WASHINGTON - As Sandy lashed the Eastern Seaboard this week, some environmental groups raised concerns that the superstorm’s brute force could overwhelm feeble storage pits adjacent to fracking sites.
In turn, that could allow the unintended release of toxic materials from the oil and gas hydraulic fracturing operations into streams and farmland in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, which both were hit by Sandy.
Industry groups say they hunkered down for the storm before it reached land Monday and were well prepared to keep the waste quarantined. They dispute any accusation from critics that they cut corners in securing toxic waste and drilling fluids.
At issue are the storage sites holding chemicals near the wells. Fracking, as the controversial process is known, involves pumping millions of gallons of water and additives into underground rock formations to release deposits of oil or natural gas.
Much of the toxic fluid returns to the earth’s surface, and the brew is often stored nearby, as are other liquids used in the fracking process. Sometimes, the man-made pools holding these fluids fail, resulting in the release of poisons.
The concern now is that gusting winds and torrential downpours from Sandy could trigger the breakdown of retention walls.
“The test will be the evaluation post-storm to see, ‘Are there any new major problems that can be traced back to this storm?’ ” said Brook Lenker, executive director of FracTracker Alliance, a nonaligned group that collects data on hydraulic fracturing.
The practice of fracking has mushroomed in the past decade, breathing life into the domestic energy industry and spreading across states including West Virginia and Pennsylvania.
Some say that drilling companies don’t always properly quarantine the waste and toxic materials associated with fracking, increasing the chances that those materials may slip from holding pools into the environment.
“There’s a lot of chemical or toxic waste stored on the site that could run off into a stream, river, farmland or other vulnerable area if there isn’t sufficient spill prevention or containment in a place,” said Amy Mall, a senior policy analyst and fracking critic at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a New York-based environmental advocacy group. She thinks all fluids stored on-site should be held in closed tanks, as opposed to less-secure open-air pools, as is common.
But the oil and natural gas industry says they’re prepared to handle the effects of a major storm. “Our operators have in place exhaustive contingency plans related to severe weather conditions,” Kathryn Klaber, president of Marcellus Shale Coalition, a gas-industry lobbying group, said in a statement.
“The safety of our workers and communities is paramount at this point in time as our attention is focused on the environmental, health, and safety protections associated with our industry operations and the communities we call home,” her statement said.
But Mall says the industry isn’t doing all it can to keep from making a mess, and she points to a recent federal report. In fiscal 2011, agents from the federal Environmental Protection Agency inspected 120 oil- and gas-well sites for spill prevention preparedness. All but 15 sites were out of compliance, according to a September study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Infractions ranged from minor paperwork inconsistencies to “more serious violations,” including not having secondary barriers around stored oil and failing to implement spill prevention plans, the GAO reported.
A spokesman for Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC, the subsidiary of Oklahoma City-based natural gas giant Chesapeake Energy operating in Sandy’s path, said the company took several precautionary steps ahead of the storm’s arrival. Those included inspecting and securing equipment, stocking rigs with necessities and reviewing environmental controls to ensure they can hold up to “significant rain and wind.”
Along with monitoring conditions before and during the storm, Chesapeake staff planned for inspections immediately after, to “assess conditions, equipment and environmental controls.”
Chesapeake’s measures come as studies have tried to connect the release of toxic fluids from fracking sites to illness or death of nearby animals.
A study this spring by Robert Oswald, a professor in Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and veterinarian Michelle Bamberger found 24 cases where animals were potentially harmed by the effects of gas drilling. The researchers said they couldn’t make a direct link between the drilling and deaths and injuries, because of incomplete scientific testing and a lack of information about fracking chemicals, they wrote in an abstract of the article, published in “New Solutions: A Journal of Environmental and Occupational Health Policy.”