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More toxic chemicals, huge water withdrawals expected with natural gas boom in Michigan

A prospective new natural gas boom in Michigan is rekindling old concerns and raising new environmental and public health issues.

Potential hazards revolve primarily around a process known as fracking—injecting a high pressure cocktail of water, sand and toxic chemicals underground to break up shale rock and release the gas.

Hundreds of hazardous acids and toxic chemicals (see sidebar list) can be mixed with water to create the fracking fluid. Some of the fluid remains underground. Most of it is recovered and must be carefully stored, transported and disposed of.

Fracking has been used for decades in Michigan, but typically at depths of around 1,500 feet. The new exploration is taking place in the 9,000- to 10,000-foot deep Collingwood shale formation. At that depth, it requires exponential increases in water and chemicals—and a resulting increase in the potential for leaks and accidents.

Fluid left underground troubles many critics who wonder what will become of the dangerous chemicals over time, even as regulators assure that they are safely locked thousands of feet below the water table for the foreseeable future.

In Pennsylvania, fracking operations are believed to have contaminated groundwater and poisoned cattle. The Pennsylvania Land Trust says shale drillers have accumulated more than 1,400 violations of oil and gas laws in two and a half years—952 of them classified as likely to cause harm to the environment.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which essentially declared fracking safe in 2004, is re-examining the issue. Its study on fracking safety is due to be completed in 2013. States are also taking hard looks at the practice. Both New York and Pennsylvania are debating moratoriums on fracking. In those states, hundreds of citizens regularly pack public meetings on the issue.

Their concerns include fears that naturally occurring toxins can be carried to the surface with the recovered fracking fluid—hydrocarbons like benzene, thylene and xylene, heavy metals, and even radium 226.

Michigan regulators say they know of no cases of water contamination traced to fracking in the state. They believe that the depth of the state’s Collingwood formation and impervious layers between it and the groundwater make it virtually impossible for fracking fluid to migrate to drinking water supplies. And they say that Michigan’s laws are more stringent than many other states. Recovered fracking fluid, for example, must be contained in steel tanks rather than above-ground pits.

But they acknowledge that the deeper Collingwood formation brings unique new challenges.

Among those challenges are the sheer volume of chemically laden fluid that needs to be handled safely. In the past, a typical gas well in Michigan used about 50,000 gallons of fracking fluid, said Hal Fitch, director of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (DNRE) Office of Geological Survey. The new Collingwood wells often will use more than 100 times more fluid—more than six million gallons.

Whether gas drillers can safely manage a 100-fold increase in toxic fluids is a question that critics say has not been fully addressed. Fitch acknowledges there may be pressure to relax Michigan’s standards and allow, for example, above-ground pits. But he said the DNRE “is going to hold the line on that.”

Adding to concerns are exemptions that gas companies have successfully carved out of existing environmental regulations. Critics point out that the industry is:

  • Not required to disclose the types or amounts of chemicals they use in the fracking process;
  • Exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. That exemption, carved out in 2005, is named the Halliburton Loophole for the company that patented the fracking process—still one of the largest producers of fracking fluids today;
  • Exempt from Michigan’s new water withdrawal rules that are designed to protect well users, wetlands, streams and lakes from excessive groundwater use.

Fitch said the DNRE intends to require drillers of deep Collingwood shale formations to adhere to more stringent regulations, including stronger well casings and compliance with rules that parallel the state’s water withdrawal statute.

The state was, at press time, also considering rules that would reduce the density of wells drilled in the Collingwood formation from one rig every 80 acres to potentially one every 640 acres. Such a change would lessen the impacts to forests and landscapes by reducing the potential number of drilling pads and access roads.

But some say many of the public safety and environmental issues need to involve a wider public audience, especially since Michigan is nestled within the world’s greatest freshwater ecosystem.

“No one—neither the state nor landowners—has mapped or assessed the areas from which these massive quantities of water will be withdrawn or where contaminated water might be discharged,” wrote Jim Olson, an environmental attorney from Traverse City in an Aug. 8 Detroit Free Press column.

Encana, the company that drilled the gas well that sparked the current Michigan frenzy, said it is committed to protecting the environment, and encourages more open disclosure of fracking fluid composition.

“Hydraulic fracturing occurs significantly below useable groundwater supplies,” said Doug Hock, director of community and public relations for Encana. “That being said, Encana supports the disclosure of increased information regarding the composition of the fluids the company uses for hydraulic fracturing and is actively encouraging its fluid suppliers—the owners of this information—to improve their public disclosure of fluid formulation information.”
-Zach Berridge and Hugh McDiarmid, Jr.
RELATED TOPICS: water protection
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