Sunday, September 24, 2023

Pincushion America revisited: The legacy of fracking on our drinking water

Eleven years ago, I wrote about the how millions of holes drilled deep into American soil were already destined to pollute groundwater across the United States, making many areas uninhabitable to humans who rely on such water. I warned that the so-called shale oil and gas boom would make this problem dramatically worse.

Now that problem has reached the news pages of southern Ohio, and this will likely just be the beginning of coverage of fracking-related damage to the country's groundwater supplies. (There has been much coverage of studies that suggest such harm is inevitable and likely happening from fracking. But, we are now shifting into the stage where the actual harm will start to be discovered—almost certainly too late to prevent contamination in many cases.)

The main culprit (for now) is not the oil and gas wells themselves, but the injection wells used to dispose of huge volumes of water laced with toxic chemicals that have been injected into wells under great pressure to fracture underground rocks containing oil and natural gas in shale deposits. A lot of that water comes back to the surface and so must be disposed of. One of the easiest ways to do that is to pump it deep underground—many thousands of feet down—where it can supposedly be safely deposited away from the surface and far below drinking water aquifers used by us humans.

The trouble is—as I pointed out in my piece 11 years ago—the injected wastewater doesn't necessarily stay put. And, that's the problem in southern Ohio. In the Ohio case, "the [Ohio] Division of Oil and Gas Resources Management found that waste fluid injected into the three K&H [waste injection] wells had spread at least 1.5 miles underground and was rising to the surface through oil and gas production wells in Athens and Washington counties."

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Taking a short break - no post this week

I'm taking a short break this week and expect to post again on Sunday, September 24.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Climate change and the hidden water cost of the Panama Canal

You've almost certainly read about the backup of ships waiting to transit the Panama Canal, which carries 6 percent of all commercial ships worldwide. While the worry among faraway readers may be concerns about supply chain disruptions that could lead to holiday shopping shortages, the problem in Panama is more immediate. The proximate cause of the backup is severe drought. That makes sense on its face because the canal is full of water and that water has to come from somewhere.

In a tropical country with copious rainfall—260 cm (102 inches) on average for the whole country in 2021—one wonders what passes for drought. (For comparison, I used to live in Portland, Oregon, a rather damp city with 44 inches of annual rainfall.) But inadequate rain during Panama's rainy season has left two artificial lakes which feed the canal low on water. These lakes must supply 200 million liters (53 million gallons) of fresh water for each ship that transits the canal, water that is lost to the ocean. During the Panama Canal Authority's fiscal 2022 year more than 14,000 vessels transited the canal. This matters doubly because these lakes also supply drinking water to half of all Panamanians.

The result is that the Canal Authority must ration water to the locks, decreasing the depth of the water and keeping many ships from carrying full loads that would cause the ships to hit the bottom of the locks. It has also had to limit the total number of ships making the trip in order to conserve water.

Sunday, September 03, 2023

How to poison the world (and get away with it)

The most important variable for poisoning the world and getting away with it is a regulatory structure that does not require the maker of a synthetic chemical to test it for safety prior to sale and release and puts the burden of proof for establishing hazards on the government and the public.

That pretty much describes the regulatory structure in the United States—with the exception of drugs, food additives and pesticides—until 2016 when the Toxic Substances Control Act was updated. In Europe a similar state of affairs prevailed until the advent of REACH (for registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals) in 2007.

To understand what happens to public health when this is the case, EcoWatch provides an excellent long-form piece on the history of Teflon and its toxic legacy to this day. Spoiler alert: The makers of Teflon knew almost from the beginning about the toxicity of the processes and chemicals used in making it and even today are creating new versions of similar chemicals (after the old ones were discontinued due to liability) and putting them into the environment all over again. The manufacturers made and sold these products for decades, enjoyed huge profits and only now are having to answer for it. The people who owned and led those manufacturers during their heyday and therefore benefited the most financially are long gone. They essentially poisoned the world and got away with it.