Photos by Sarah Pais
What is fracking?
By Sarah Pais
With the world’s source of petroleum quickly coming to an end, there has been talk about where to find the next source of energy to keep things rolling. Many hold the opinion that renewable sources of energy, such as solar energy, wind energy and hydropower energy, should rise to the top and become the top source, but many others, in contrast, see the pros of fracking.
Fracking in its simplest terms deals with fracturing the bedrock, but it is ultimately a much more complex process than that.
It requires drilling deep into the earth and then shooting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals at a high pressure. The water mixture hits the bedrock in the earth and causes gas to be released.
Fracking is often thought of as a vertical action, but often times, the drilling occurs horizontally in order to create a new pathway for the gas to escape.
On the surface, the neighborhoods in the Tri-State Area near a fracking site will benefit from the site. There are jobs in the fracking industry, which can bring more money and new economic life into an area. In fact, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Energy Institute commissioned a study in 2012 that stated that 1.7 million jobs have already been created due to fracking, but the study also goes to show that many of those jobs are not filled with local residents.
Even with those positive aspects of fracking, Josh Eisenfeld, Marketing Director at Fairshake, believes that the negatives of fracking are much more prevalent.
“There are very few benefits that I see from fracking,” Eisenfeld said.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the United States consumed about 29.96 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2018.
According to the American Geosciences Institute, a study in 2012 said the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania uses around 4.5 million gallons of water for its well in order to extract the gas from the earth.
There have also been studies that show that fracking may lead to earth tremors.
“Reports of hydraulic fracturing causing felt earthquakes are extremely rare. However, wastewater produced by wells that were hydraulic fractured can cause “induced” earthquakes when it is injected into deep wastewater well,” The United States Geological Survey (USGS) said in an article on their website.
In 2016, Pennsylvania officials confirmed the first fracking-induced earth tremor in the state.
The Hilcorp Energy Company was drilling in the Utica Shale near New Castle, PA. During that time, earth tremors ranging from 1.8 and 2.3 on the Richter scale were detected.
Officials said that an earthquake this small in size is not really able to be felt, but the impact is still significant.
In addition to earth tremors, many argue that fracking is also distracting companies and governments around the world from utilizing renewable energy sources.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the highest energy source for energy consumption in the U.S. in 2018 was natural gas obtained from fracking. The second least source of energy consumed was renewable energy, which only covered 11% of the country’s consumption.
The problem that most people have, though, is that some fracking companies do not use the best practices, which can lead to water and air pollution that negatively affecting the areas around them.
The people that live in areas near fracking sites are the ones that will likely experience these negative aspects.
“People were lied to, they were taken advantage of and they were exploited,” Eisenfeld said, stressing that although there are clear environmental issues with fracking, the people that are hurt by it are some of the biggest casualties that come from the whole operation.
Ramo Lord, Vice President of Protect Elizabeth Township, is also a resident of the area that is experiencing some of the backlash of living near a fracking site, which has caused issues with the water system, so much so that the water that comes from the tap is not safe for residents in the area to use.
Lord said that he and his family have to use bottled water for drinking, cooking and even rinsing off the dishes after they have been washed.
“It gets expensive, it really does,” Lord said about buying bottled water for everyday tasks.
Lord and Protect Elizabeth Township are speaking out against the issues coming from the fracking site.
They attend meetings and challenge what the fracking companies are telling the public.
“Don’t be afraid to hold [fracking companies] accountable when they break the rules,” Eisenfeld said to those affected by fracking.
Fracking and Water
Although fracking has the potential to do minimal harm to the environment around the fracking sight, it can pollute water if executed improperly.
According to The United States Environmental Protection Agency, the fluid that is injected into the ground at high speeds to reach the bedrock that allows for the gas to be released often contains chemicals.
After the ground has been drilled, a steel casing is inserted. The water is then shot down into the ground through this tube. Once the bedrock is reached and the gas begins to be released, the water stops being pumped into the ground, and the gas starts to come up to the surface.
If the drill is not properly sealed, the chemicals used in the fracking water can be released onto the ground and could eventually end up in the drinking water.
Another potential way for the water around the fracking sites can become polluted is when the fracking water comes to the surface. This water sometimes contains naturally occurring heavy metals and can even be radioactive.
Some fracking water can be treated and reused for fracking. Other times, the water is disposed of into geologic formations, according to the USGS, or it is sometimes clean enough to reach the standards to be released into local watersheds.
“The state allows this wastewater… to go to landfills,” Dr. John Stolz, professor at Duquesne University and Director for the Center for Environmental Research and Education, said.
The fracking water that is released, even after treatment, can contain uranium, radium and other pollutants that can be radioactive.
Specifically in the Tri-State Area, fracking water can end up in the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers, according to Lord.
These radioactive pollutants are then throughout the rivers that eventually flow into the Ohio River causing problems for the people that fish, jet ski or participate in other water activities.
Fracking tends to also have a bad reputation when it comes to the environment due to the high amount of water used to complete the job; some wells require millions of gallons of water in order to release gas from the geological formation.
Although this is not a primary issue in the Tri-State Area because of the large volume of water in the state, this can become a huge problem in high or extremely high water stress areas.
Despite the jobs and revenue that fracking brings into an area, it has a great negative impact on the people that reside in the areas near the sites, and is hurting the water sources around it.
Graphic by Sarah Pais
Other pollutants that harm Pittsburgh's Rivers
By Lauryn Nania
Pittsburgh is prominently known for its abundance of bridges built across the three rivers that surround the city. From a distance, these waters accent Pittsburgh with a unique, urban beauty. However, with a closer look, numerous types of pollutants such as lead and plastic have tarnished the waters.
In 1991, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released the Lead and Copper rule that states if a water system contains more than a certain amount of lead or copper, the public must become aware. The maximum amount of lead before a mandatory statement is to be released is 15 ppb while copper is 1.3 ppm.
Pittsburgh faced a water crisis in 2016 when their water systems reached over the legal lead limit. According to data from Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA), in early July 2016, lead levels were at 14.8 ppb. This allowed PWSA to withhold the lead level information. However, results later in the month revealed that from 100 sites, lead contamination exceeded over the 15 ppb limit. 17% of the 100 sites tested contained between 16 through 75 ppb of lead. PWSA releases water quality reports every year, and the most recent is from 2018. Last year between the months of January through June, lead levels were recorded at 15 ppb. Between the months of July through December, the levels remained constant at 15 ppb, reaching the EPA’s lead limit.
The primary issues that arise from lead contaminating water systems are the health issues. According to the EPA, lead contamination can affect the health quality of everyone; children, pregnant women and adults.
Even low levels of lead that appear in water systems consumed by children can result in behavior and learning issues, lower IQ and hyperactivity, slowed growth, hearing problems and anemia. Serious effects of lead consumption can arise in pregnant women and her developing fetus such as reduced growth of the fetus and premature birth. Adults can also be negatively affected due to possible results of increased blood pressure and incidence of hypertension, decreased kidney function and reproductive problems.
Allegheny CleanWays is an organization that partners with community groups and volunteers to remove dumps and debris from vacant lots, greenways, streets and riverbanks. According to their website, since the start of the organization in 2000, they have removed over five million pounds of debris, almost four thousand tires and almost 200,000 pounds of metals and recyclables from these areas.
The organization took the collected loads of debris packed into dumpsters to the Pittsburgh Zoo parking lot to hold a trash audit at the end of Oct. 2019. From there, the organization members and volunteers sorted the trash into different categories such as single-use plastics, tires, clothing, etc. to collect final results.
During the months of April through October 2019, Allegheny CleanWays and their volunteers board on a pontoon boat to remove debris that are littering the Allegheny County rivers such as plastic and tires that awash to the shore.
At a recent audit held in October, Hannah Samuels, Water-based and Education Program Coordinator at Allegheny CleanWays discussed the most common type of trash polluting Pittsburgh rivers.
“If you take a look at the trash that is going to be pulled from the rivers today, it’s going to be a lot of single-use water bottles, chip bags--things that float, but mainly plastic,” Samuels said.
Samuels explained how land discovered litter can ultimately harm surrounding waters.
“While right now we’re here and we’re like ‘how can this affect our water?” Samuels said. “Since we’re in a watershed, anything that we remove helps our watershed be more healthy which helps our rivers. The litter were picking up today, it most likely would have ended up in our rivers through our storm drain systems, so it’s all about diversion.”
If plastics are not collected from waters, they eventually break down into smaller pieces known as microplastics. Allegheny CleanWays sends samples of water from Pittsburgh rivers to Duquesne University to be tested for microplastic contamination.
Myrna Newman, Executive Director of Allegheny CleanWays, discussed the concerns that arise with microplastic contamination and why it’s crucial to test water samples.
“Studies have shown that the oceans, and fish, are ingesting microplastics, and our water is becoming contaminated,” Newman said. “We get our drinking water from [Pittsburgh] rivers, so does that mean then we’re also ingesting plastics?”
Finding protection from water pollutants, contaminants
By Dara Collins
Generally speaking, all types of water pollution are harmful to the human body. Even if the effects aren’t evident immediately, the long term effects could prove minor or major consequences depending on the pollutant or contaminant and the exposure an individual experiences.
Less lead, please
Most people are afraid to test their water because they don’t want to find something wrong with it, according to Mississippi Today’s Health and Data Reporter, Erica Hensley.
Hensley is the recipient of the inaugural $20,000 Doris O’Donnell Innovations in Investigative Journalism Fellowship from the Center for Media Innovation and proposes a project that explores how her home state handles the threat of lead poisoning.
Roughly 1,000 miles away, Pittsburgh has had its fair share of lead problems.
In 2009, Courtney Lawton, a server at fl.2, lived in Crafton. She knew her house did not have safe water.
“The city had us do testing and use filters, and I did a UPMC study about it,” Lawton said. “They tested my water regularly when I was pregnant for about three years because it carried over when I got pregnant with [my son]. Then [my kids] got lead tested twice before they turned one.”
Lawton’s family members also suffered similar fates with their water.
“Our water wasn’t safe,” Lawton said. “I know my mom’s wasn’t either, but she didn’t quality for a filter because she didn’t have minors and wasn’t pregnant, which she was upset about. She pays her water bill but couldn’t drink it.”
As recent as February 2019, The Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority (PWSA) was charged criminally after increasing the risk of lead poisoning in more than 150 households after mishandling replacements of lead pipes.
In April of this year, PWSA announced via a media release that it would be applying orthophosphate, a food-grade additive that forms a protective layer inside lead service lines, to control corrosion of the pipes.
Orthophosphate is approved by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and is used elsewhere, including the sections of the City of Pittsburgh serviced by Pennsylvania American Water Company.
Following the corrosion control update, lead levels have lowered where lines have been upgraded, according to a PWSA press release from Sept. 18, 2019. Since July 1, 2016, Pennsylvania mandates that PWSA replace 7% of lead service lines every year, according to the 2018 PWSA Annual Drinking Water Quality Report.
The most recent Annual Drinking Water Quality Report found no violations in relation to lead and copper exposure.
While the state continues to decrease the public’s lead exposure, individuals can take their health into their own hands by following a few safety tips.
According to Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), lead exposure mostly comes from plumbing fixtures rather than the actual source of the water. Therefore, individuals are encouraged by the DEP to use lead check swabs in plumbing fixtures to detect lead. The swabs can be purchased at plumbing or home improvement stores.
Individuals can test the water itself for lead or copper by contacting their water system, local laboratories or DEP-accredited labs.
In a home without lead service lines, water should run from 15 to 30 seconds or until it reaches a steady temperature before usage. In homes with lead service lines, the time may take up to a minute to flush out any lead or copper in the water.
Cold water should be used for cooking and preparing baby formula because lead can dissolve more easily in hot water.
Similarly, boiling water will not reduce lead or copper as concentrations will be higher in the remaining water that is not removed as steam.
What the *frack*
Fracking, known fully as hydraulic fracturing, is the process of vertically drilling miles deep into the ground and then turning a sharp turn and horizontally drilling another number of miles, injecting liquid and materials at high pressure to create small fractures in shale formations.
This process stimulates production and allows workers to safely extract energy from the underground well.
However, the fracking process utilizes harmful chemicals - some known to cause cancer - and there isn’t much the public can do to help itself.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), there are no federal regulations that require disclosure of the chemicals used during fracking, so the public isn’t even sure what to protect itself from.
However, those working in the fracking industry do know what to protect their bodies from.
“Soap and water can wash off all the other chemicals we use, but biocide is terrible,” Nick DiCenzo said. DiCenzo works in the oil industry but preferred to not disclose the company he is affiliated with. “It gives off a pretty pungent smell, and it kills bacteria. It’s our highest concern when we’re dealing because it can change the color of your skin if it comes in contact with it, sometimes permanently.”
If there’s a chemical spill, everything gets sucked up and gets put into production tanks.
In said production tanks, where the water composition ranges from well to well, there is hardly a beneficial use for the water based on the contents of the tank. Brine, a strong solution of salt, exists in the produced water, and all produced water consists of oil and suspended solids.
Some water even contains heavy metals and traces of naturally occurring radioactive materials, which can produce scale on the walls of pipes over time.
If not used properly, the chemical scale can give off high levels of radiation even though it’s intended use is to prevent radiation, according to DiCenzo.
Save yourself from stormwater pollution
Individuals can protect themselves from stormwater pollution by participating in a variety of precautionary measures, according to the 2018 PWSA Annual Drinking Water Quality Report.
Stormwater pollution should be important to residents because any material that enters a storm sewer is untreated and released into the surrounding rivers and streams. Only a quarter of PWSA’s system has separate storm sewers.
Perhaps it’s a given, but littering should be avoided. When trash is disposed of properly, individuals reduce waste that can end up in rivers. Specifically, PWSA pulls water from the Allegheny River. The multi-purpose river is used for drinking, swimming, boating and fishing.
A specific type of waste, pet waste, can release bacteria into water entering storm sewers if not disposed of properly.
An individual should remain mindful of where they wash their car as the soap can run off into a storm sewer and wind up in rivers. Similarly, fertilizer can run into storm sewers and should not be used before a rain storm to avoid the situation.
Lastly, oil should be disposed of properly and leaks should be stopped immediately upon discovery as the content could also run into a storm sewer.
Individuals cannot stop mother nature, but they can limit the amount of pollution in stormwater.
Protect the environment with EWG
Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides an ultimate guide to safe drinking water.
When using tap water for any purpose, individuals should be aware of what is in it. Tap water suppliers publish their water quality test results, and EWG holds city water information in its National Tap Water Database.
Tap water should be filtered if possible to remove contaminants found in water. Some filters remove more contaminants than others.
For instance, carbon filters are slightly less pricey and reduce common water contaminants such as lead and byproducts of disinfectants from municipal tap water treatments. For a little more money, an individual can purchase a reverse osmosis filter to additionally remove contaminants such as arsenic and perchlorate, a rocket fuel chemical.
When using a filter, be sure to change the filter when needed. Bacteria builds on older filters, and the filter will be less effective.
Lawton mentioned her mother did not qualify for a filter, but she did.
“I used [the filter] for myself and cooking among other things,” Lawton said. “I didn’t for [my daughter’s] formula and stuff. I used bottled water, mainly because I was paranoid. I breastfed [my son] so it wasn’t much of an issue.”
While on the go, stainless steel or shatter-proof glass bottles are the way to go. Plastic bottles contain harmful chemicals that can release into the water, the plastic can harbor bacteria and break down to release chemicals if reused.
For example, a plastic bottle left in increased temperatures for a longer period of time can accelerate the breakdown of chemical bonds in the plaster, allowing the chemicals to leach into the water faster, National Geographic reported in July 2019.
Despite the label of bottled water brands claiming to be pure, EWG found 38 contaminants in 10 popular brands. Some of the brands include Walmart’s Sam’s Choice and Giant Supermarket’s Acadia.
Drinking filtered tap water in a reusable container may be the best way to ensure the water is filtered and safe. On average, each brand of bottled water from EWG’s investigation contained eight contaminants.
Just 10 years ago, EWG conducted a test that resulted in 55 bottled water brands receiving an “F” grade for failure to disclose treatment type or water quality information in 2009 and 2010. These brands include Wegman’s Spring Water, Trader Joe’s Natural Mountain Spring Water, CVS Gold Emblem Natural Spring Water and Crystal Lake Spring Water.
EWG provided insight to increase the standards of bottled water to that of tap water: full disclosure of all contaminant test results readily available to the public, disclosure of all treatment techniques to purify the water and disclosure of the name and location of water source.
Unlike tap water that is tested annually, the bottled water industry is not held to any standards to disclose contaminant testing it conducts, according to EWG’s Bottled Water Quality Investigation.
Safe water is most essential for pregnant women and infants, so all precautions should especially be followed when one or both individuals involved are pregnant or an infant.
Ultimately, there are steps the public can take to protect itself from most types of water pollution and avoid contribution to the contamination of the world’s water.
Unconventional wells drilled between May 2002 and March 2017 | Fractracker Alliance
Video by Hannah Walden
We Are Allegheny Cleanways
By Hannah Walden
Since 2000, Allegheny Cleanways has been dedicated to removing trash from Pittsburgh’s rivers. Since then, they have collected several thousands of pounds of trash and recyclables with no sign of stopping anytime soon.
The non-profit organization is dedicated to “engage and empower people to eliminate illegal dumping and littering in Allegheny County,” according to the Allegheny Cleanways’ About Page. An early goal was to assess the extent of illegal dumping in the City of Pittsburgh, having a survey of illegal dump sites published in 2002, was updated in 2005 and again in 2009.
Over the years, Allegheny Cleanways has partnered with community groups to remove dumps and debris from vacant lots, greenways, streets and riverbanks with the help of hundreds of volunteers to remove tons of debris, according to their website.
In simpler terms, Allegheny Cleanways deals with visible pollution, garbage and litter and is dedicated to educating people and communities about visible and invisible pollution.
Since the beginning, Allegheny Cleanways has removed a grand total of 36,074 tires, 197,201 pounds of metal and other recyclables and roughly 5.4 million pounds of garbage from illegal dump sites within the City of Pittsburgh.
Allegheny Cleanways created The Tireless Project, a huge part of the Riverfront Cleanups in 2003 with the goal to create a trash-free river. For this project, a 28-foot long pontoon boat named the “Rachel Carson” drops volunteers on the river’s edge and can haul the volunteers and the trash they have collected.
The Tireless Project has collected 4,521 tired and a little more than 700 thousand pounds of trash.
In October 2019, Allegheny Cleanways held a “trash audit” at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium parking where they sorted the trash, weighed it and made records of what they had.
With these records, Allegheny Cleanways would possibly reach out to certain companies and ask how and if they are interested in creating products that are more recyclable or compostable if there is a large amount of an object.
For example, if there are a large amount of a certain brand of water bottle, Allegheny Cleanways could reach out to them and see if they would make less single-use plastics or want to educate their consumers about what happens to the environment if they don’t recycle the product.
Executive Director Myrna Newman joined Allegheny Cleanways in mid-2007 after her mother had been a victim of illegal dumping, and was glad that the organization exists to help people like her, according to Newman’s staff bio on the Allegheny Cleanways’ website.
From the beginning, Allegheny Cleanways focused on conducting illegal dump assessments that have grown into cleanup coordinator workshops to work on litter and illegal dumping prevention.
She also felt the need to find new uses for waste tires, as she has used them to swing on a waste tire tree swing as a child, used another has flower planters in her teens and built a small house out of ‘about a thousand of them’ in her twenties. Now, Newman finds herself ‘hauling them by the thousands off of the riverbanks and out of ravines and empty lots.’
Newman became the Executive Director in 2011 and oversees all aspects of Allegheny Cleanways including fundraising, program management, membership recruitment, staff development, marketing and communications and financial management.
Videos from Point Park University Environmental Journalism Workshop Fall 2019