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Last month, seven homes in Wyoming County, PA had to be evacuated when a natural gas drilling rig had a blowout, and gallon after gallon of fracking waste-water began spilling out uncontrollably. Now, not even a full month later, fracking has resumed on the site with the full endorsement of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. Even if promises of improved practices are kept, this is a prime example of why there needs to be a moratorium on fracking until it can be researched enough to discover how to do it with guaranteed safety - if it can be done with guaranteed safety at all.

Fracking is the the commonly used term for hydraulic fracturing, which is a process used to extract natural gas that involves drilling as far as 10,000 feet underground and injecting millions of gallons of water, sand, and chemicals to pressure rock into cracking and releasing the gas.

visualization of how fracking contaminates water from the documentary Gasland by Josh Fox
visualization of how fracking can contaminate water from the documentary Gasland by Josh Fox
On March 13, a fracking well operated by Carrizo Oil and Gas out of Texas in Washington Township, Wyoming County, PA malfunctioned and began spewing out dangerously chemical-laden fracking fluid at a rate that peaked at 800 gallons per minute. The spill lasted for hours and when all was said and done, about 227,000 gallons of fracking fluid had spilled. Fearing that natural gas building up in the well could lead to an explosion, workers from Carrizo went to homes within 1,500 feet of the well to warn them about the situation, and seven homes were evacuated.

To their credit, Carrizo seems to at least understand how public relations works, and is treating the effected families pretty well. They've been providing them bottled water and are testing their water on an ongoing basis, which one of them especially appreciates in light of having relatives who had much worse experiences with fracking companies. Of course, that means we're relying on the very gas company that caused the spill to tell us whether or not the water is contaminated, so it's far from an ideal situation. According to StateImpactPA, Carrizo has 107 active wells in PA, and has paid a total of $20,000 for nearly 50 violations in the state.

Now, after citing the company for yet another violation for letting spilled fracking fluid "[flow] into a ditch that receives shallow groundwater in a wetland" during this spill, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has given them permission to start fracking at the same site again. They resumed on Friday, April 5, less than a month after the spill. The company says they will be using safer practices in the future per the request of PA DEP, but their announcement doesn't include a single detail as to what exactly they'll be doing differently. As with the water testing, we're expected to take their word on it.

fracking fluid leak Pennsylvania
this is the actual well in question as it was spilling fracking fluid, thanks to Michael J. Mullen of the Scranton Times-Tribune
I made the case in a previous piece about the FRESHER Act and BREATHE Act (which would close loopholes exempting fracking companies from federal water and air safety regulations) that the smartest position for progressives on this issue is not that fracking should be outright banned, but that there should be a moratorium on fracking until there is conclusive scientific evidence about its environmental impacts and how it can be done safely - if it can be done safely. Arguing that it should be banned implies that it cannot be done safely at all which requires substantial scientific evidence we don't have yet - keep in mind, this isn't about the fact of whether it can be done safely, but crafting the best framing of the issue for progressives. I think those of us who are wary of fracking would be best served by using the lack of research to our advantage. The great thing about a moratorium on fracking until more research is done is that if fracking was ever allowed again, it would be under much stricter laws arrived at through science, but if it turned out that the process cannot be done in such a way that guarantees environmental safety, the moratorium would effectively be the same as a ban. So you have a much easier argument to make with potentially the same outcome, and at worst, a much, much, much better outcome than the status quo. Either way, it's definite progress.

And the situation in Washington Township is a great illustration of the fact that this is a process that isn't sufficiently regulated, so there should be a moratorium while further research is done. It seems to have worked out okay for these families this time, but what if their water had become contaminated? They were provided with good drinking water, but they would be bathing in water laced with chemicals from fracking fluid that could have terrible, life-long consequences for their health. And what if the well had exploded, as workers feared it would? Not only could people have been killed, but the spill could have been much, much worse, with untold damage done to the environment and the people living in it. Things only turned out as comparatively well as they did through sheer luck, and most people aren't going to want to count on sheer luck when the water they and their family drink and bathe in is at risk.

Originally posted to ProgressivePatriotPA on Thu Apr 11, 2013 at 03:06 AM PDT.

Also republished by DKos Pennsylvania and DK GreenRoots.

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