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State regulation of hydrofracking may be inadequate

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency studies the impact of natural gas hydrofracking, states are left to regulate the practice on their own. In Michigan conservationists warn that current rules do not adequately protect the state’s enormous water resources from the controversial drilling technique.

Hydraulic fracturing, aka hydrofracking or fracking, involves blasting open deep underground shale deposits with water, sands and chemicals and harvesting the methane that is released. The process requires millions of gallons of water per well, involves large amounts of often secret chemicals, and generates waste that has been linked to groundwater contamination in other states.

Most of the northern part of Michigan sits over two shale formations that are being explored by natural gas companies. Though only a few wells have been fracked so far, companies have bought up the mineral rights to hundreds of thousands of acres of land.

In response to public concerns about the potential impact of a fracking boom, in May the state Dept. of Environmental Quality announced new guidelines for fracking. Companies are now required to use the state’s automated Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool (WWAT) to document and assess the impact of their withdrawals and they must post the Material Safety Data Sheets of their chemical products they use online.

State environmental groups say these measures don’t provide sufficient protection. One of their big concerns is the effect of using so much water in the process and they say use of the state’s computerized withdrawal assessment tool will not ensure that resource-damaging withdrawals don’t happen.

“For a broad, sweeping overview the assessment tool is a good place to start, but the structure of the assessment tool is based upon assumptions about the connection between groundwater withdrawals and the flows and levels of streams that are not site-specific,” said Traverse City-based water law expert Jim Olson. “It does not represent an accurate assessment of what will happen.”

The tool is based on U.S. Geological Survey data that does not include measurements of some tributary streams and headwaters, Olson said, and could miss impacts to these bodies.

Michigan should require site-specific review and hydrological impact studies for all fracking related water withdrawals, Olson said, and until the state has a system to do this there should be a moratorium on fracking.

Under state law large scale water users are required to register their withdrawals with the database that supports the water withdrawal assessment tool, but oil and gas companies were given an exemption. Though the new state policy required them to use the tool to document planned water use, they are not required to register their withdrawals, no matter the size.

Critics say this loophole could undermine the accuracy of the water withdrawal assessment tool for all users.

The exemption for oil and gas companies should be stopped, said Susan Harley of Michigan Clean Water Action.

“It seems do much simpler to treat these big water users the same as other big users,” she said.

Harely said that she is also concerned that the cuts-plagued DEQ may not have adequate resources to address any water use conflicts that come to light though the use of the Water Withdrawal Assessment Tool.

Concerns about the potential impact of fracking spansthe political spectrum in northern Michigan, said Grenetta Tomassey of the Petoskey-based Tip of Mitt Watershed Council.

“Water up north is crucial,” she said. “It is our lifestyle. People save their whole lives and have the goal of retiring next to these waters.”

DEQ’s requirement that companies post MSDS sheets is not protective, Tomassey said, becasuse the rule only applies to “reportable amounts of hazardous chemicals.”

A reportable amount is 10,000 pounds, she said, and “hazardous” is a political definition that does not encompass all harmful chemicals. She also noted that MSDS sheets do not list all the chemical components in a product.

Tomassey said that chemical disclosure is a public safety issue that is a top priority for the many groups concerned about fracking.

People need to know what chemicals are going to be used so they do baseline testing before fracking begins, otherwise it could be impossible to prove contamination from drilling.

Some are concerned that Michigan may not provide adequate oversight for the disposal of fracking waste.

Michigan is a destination for solid waste from elsewhere and some worry that the state, with its hundreds of disposal wells, could become a regional repository for fracking waste.

“As far as we know, Michigan well operators are not accepting shipments from out-of-state gas production operations,” said DEQ spokesman Brad Wurfel.

LuAnne Kozma of Don’t Frack Michigan said that she is not reassured.

“Shouldn’t they know one way or the other?” she said.

“Michigan should be monitoring this closely,” Kozma said, “with so much at stake with disposal of frack wastes in other states, and the new revelation that Pennsylvania’s wastes are being disposed of in Ohio injection wells. We have so many injection wells in Michigan. It begs the questions, just what is being dumped into these sites, and where is it all coming from?”

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