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The NY Tiimes today reports on a new “study” of chemical contamination due to gas drilling in Bradford, PA (not too far from us here in Rochester):

An analysis of drinking water sampled from three homes in Bradford County, Pa., revealed traces of a compound commonly found in Marcellus Shale drilling fluids, according to a study published on Monday.

The paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, addresses a longstanding question about potential risks to underground drinking water from the drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

OK, so we test the water from three hones. And the tests indicate that there is a chemical called 2-Butoxyethanol in the water well of one of the homes. The study’s lead author tells us that this is the first case of contamination with a complete story that plausibly connects the drilling process to water contamination. What is striking is not at all that researchers, who have obviously been very hard at work trying to figure out if fracking is safe, have found a contamination, it is that so little contamination is actually documented. This site claims that there are over 1.1 million oil and gas wells in the United States right now. Not all of these wells have been fracked, but it appears a large proportion of them have been. No, what is striking is that so little contamination has been found and reported. With so many years of operation and so many hundreds of thousands of wells fracked with hundreds of millions of gallons of fluids used in the process, this is the first major finding of contamination that can be linked to the fracking process? I do not doubt for a minute that the sparse findings are due to a lack of trying. Were I trying to be a good economist at the moment and not care about the vitriolic emails and threats to pollute my own drinking water, I’d suggest that it is almost surely the case that we are not polluting enough water from fracking at the moment. But I am not trying to be a good economist, so I don’t particularly care to make the point that if so little water is being contaminated, then it may be the case that far too many resources are being devoted to well safety, which means that not only is the price of gas higher than it “needs” to be, but that resources being devoted to well protection could very usefully be deployed to provide protection from something other than wells. In other words, while you might think that one polluted well is one too many, it seems to be the case that our water is probably dirtier than it needs to be because we are so concerned with fracking safety and in fact that people’s health and well-being are worse today because the higher gas prices and additional resources dedicated to fracking safety are either encouraging some people at the margin to use less healthy fuel sources, go with colder winter temperatures in their homes, and have less safety and health purchased elsewhere in the economy. Of course, I am not actually making that point, I am merely suggesting that someone who knows something about environmental economics might be inclined to suggest it.

The article goes on to say this:

In 2012, a team of environmental scientists collected drinking water samples from the households’ outdoor spigots. An analysis showed that the water in one household contained 2-Butoxyethanol or 2BE, a common drilling chemical. The chemical, which is also commonly used in paint and cosmetics, is known to have caused tumors in rodents, though scientists have not determined if those carcinogenic properties translate to humans.

I’m supposed to play nice in this sandbox, even though it is mine. But this sort of reporting is common, misleading, and borderline fraudulent. Did you know that every single thing you are exposed to, look at, breathe, eat, stick on your face, wear on your body, clean yourself, clean your child, etc. with is a chemical. That’s right folks, everything is a chemical. And every chemical has a scientific name. Here’s possibly an analogy: Sialia has been found near one home and it threatens the insect population that is so vital to frogs, carp, lizards, bats, and spiders which are crucial to maintaining a healthy ecosystem balance. And not only is the invocation of it’s a chemical !!! disingenuous, but so too is the next play from the playbook of alarmist, showing that this really bad chemical is used in some things you probably would not want to eat or drink like paint and cosmetics. Well, it turns out that they make non-toxic paint and it seems they make non-toxic make-up too. So, are we reporting on a major research “study” that finds something non-toxic in the water? Oh, no, it can’t be that, the author must mean something bad, like some of the chemicals that are in paint. But if that is the case, then why not say so? You know many paints include clay and calcium carbonate as extenders. Did you ever freak out if a little clay was ingested? Or how about calcium carbonate? That’s what eggshells are made of and indeed some people take the stuff for calcium supplements. Oh, the horror! It’s in paint! Or how about the prime ingredient in latex paint: water? Well, it’s true that water can kill you, so maybe that’s what the author mean?

No, we know they meant, “some nasty stuff.” Well, as people smarter than me have indicated, toxicity is all about the dose. Vinyls acrylic is found in paint, and drinking a cupful of that stuff is probably not going to keep you alive for a long time. So, to give the benefit of the doubt, maybe this 2BE is some really nasty stuff. After all, it has been known to cause tumors in rodents. And you know that cabbage seems to cause tumors in small rodents too (note that paper’s cool findings on selenium, the toxic stuff that caused a problem in the Central Valley two decades ago). So, are we told how awful this chemical is? Sort of, at the end of the 5th paragraph of the story is this:

The authors said the amount found, which was measured in parts per trillion, was within safety regulations and did not pose a health risk.

So, a major study finds for the first time that something in a water well that can be attributed to fracking, and that something is “within” safety regulations in concentrations of parts per trillion. They never tell us what the safe exposures are and how much lower the paper finds them to be. But I doubt for a minute that the headline writers at the NYT (or anyplace really) were ever planning on writing as a headline, “Water Wells in Bradford, PA Fracking Territory Surprisingly Safe,” or something to that effect.

Again, none of this is to say that fracking companies are doing all the right things, or that gas hasn’t been released into nearby wells. How about this doozy near the end:

An environmental scientist from Stanford University, Rob Jackson, who also reviewed the paper, said it “clearly shows an impact of oil and gas drilling on water quality.” But he emphasized that this instance was an exception.

I don’t quite know what to say. My suspicion is that in response to my piece here, someone who thinks I am evil would suggest that, “well, sure, this is not really any evidence of damage and it is only a rare well that seems to have evidence of contamination, but now we know it’s possible for something bad to get from drilling sites to people’s water,” and then the typical discussions of precaution and safety and regulations follow.

Can fracking companies make safer wells? Sure. Do they know how to? I am pretty sure they do. Would I want dirty things ending up in my water? No. But none of this is relevant to the right question which is, “how much water pollution do we want to see?” And no folks, the answer cannot be zero.

One Response to “Cue the Flaming Faucet Images”

  1. sherlock says:

    I’ve seen health effects for 2-butoxyethonal (EB) via ingestion start at around 100 mg/kg in lab animals. That’s 100 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. The fracking study found EB present in the part per trillion range (as a side note, there’s nothing I personally work with that I’m concerned about in the parts per trillion range). I’ll assume, since they didn’t actually specify the exact amount of EB present, that they found EB present at a concentration of 1 ppb (part per billion). In order for an average person (70 kg) to ingest 100 mg/kg (7 grams of EB), they’d need to drink about 1.85 million gallons of the 1 ppb EB water.

    You may see cleaners marketed as “non-butyl”. “Non-butyl” effectively means it doesn’t contain 2-butoxyethanol.

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