Refuses Region Become New York's Science Experiment
On March 5th, Niagara Falls went on record against fracking, and against treating wastewater from fracking. Elected officials said they don't want the city that endured the Love Canal toxic waste crisis to be exposed to the fallout from gas drilling operations. Former Love Canal activist Lois Gibb's expressed her approval for the City Council's decision in her online blog. The City Council approved an ordinance prohibiting natural gas extraction in Niagara Falls, as well as the "storage, transfer, treatment or disposal of natural gas exploration and production wastes."
Niagara Falls was not just the latest municipality to pass anti-fracking legislation in New York State—over 60 municipalities now have some local ordinance against drilling or its wastes—their stance against fracking is critical for Western New York. The Council's move was meant to head off action by the Niagara Falls Water Board (NFWB), which, in mid-2011, had begun testing to determine their ability to treat and accept wastewater from across New York. At last check, the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) had yet to reply to the NFWB. There were claims that the carbon filtration plant was designed to handle chemical waste, but little evidence had been provided to the public. Since nothing like this had been tried in New York before, the residents of Niagara Falls would find themselves guinea pigs in an uncontrolled public health experiment.
Fracking fluid consists of water, sand and chemicals, many of which may be harmful. Toxic chemicals that have been used in fracking fluids include methanol, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, napthalene, benzene, toluene and xylene. To date, over six hundred chemicals have been found to have been used in fracking fluids. According to Dr. Theo Colburn of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, 47 percent of these products have the potential to affect the endocrine system, including human and wildlife development and reproduction.
These chemicals return to the surface in fracking wastewater, along with radioactive material and other contaminants from deep below ground. It's been estimated that billions of gallons of fracking waste would have to be disposed of each year if fracking were to go forward in New York. Conventional treatment facilities are not equipped to handle fracking wastewater, meaning that these contaminants could simply flow through facilities into rivers and streams. Indeed, this has happened in Pennsylvania.
Water from the Niagara Falls Wastewater Treatment Plant would have been released into the Niagara River, which flows into Niagara Falls, Lake Ontario, and other Great Lakes communities. Obviously, this would have created serious regional and international concerns. The proposal to toxic fracking wastewater, in a region known for its tourism and beautiful natural landmarks, came as a shock to many Western New Yorkers and the residents of downstream communities. Niagara-On-The-Lake passed a resolution to oppose the treatment of fracking waste in the Great Lakes watershed in response to the NFWB's decision and the Council of Canadians also wrote to the NFWB, stating that this waste should not be accepted.
The Niagara Falls City Council should be commended for their dedication to this issue and for protecting city residents, as well as downstream communities who benefit from the Great Lakes. A very large crisis has been averted here. The City of Niagara Falls is a gatekeeper to the Niagara River and Lake Ontario, so its government and citizens carry a special responsibility to the region. We must work to ensure that we fulfill this responsibility and protect the Great Lakes from fracking wastes.
Too Many Unknowns
Food & Water Watch and Western New York Drilling Defense submitted a document with 25 questions to the NFWB, seeking answers about the NFWB’s ability to handle the highly-variable, potential contamination that characterizes fracking waste, and its accountability for these wastes. The questions highlighted concerns expressed by community members about how the decision to accept fracking wastewater could affect the safety of residents in the Niagara Falls and Great Lakes area. Questions included: “Will the public be made aware of the chemicals that are being transported on their streets," and, "What plan is being created in case of an accident with a tanker truck carrying the waste?" After initially stating that answers to these questions were being "worked on," the NFWB reversed course, stating that they have the right to not answer public questions. Similarly, Sierra Club Niagara Group and WNY Peace Center asked the board if their initial testing of the waste could be shared with them, but got no reply.
At a December 2011 hearing, NFWB Executive Director Paul Drof expressed concern over the plants ability to treat all of the radioactivity and TDS (total dissolved solids). This waste is not the same as any other chemical waste, and plant successfully treating it is theoretical. Walter Hang of Toxics Targeting stated that while Niagara Falls may have granular activated carbon treatment, it is only for the insoluble compounds. Many of the compounds pass right through, such as benzene and phenol. Carbon would not take out TDS, including various toxic metals.
With the Niagara River already on the 303(d) Clean Water Act list of impaired waterways, putting further stress on the river, and thus the Great Lakes, in exchange for payment to accept fracking waste is not worth the risk.
The Great Lakes are the largest surface freshwater system on the earth and they contain about 84 percent of North America's surface fresh water. Nearly 25 percent of Canadian agricultural production and seven percent of American farm production are located in the basin. More than 30 million people live in the Great Lakes basin, roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population and more than 30 percent of the Canadian population. The Great Lakes are sensitive to the effects of a wide range of pollutants. Major stresses on the lakes include pollution from oil and gas drilling operations, leaking fluids that saturate solid waste disposal sites, and agricultural pesticides and fertilizer. Pollutants that enter the lakes can be retained in the Great Lakes system and accumulate over time, becoming more concentrated.
Fracking wastewater is particularly problematic to treat because, in many cases, the chemicals added to fracking fluid are unknown. Indeed, the list of chemicals being used is likely to grow as new regions, with different geologies, are drilled and fracked. Also, the composition of the wastewater can vary greatly, depending on the geology. Some wells generate wastewater with extreme levels of radioactivity, while others may be especially high in harmful metals, such as arsenic, mercury, or hexavalent chromium. In Niagara Falls, testing is only geared toward being able to treat one particular source of wastewater, a small area region Pennsylvania. Will the NFWB test fracking wastewater from New York before receiving the modification on their discharge permit they seek? Will they only accept one “recipe” type from one area of the shale to ensure uniform chemical and radioactivity levels as their initial testing? Will they test each of the thousands of truckloads of waste to ensure it’s the same chemical composition, or will they take the industry's word that its the same waste? Because the NFWB has been so secretive, it doesn't appear that the community and workers in the plant will be made aware of what specific chemicals they are being exposed to, as the fracking recipe is proprietary. For the plant workers, this may even violate Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) laws.
The Economic Myth
In early 2011, Senator George Maziarz stated that the Buffalo-Niagara region could experience an economic “boom” through the creation of an industry to purify toxic fracking fluid. Maziarz claimed that sewage treatment plants in Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda were prepared to accept frack fluid and treat all the chemicals involved. However, this is a myth. In an August 2011 ProPublica interview, DEC Commissioner Martens countered this, stating, "Currently, no wastewater treatment plants in New York are equipped to treat or permitted to accept wastewater with the range of contaminants expected to be in fluids produced from high-volume hydraulic fracturing. These plants would need to make modifications or additions to the treatment systems at their facilities. These plants would need a State Pollutant Discharge Elimination Systems (SPDES) permit from New York State. The plants would be required to perform a 'headwork’s analysis' demonstrating they can safely treat the waste before DEC would grant or modify the permit."
Paul Drof of the NFWB estimated that it could cost more than $5 million dollars in facility upgrades to treat and transport this waste. If a private entity were to pay for these upgrades, such a partnership could ultimately lead to the privatization of Niagara Falls’ water system, at the consumers’ expense. Consumers pay more when a private entity operates the municipality’s water or sewer system, because these entities have higher financing costs, pay corporate taxes, and reap profits for their owners. Otherwise, of course, the upgrades would be funded publicly, so either way residents would pay for the upgrades to the wastewater system.
With a median income roughly 40 percent below the state average, Niagara Falls, hard hit by economic woes, is vulnerable to such schemes in order to finance its water infrastructure. It’s a classic example of environmental injustice—burdening a low-income community with a large minority population with the toxic waste generated in other parts of the state. Also, the city of Niagara Falls would have to pay for infrastructure and roads repair costs, putting more of a burden on a community already struggling with economic hardships.
While the industry may claim this waste can be safely treated, what it comes down to is that this toxic stuff does not go away; it simply goes somewhere else. For instance, treatment of the waste involves turning certain contaminants in to solids. These solids, which include the radioactive elements, do not go away, and are instead trucked to nearby landfills. This merely spreads the contamination and exposes more of the area's residents to chemicals. This is a huge concern because endocrine disruptors in fracking waste are extremely harmful in small amounts. The endocrine system operates at very low concentrations of hormones, often in parts-per-billion or less, making it susceptible to very low levels of exposure, which can impact organisms and their offspring, including humans.
In Pennsylvania, where fracking is happening in full force, the Department of Environmental Protection asked the gas industry to stop taking the wastewater to municipal wastewater treatment plants, after concerning levels of trihalomethanes were detected in the state's waterways. The harmful chemicals can be generated when bromides in fracking wastewater react with chlorine during the disinfection phase of conventional wastewater treatment.
It would have been irresponsible and dangerous for the NFWB to move forward with this proposal, given all of the unanswered questions relating to our health, safety and environmental concerns. Once you factor in that there are too many unknowns, economic benefits have been overstated, and contamination will be spread across the region, it’s clear that this is a disaster waiting to happen. Money is made in a healthy and thriving community, not in an area with an inflated cancer rate--clinging to the idea of treating some of the most complicated and toxic waste out there to make money.
The Niagara Falls Common Council, though now facing scrutiny by the NFWB, have been true champions. The Council has potentially saved thousands of people in the community and downstream from long-term health complications as a result of waste "treatment." The council has had the foresight to see that fracking waste could threaten the livelihood and health of their community, and they stood up against it. The short-term gains are just not worth the long-term unknowns.