Lax Oversight of Fracking Wastewater Raises Questions on Gas Boom

The Times has kicked off a series on the country’s natural gas boom with Ian Urbina’s document-driven report on many questions related to the handling of waste-water, some tainted with radium from natural deposits, from hydro-fracturing, or fracking, operations.

The story conveys what can happen when an industry rush gets into high gear out in front of the ability of regulators to establish clarity on potential impacts and regulatory gaps. So much for building public confidence in the safety of such operations.

In some sections, the article pits emotional anecdotes against flat discussions of what’s known, or unknown, about actual sources of risk, resulting in more of a sense of peril than may be justified. For instance:

Anecdote:

  • β€œIt’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.

Science (underlining added):

  • 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.

Overall, the piece sticks to the documentation — or lack of it — and builds a convincing case that it’s past time for regulators, and the industry, to work much harder to clarify where problems exist, and where they don’t exist.

Don’t miss the excellent video report by Erik Olsen out of Colorado, focused on air issues. In the report, a former E.P.A. official makes the prime point — that regulators were “late to the game.” The piece quotes health experts’ conclusions that there’s no clear link between well emissions and health issues — but also no clear conclusion of safety, either.

There’s more on the journalist’s challenge in balancing “heat and light” in such stories in the chapter I wrote on environmental reporting for the 2005 edition of “A Field Guide for Science Writers.”