NY Times Blows Story on Drilling "Dangers" UPDATE: Another Fact Check Fail

There seems to be little question remaining over whether or not there is a rather blatant agenda in some segments of the media when it comes to natural gas drilling in this country. For the latest example, one need look no further than Ian Urbina’s latest piece in the New York Times with the excitable title, Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers.


Never one to soft sell a good meme, the Times skips right past any of the normal environmental hazards associated with energy exploration and goes right for… radiation!

With hydrofracking, a well can produce over a million gallons of wastewater that is often laced with highly corrosive salts, carcinogens like benzene and radioactive elements like radium, all of which can occur naturally thousands of feet underground. Other carcinogenic materials can be added to the wastewater by the chemicals used in the hydrofracking itself.

One of the dominant themes in the Times’ “analysis” is that drilling waste water – possibly containing radioactive particles (more on that below) – is being improperly dumped into waste water treatment plants by greedy energy companies. They do this, according to the author, because they are under-regulated and looking to save money. To back up the assertion, they quote former Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection secretary John Hanger.

There are business pressures” on companies to “cut corners,” John Hanger, who stepped down as secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection in January, has said. “It’s cheaper to dump wastewater than to treat it.”

Records back up that assertion.

Well, he should certainly be in a position to know, so that must be some damning testimony, eh? Well… it would be, had the author actually spoken to Mr. Hanger for the article or even had a clue what he was talking about. But he didn’t and John quickly took to his blog to set the record straight and to point out that the quoted comments related to a different situation and that his actual position was almost precisely the opposite of that portrayed in the Times.


“[T]hough I am quoted in the piece, this reporter never interviewed me. … The words that I find myself saying in this piece were said by me somewhere at some time and in some context but they were not said in the context of an interview for this piece. The reporter never called me after January 18th for any purpose including to confirm the quotation that he put together for me. The reporter did not ask the new administration for my contact information after I left office.”

“I was informed by agency radiation experts that the radiation levels were not a threat to truck drivers, workers at sewage treatment facilities or the public. … I believe the agency staff were handling this issue in a serious, careful manner. I still believe that to be the case.”

The beginning of the article is discussing “radioactive elements” found in waste water from drilling sites and makes quite a fuss over it. Can you find unstable particles in such water? Yes. They’re known as Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials, and in this part of the country you find them in minute quantities if you drill for oil and gas. Or if you dig for coal, or copper or gravel. And if you dig a well down to the aquifer to obtain drinking water for your home, you’ll find them there also. When you dig a basement / foundation for a new home you’ve got a fairly good chance of stirring a few up. They are in the ground all over the planet.

NORM deposits are obviously something to be aware of and sensible precautions are required. But the density of these materials is so low that it is diluted in any major water flow to levels which fall far below any environmental standards, as Hanger further notes.


Once the Times finishes with their headline grabbing lede about radiation (!) in the water, the article then seems to go on in a scatter-shot fashion to throw mud at any wall they can find to see if something will stick. Their second line of attack moves from Eastern PA and NY out to Western Pennsylvania, where evil energy companies made the water so unsafe that residents were advised to drink bottled water instead of the public drinking water supply.

And recent incidents underscore the dangers. In late 2008, drilling and coal-mine waste released during a drought so overwhelmed the Monongahela that local officials advised people in the Pittsburgh area to drink bottled water. E.P.A. officials described the incident in an internal memorandum as “one of the largest failures in U.S. history to supply clean drinking water to the public.”

It’s true that a 2008 recommendation was made favoring the use of bottled water in the Pittsburgh area. But one look at their water safety report for that year shows that the concerns over water quality cover a wide range of problems, including agricultural run-off and unrelated industrial activity, with drilling of any sort falling far down the list. Oh, and then there’s the little matter of faulty sewage treatment plants.

Pittsburgh’s waste treatment plant Alcosan (North Shore) dumps an estimated 21 billion gallons of raw sewage into the river every year… They were fined 1.6 million dollars for violating the clean water act.


The hit piece then leaves the Marcellus shale entirely and swings all the way out west to Texas, where families in “affected areas” are suffering troubling health problems. The quotes from this section immediately got one concerned citizen up in arms over yet another tragic “fracking victim.”

In Texas, which now has about 93,000 natural-gas wells, up from around 58,000 a dozen years ago, a hospital system in six counties with some of the heaviest drilling said in 2010 that it found a 25 percent asthma rate for young children, more than three times the state rate of about 7 percent.

It’s ruining us,” said Kelly Gant, whose 14-year-old daughter and 11-year-old son have experienced severe asthma attacks, dizzy spells and headaches since a compressor station and a gas well were set up about two years ago near her house in Bartonville, Tex.

Wait… what? I’ve seen a lot of ills laid at the doorstep of fracking in the past, but… asthma? Because of one well and a compressor station near your home? And this startling conclusion is drawn even though the very same paragraph in the article goes on to point out, “The industry and state regulators have said it is not clear what role the gas industry has played in causing such problems, since the area has had high air pollution for a while.

Gee. I wonder what might play a larger role in asthma rates? Nearly inert natural gas rigs or rampant air pollution combined with the usual particles found in an area with naturally high levels of dust, pollen, molds and other airborne irritants?


File this article under the heading of one more attempt to prevent the development of any domestic energy supplies unless they fit in with the green /renewable energy agenda. And that’s the same agenda which, while it may serve a great purpose in the future, still can’t finance itself without massive government subsidized support.

UPDATE: Further in the article, the Times uncovers what must certainly be some sort of conspiracy.

A confidential industry study from 1990, conducted for the American Petroleum Institute, concluded that “using conservative assumptions,” radium in drilling wastewater dumped off the Louisiana coast posed “potentially significant risks” of cancer for people who eat fish from those waters regularly.

Ooooo… a confidential study. Sounded pretty shady to me, so I contacted a representative of the American Petroleum Institute to find out why they would be keeping such blockbuster information secret from the public. As it turns out, that study has been public for almost two decades and the results aren’t quite what the Times implies.

The API study mentioned in the NYT article was not confidential. In fact, it was turned into API Publication 4532 and published in 1991. Furthermore, it discusses the health risk associated with radium radiation and concludes, “The number of excess cancers predicted per year is comparable to the number expected to result from background concentrations of radium. Because of the many conservative assumptions incorporated into this screening-level analysis, it can be concluded that the risks associated with the discharge of produced water to coastal Louisiana is small.”


Was anything in this article fact checked before they ran it?

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