other way." Is it true that sewage treatment plants are prohibited from diluting this waster in lieu of treating it to remove the radioactive radium? Please provide legal justification for your response, and, if it is the Agency's view that this statement is true, please describe the steps you are taking to ensure that State regulators promulgate regulations that comply with federal law going forward.
5). According to documents released by The New York Times, as sewage plants process hydraulic fracturing wastewater they are left with a concentrated sludge that has substantially higher radioactivity, salts and other substances that the wastewater itself. Sludge can also collect inside the drilling pipes at well sites, in waste pits and in holding tanks. Radioactivity also concentrates in 'pipe scale'. This scale is formed when barium and strontium, also found in drilling waste, collect on the pipes, and attract radioactive radium. The levels of radioactivity in pipe scale and treatment filters may pose a substantial risk for workers and other who handle these materials, in fact one EPA official believes that radioactivity is high enough to require special disposal.
a). What steps do you plan to take to ensure that workers who may come into contact with these materials are monitored to ensure they are not exposed to high levels of radioactive radium?
b). Does EPA believe that sludge that may contain drilling waster includes radioactive radium or other toxic materials can be used as agricultural fertilizer or in road de-icing or dust reduction processes? Why or why not, and if not what steps do you plan to take to ensure that State regulators are aware of any concerns EPA might have regarding this practice.
Thank you for your assistance and cooperation in responding to this request. Should you have any questions, please have your staff contact Dr. Michal Freedhoff of the House Natural Resources Committee staff, Dr. Avenel Joseph of my staff at 202-225-2836 or Andrea Burgess or Rep. Holt's staff at 202-225-5801.
Edward J. Markey Rush D. Holt
Ranking Members Ranking Member
Natural Resources Committee Subcommittee on Energy and