Congressional Democrats are demanding answers from the Environmental Protection Agency about the safety of hydraulic fracturing, a form of natural gas drilling also known as fracking, after revelations that wastewater from such drilling, which contains radioactive material, is regularly dumped into rivers and streams without proper treatment.
The dumping of the contaminated water was detailed in an investigative series on natural gas drilling by Ian Urbina of The New York Times that began on Sunday.
“The natural gas industry has repeatedly claimed that fracking can be done safely,” Representative Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, the ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. “We now know we need a full investigation into exactly how fracking is done and what it does to our drinking water and our environment.”
“Americans should not have to consume radioactive materials from their drinking water as a byproduct of natural gas production,” he said.
Mr. Markey requested internal documents from the E.P.A. regarding studies of wastewater treatment plants and their ability to process contaminated water from gas wells.
He further demanded that Lisa Jackson, the E.P.A. administrator, explain what steps the agency was taking to test sources of drinking water downstream from treatment plants for signs of contamination.
Joining Mr. Markey’s plea for information from the agency were several House Democrats from New York, who additionally requested hearings on the matter by Republican-led Congressional committees that oversee drilling.
“If federal and state regulations have not kept pace with this growing industry, we need to know before it creates a public health concern,” read a letter to committee leaders signed by Representatives Carolyn Maloney, Maurice Hinchey and Jerrold Nadler.
Meanwhile, environmental regulators in Pennsylvania, where natural gas production has grown rapidly in recent years, are facing their own calls for increased scrutiny of radioactive material in drilling wastewater. “No threat to Pennsylvania drinking water should be taken lightly; especially one involving radioactive material,” Senator Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, said in a statement. “Alarming information has been raised that must be fully investigated.”
In a letter to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and to the E.P.A., Mr. Casey noted that little testing for radioactivity in drilling waste had been conducted in the last five years, a period when gas drilling activity increased sharply. “These waters should be tested as soon as possible, continuing on a regular basis with full disclosure to the public,” he wrote.
Responding to concerns over possible contamination, the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority said it would begin testing for radiation at its public drinking water intakes for the first time as a precautionary measure, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.