MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
This week, we're taking a closer look at the natural gas industry and its impact on human health and the environment. In just under a decade, some 200,000 gas wells have been drilled in the U.S. The boom is largely the product of an engineering technique that allows drillers to tap gas reserves that were once unreachable. The technique is called hydraulic fracturing.
BLOCK: Fracking has generated much-needed jobs - about 600,000 of them - and billions of dollars for the U.S. economy. But scientists warn very little is known about how much pollution it's causing. We begin our series in one of the nation's biggest gas hot spots, the vast Marcellus shale that runs through Western Pennsylvania.
NPR's Christopher Joyce reports on the struggle to prevent the region's water from being polluted by the gas industry.
(SOUNDBITE OF FLOWING WATER)
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: Water is a big deal in Pennsylvania. It's got great trout streams, beautiful rivers. But industry has ruined a lot of Pennsylvania's water. Coal companies hammered this place. Mining left behind acidic water that's killed thousands of miles of streams. I stood on a bridge over a patch of the Lockawanna River and every rock I could see was bright orange.
And now, Pennsylvanians fear a new toxic legacy, this time from shale gas. David Yoxtheimer is a hydrologist at Penn State University.
DAVID YOXTHEIMER: Are we going to let this happen to Pennsylvania again? Are we going to make sure that we have enough money and that these companies' feet are held in the fire to make sure that once their operations are done, they put everything back together, tidy it up, and make it look like nothing happened there in the first place.
JOYCE: New gas drilling companies in the state want Pennsylvania's water to bust open shale. That means, first of all, water trucks. Everybody complains about these, even people in the industry. I visited a truck staging area run by Chesapeake Energy and I talked to...
DAN LOPATA: Dan Lopata, L-o-p-a-t-a.
JOYCE: And you're in charge of the water?
LOPATA: I'm the field superintendent with Chesapeake, in charge of all our water infrastructure, that's correct.
JOYCE: For the Marcellus?
LOPATA: For the whole Marcellus.
JOYCE: That's a lot of water.
LOPATA: That's a lot of water, a lot of trucks. The transportation of all the fluids is probably our biggest expense and that's our highest exposure to the local community. That's what they see driving up and down the road are the trucks.
JOYCE: And that's what they're annoyed with.
LOPATA: I would say yes to that question.
(SOUNDBITE OF WATER TRUCKS)
JOYCE: The water trucks roll up to a Chesapeake frack site, a drilling pad about half the size of a football field on a leveled hilltop. There's machinery and workers everywhere, all surrounded by forest - deer in the woods, and John Deere on the pad. Workers here drill about a mile down, then out sideways into a layer of shale that holds natural gas.
They detonate charges to crack the shale, then they pump millions of gallons of water, mixed with sand and chemicals, down at high pressure to pry open those cracks and release the gas. When the gas comes to the surface, it brings up a lot of that water. And it's pretty nasty.
Brian Grove is a Chesapeake senior director. He explains that the water has been exposed to what was once a seabed.
BRIAN GROVE: When you expose freshwater to it, that water absorbs the salts. That is something that you don't want to spill on the surface.
JOYCE: Besides salt, the water picks up the minerals from the shale, some of them toxic, some radioactive. About a third of that polluted brine comes right back up. But more salty liquid will spew out of the well over a period of years. This wastewater is what makes people really twitchy. That's because industry used to dump the water straight into rivers. And pools holding the waste sometimes leaked. Brian Grove says the industry should have warned people how messy fracking is.
GROVE: I think the biggest mistake the industry made early on in Marcellus development was just remaining silent. I think the industry, as a whole, has for 50, 60 years operated largely in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana. The folks that moved east were people that were not used to having to explain themselves, they were used to being understood.
JOYCE: But explaining what fracking looks like may not have satisfied people in the face of this onslaught. Over 5,000 new wells just since 2008 in the Marcellus shale, and there have been close to 700 violations involving water. And those violations have cost the industry a little over a million and a half dollars.
So, under a lot of public pressure, the state Department of Environmental Protection has cracked down. They said no more dumping frack water straight into rivers. So, some companies ran it through public water treatment plants. But the state stopped that, too. It came out just too salty and too dirty. So the industry was forced to find another way to deal with frack water. And that's how the recycling business got started.
(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY)
JOYCE: Eureka Resources in Williamsport is in an old brick factory next to the Susquehanna River. I put on a hard hat and went into the plant to talk with owner Dan Ertel about this recycling business.
DAN ERTEL: Oh, you can smell that. That's flowback water. This is where all the flowback (unintelligible) come.
JOYCE: When Eureka started in 2008, the state wasn't ready for all this frack water from the wells.
ERTEL: We saw an absolute lack of any water treatment businesses or companies here.
JOYCE: So, Eureka modified off-the-shelf technology to clean up this peculiar mix of gunk in frack wastewater. There's solid material like dirt, minerals like calcium, barium, sulfur compounds and other pollutants. Then drillers take the cleaned up water back and use it again to break shale in a new well.
All of this is an improvement. But at some point, companies will stop drilling news wells and leave. And the state will have to find a way to get rid of the wastewater that's left behind. And in the meantime, there will be more spills. They tend to take place out of sight, in places people don't go to - a frack site, out in the woods, or on a deserted country road. And people worry about what they can't see. So there are scientists who are out there trying to see for them.
(SOUNDBITE OF STREAM)
JOYCE: I met hydrologist Andrew Gavin at a very nice trout stream called Gray's Run. He works for the Susquehanna Basin River Commission. We pulled on some waders and Gavin explained what he was up to.
ANDREW GAVIN: What we're doing in this monitoring project is really establishing what the general health of the streams so then we can measure, you know, if there any changes in the quality of the water.
JOYCE: Scientists have to know the chemistry of a clean stream now so they'll know if frack water gets into one.
GAVIN: You just keep going until you fill up the sampling container.
JOYCE: The commission Gavin works for has planted battery-powered monitors in over 50 streams. If something unusual gets in the stream, their computers in Harrisburg alert them. So, overall, there has been improvement in the way frack water is handled. But scientists say they need to be vigilant. Frack water chemistry, for example, can be surprising. I heard that from a water engineer, Jeanne VanBriesen at Carnegie Mellon University.
JEANNE VANBRIESEN: We're not omniscient. We can't see everything. And sometimes there are downstream effects, particularly ones that involve the way systems interact with each other.
JOYCE: In fact, that happened in Pennsylvania. Bromide in frack water reacted with disinfectants at water treatments plants and created new compounds that could be hazardous to peoples' health. VanBriesen says she also wonders about what happens to all the frack water that's left underground. Pennsylvania is a pin cushion. Oil and gas drilling has gone on for over a century here. She worries that frack water could seep up to the surface.
VANBRIESEN: There are lots of holes in Pennsylvania. Knowing where the old wells are is very important when you're putting in a new one.
JOYCE: And people don't know where all those old wells are. Pennsylvania's struggle with this new industry is being repeated in other states, where there is gas-bearing rock. Penn State's David Yoxtheimer, the hydrologist who follows the frack water, says this issue has really galvanized people.
YOXTHEIMER: The natural gas industry and fracking has sort have been a lightning rod for America's environmental consciousness.
JOYCE: And although each state with natural gas is unique, one thing is common to all of them - the need for water, lots of it.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News.
SIEGEL: Our series on America's fracking boom continues tomorrow on MORNING EDITION. We'll hear from sick patients living near gas wells in Pennsylvania and from the doctors who are searching for answers.