Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a way of extracting natural gas from underground wells. To get natural gas, a well is drilled and injected with a high-pressure mix of water, sand and chemicals. The pressure of this mix forces breaks little fissures in the shale allowing natural gas to flow freely.
Fracking came under fire recently because of reports of contaminated drinking water near drill sites. This contamination is the likely result of protection drillers enjoy under a loophole that exempts them from disclosing their chemical list to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The loophole essentially allows drillers to bypass the Safe Drinking Water Act and introduce carcinogens and chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene into the water system. (Since this provision was signed into law as part of the 2005 Bush/Cheney Energy Bill, it is commonly referred to as the Halliburton Loophole. Halliburton is a pioneer in hydraulic drilling. The FRAC Act –Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness to Chemical Act– is a House bill intended to repeal the loophole by requiring companies to list the chemicals they use in drilling.)
The gas that comes to the surface through mining is wet and must be separated from the water for use. This highly toxic waste water that is separated is then evaporated, trucked to treatment facilities, or dumped in streams (yes, it’s legal). Evaporated waste water that comes into contact with diesel exhaust (likely on a drill site) creates ground level ozone that may travel up to 250 miles.
Though the drilling industry insists there have been no cases of contamination, people residing in areas where fracking is big business report that their water is contaminated and worry that the effects of unregulated chemical on their land and health. It is reported that residents in one Pennsylvania town have such contaminated water that they can light it on fire as it runs from their taps.
In addition to dangerous loopholes in environmental responsibility, regulations in the hydraulic drilling industry, like the oil industry, seem to be lacking. In 2009 the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recorded 58 illegal discharges of toxic waste. Just six months into 2010 and that number is already at 52.