Cornell studies fracking
Details how it would impact trout streams
There are a couple of new reports about fracking, and they shed some valuable light on the subject.
The first report is from the Kroll Bond Rating Agency in New York, which published a figure that’s sure to dazzle governors, mayors, property owners and everyone else desperate for a better economy in New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia: $10 trillion.
That’s the potential economic impact of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shale layers beneath the four states, the company said.
The other report is very different. Two scientists from Cornell University have taken a very specific look at the potential impact of fracking on wild brook trout streams. It’s published in the January issue of the journal Fisheries.
As you might imagine, it concludes that fracking is dangerous for trout, for the reasons that environmentalists have always given: taking water from fragile spawning streams, unleashing stream-ruining sediment from road, pipeline and well pad construction and fouling streams with the salty, toxic brine that comes back out of fracked wells.
This stuff all sounds like common sense, but the Cornell scientists have given us the details. For example:
• The amount of water needed (two million to seven million gallons per frack, times thousands of wells fracked multiple times) “can put substantial strain on regional water supplies.” If taken straight from streams, the withdrawals can result in streams warm enough in summer to inhibit trout growth (and in the worst cases can be lethal). If taken from underground, withdrawals could eliminate the springs and seeps that trout seek out during summer heat.
• Skinny, warm streams are an advantage to brown and rainbow trout, which are more tolerant of higher temperatures, and could lead to these introduced species driving out our only native trout.
• Shallower water means less habitat for mayflies, caddis flies and stoneflies. Lower flows impair the stream’s ability to deliver aquatic insects to trout.
• An improperly built culvert at a stream road crossing can foul 600 feet of stream for two to three years. Land clearing and heavy truck traffic “can contribute to reductions in brook trout biomass and densities and shifts in macroinvertebrate communities that last approximately 10 years.”
• Clearing 2.4 acres of land “can mobilize from tens to hundreds of metric tons of soil,” much of which will end up in streams that used to be kept clear by the surrounding forest.
• Well pad runoff, leaching from wastewater holding ponds and spills can allow fracking brine to enter streams, contaminating them with total dissolved solids, mostly salts, which have been shown to impair spawning success. The brine also includes metals, such as aluminum, which causes “growth retardation and persistent mortality across life stages,” and cadmium, which “can diminish reproductive success by causing death of adult trout prior to successful spawning.”
Naturally, the report calls for careful regulation of fracking. It singles out the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which is reconsidering its “pass-by” requirements — the amount of flow that frackers must leave in a given stream.
The SRBC has proposed a new approach “that prevents withdrawals or puts more stringent requirements in extremely sensitive or exceptional quality streams such as small headwater streams that support reproducing brook trout populations,” the researchers report.
For one thing, the new rules would take into account the fact that other wells upstream may be taking water, too, which seems like a no-brainer.
Predictably, there’s push-back from the frackers.
“However, the SRBC’s proposed policy has received considerable critique from stakeholders, including the natural gas industry,” the report says.
In Pennsylvania, volunteers from Trout Unlimited chapters and other organizations have begun monitoring local streams for signs of sediment or pollution from fracking. The report says the same thing should happen in New York if fracking gets the green light here.
In fact, the Department of Environmental Conservation “should utilize the most up-to-date and complete scientific data possible from active monitoring efforts to develop best management practices that are optimally protective of natural flow regimes, habitat conditions, and water quality in high-quality streams,” the report said.
If fracking really is a $10 trillion proposition, the companies who stand to make huge profits by drilling the back country of New York must spare no expense to protect the environment.
Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.