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On February 22, 2011, CCR and the Columbia Law School Environmental Law Clinic wrote a letter of advisement to the United Nations Independent Expert on the Issue of Human Rights Obligations Related to Access to Safe Drinking Water and Sanitation. The letter highlights the ways in which Hydraulic Fracturing – and the resulting pollution and devastating water contamination – has been exempt from government regulation and oversight, as well as the reasons its negative impacts are disproportionately affecting people in economically depressed and underdeveloped communities.
CCR’s letter coincided with the Independent Expert’s country mission to the United States. We eagerly await the report from that mission.
In February of 2011, the United States hosted a fact-finding mission by then UN Independent Expert (now the Special Rapporteur) on the human right to safe drinking water. Ms. de Albuquerque carries out thematic research, undertakes country missions, collects good practices, and works with development practitioners on the implementation of the rights to water and sanitation. To aid in Ms. de Albuquerque’s mission, CCR and the Columbia Law School Environmental Law Clinic submitted testimony on the danger hydraulic fracturing poses to our water supply
Hydraulic Fracturing has been around for over 60 years but has only risen to prominence recently as a means of extracting natural gas once thought inaccessible or cost prohibitive. The process of “Hydrofracking” involves injecting a mix of water, chemicals, and natural elements into shales and other hard-to-access areas in order to release the natural gas deposits. The process is now used in roughly 90% of the nation’s oil and gas wells.
Of the many sources of debate surrounding hydrofracking, the most common and serious criticism is the contamination of ground water that often occurs. The chemicals that are required for the process have been deemed "trade secrets" and therefore have been difficult to definitively point to as causes for contamination of ground water supplies. In 2005 Congress exempted the oil and gas industries from the need to comply with the Safe Drinking Water Act by changing the classification of these chemical mixes from "hazardous wastes" to "special wastes". They are now the only industries allowed to inject known toxins into the ground near water supplies with no federal oversight. One of the problems with the practice is the lack of control that these companies have over the chemicals once they are injected into the ground. The chemicals have been known to spread into nearby water systems and have even been known to contaminate underground aquifers. Contamination by hydrofracking of significant drinking water sources has already produced shocking effects; discolored, pungent, and bubbling tap water due to contamination by methane, tap water that is flammable - a home in Bainbridge, Ohio even exploded due to a natural gas buildup that entered through their water supply because of a nearby hydrofracking operation. Other known and unknown toxins making their way from hydrofracking operations into drinking water have already led towns like Dimock, Pennsylvania and Pavilion, Wyoming to have their water declared undrinkable by local and federal authorities. In many areas, reports of cancer increase dramatically near hydrofracking operations.
Due to the EPA's less stringent water testing and reporting requirements of water supplies that serve under 10,000 consumers, many hydrofracking wells avoid much federal oversight. The EPA also does not have the jurisdiction to monitor private wells and water supplies which makes the rural areas in which hydrofracking is most often employed even more vulnerable. While state and local governments frequently attempt to enact laws to protect water supplies from the effects of gas extraction, what is sorely needed is federal oversight. Pennsylvania, for example, struggled with over 1,500 hundred violations of it's gas and oil laws by hydrofracking companies in a two and a half year period. After the New York City Department of Environmental Protection reported that "Hydraulic Fracturing poses an unacceptable threat to the unfiltered water supply of nine million New Yorkers and cannot safely be permitted with the New York City watershed," the city has begun taking the drastic measure of buying up land around the watershed to prevent it from falling into the hands of natural gas extraction operations. These oversight and preventative measures are luxuries that rural areas cannot afford. Unfortunately many valuable sources of natural gas and oil are found in rural areas, which are also often economically depressed and lacking in the ability and manpower to regulate and oversee hydrofracking operations. Due to the economically depressed nature of many rural areas, some which include tribal lands, they often are susceptible to the promises of possible economic prosperity and development that these oil and gas companies offer. The less diverse economies of rural America means that not only are local landowners often wooed by natural gas companies, but local governments are also susceptible to the pressures the companies place upon them. Additionally, the lack of federal oversight means that contamination and violations in these rural areas often go undetected and unpunished. Unfortunately, besides the health risks posed to residents, the destruction of water supplies can be crippling for communities who then face the burden of providing usable water to their residents. These rural areas also often have many water dependent industries, such as farming and fishing, that cannot afford to have toxic water. Even stiff local regulation or resistance cannot protect many communities due to the ability of these chemicals to spread, escape, and contaminate aquifers and underground rivers and wells.
To read more about the Special Rapporteur on the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation click here.