'Clean' Energy and Poisoned Water

In the musical "Urinetown," a severe
drought leaves the dwindling supplies of clean water in the hands of a
corporation called Urine Good Company. Urine Good Company makes a
fortune selling the precious commodity and running public toilets. It
pays off politicians to ward off regulation and inspection. It uses the
mechanisms of state control to repress an increasingly desperate and
impoverished population.

In the musical "Urinetown," a severe
drought leaves the dwindling supplies of clean water in the hands of a
corporation called Urine Good Company. Urine Good Company makes a
fortune selling the precious commodity and running public toilets. It
pays off politicians to ward off regulation and inspection. It uses the
mechanisms of state control to repress an increasingly desperate and
impoverished population.

The musical satire may turn out to be a
prescient vision of the future. Corporations in Colorado, Texas,
Louisiana, Pennsylvania and upstate New York have launched a massive
program to extract natural gas through a process that could, if it goes
wrong, degrade the Delaware River watershed and the fresh water
supplies that feed upstate communities, the metropolitan cities of New
York, Philadelphia, Camden and Trenton, and many others on its way to
the Chesapeake Bay.

"The potential environmental consequences are extreme," says Fritz Mayer, editor of The River Reporter
in Narrowsburg, N.Y. His paper has been following the drilling in the
Upper Delaware River Valley and he told me, "It could ruin the drinking
supply for 8 million people in New York City."

Trillions of cubic feet of natural gas are
locked under the Marcellus Shale that runs from West Virginia, through
Ohio, across most of Pennsylvania and into the Southern Tier of New
York state. There are other, small plates of shale, in the south and
west of the United States. It takes an estimated 3 million to 5 million
gallons of water per well to drill down to the natural gas in a process
called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The water is mixed with
resin-coated sand and a cocktail of hazardous chemicals, including
hydrochloric acid, nitrogen, biocides, surfactants, friction reducers
and benzene to facilitate the fracturing of the shale to extract the

The toxic brew is injected with extreme
force deep within the earth. The drilling is vertical for about 5,000
to 7,000 feet. The technology, developed by Halliburton, allows drills
to abruptly turn sideways when they reach these depths. The lubricant
and biocides propel the sand on a horizontal axis for as far as half a
mile. The fissures created are held open by the sand, and the natural
gas flows to the surface through steel casings. Feeder lines run from
the grid of wells to regional pipelines.

About 60 percent of the toxic water used
to extract the natural gas-touted in mendacious commercials by the
natural gas industry as "clean" energy-is left underground. The rest is
stored in huge, open pits that dot the landscapes at drilling sites,
before it is loaded into hundreds of large vehicles and trucked to
regional filtration facilities. Such drilling has already poisoned
wells in western Pennsylvania, Colorado, Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico,
Kansas, Montana, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming. Those
whose water becomes contaminated, including people living in towns such
as Dimock, Pa., must have water trucked in to provide for their needs.
Farm animals that have drunk the toxic mixture that has leeched from
gas drilling sites have died. Cattle ranchers in Colorado, where
drilling is occurring in close proximity, have reported that their
livestock birthrates have gone down and animals are bearing deformed

"The single biggest concern is the release
of poisons into the environment and its impact on all that live in
proximity to the drilling activity," the River Reporter's editorial
this week read following a visit to local drilling sites. "Large pits,
lined with sagging black plastic, did not instill confidence that it
couldn't escape into the environment. And we wondered how migrating
birds would know the difference between this body of fluid and an area
pond. Ironically, the effect on animals became very real that afternoon
when, upon our return, we received the news that in Caddo Parish, LA, 17 cows died after apparently ingesting fluids that escaped from a nearby gas pad."

The New York City watershed lies within
the Marcellus Shale. This watershed provides unfiltered water to more
than 14 million people in New York City, upstate New York, Philadelphia
and northern New Jersey. It is the largest unfiltered drinking water
supply in the United States. And if the federal government does not
intervene swiftly, it could become contaminated. The nonprofit group NYH2O
has begun organizing in New York City, calling for a statewide ban on
natural gas drilling to protect not only the city's fresh water
drinking supply, but everyone else's. But New York's notoriously
corrupt state Legislature and feeble governor seem set to permit the

The natural gas companies, not
surprisingly, insist that the millions of gallons of poisoned water
left underground or collected in huge open pits pose no threat to
watersheds. Let us hope they are right. The truth is, no one knows. And
these corporations, in a move that suggests the drilling may not be as
benign as they contend, had their lobbyists ensure that the natural gas
industry was exempted by Congress in the Energy Policy Act of 2005 from
complying with the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act,
which is designed to regulate groundwater.

Environmental Protection Agency
Administrator Lisa Jackson said in a congressional hearing on Tuesday
that the agency would consider revisiting its official position that
this drilling technique does not harm groundwater. A 2004 study
conducted by the EPA under the Bush administration concluded that
hydraulic fracturing causes "no threat" to underground drinking water.
The study was used to support the provision in the 2005 energy bill
that exempted hydraulic fracturing from federal regulation.

We do not know, because there is no
federal oversight, the exact formula of the chemicals added to the
water. We do not know, because the industry has been greenlighted
through state regulatory agencies, what the millions of gallons of
poison underground will do to our drinking water. We are told to trust
the natural gas industry, as we were told to trust Wall Street. And if
our drinking water becomes contaminated, then expect corporations to
profit from the desperation.

Corporations like Bechtel have been buying
up water reservoirs around the globe in anticipation of future water
shortages. And what they will do when they control our water was
illustrated in Bolivia a decade ago. The World Bank forced Bolivia to
privatize the public water system of its third-largest city,
Cochabamba. It threatened to withhold debt relief and other development
assistance if the city did not comply.
Bechtel, which was the only bidder, was granted a 40-year lease to take
over Cochabamba's water through a subsidiary called Aguas del Tunari.

"Urinetown" was visited on Cochabamba in
2000 within weeks of the privatization. Aguas del Tunari imposed
massive rate hikes on local water users of more than 50 percent,
according to the Cochabamba-based Democracy Center. Families living on
the local minimum wage of $60 per month were billed up to 25 percent of
their income for water. The rate hikes sparked citywide protests. The
Bolivian government declared martial law in Cochabamba and deployed
thousands of soldiers and police to restore order. More than 100 people
were injured in the rioting and a 17-year-old boy was killed. The
Cochabamba project was abandoned, but Bechtel and other corporations
are not done. Bechtel's control of the water supply in Guayaquil,
Ecuador, a few years later resulted in water shutoffs, contamination,
and a deadly hepatitis A outbreak. Water in a world of scarcity will be
very profitable. And Bechtel is preparing for the bonanza at home and

Profit, even if it results in widespread
human suffering, is the core of America's ruthless unregulated
corporate capitalism. Our health care industry profits from sickness
and death by excluding those who most need coverage. Our financial
industry created perhaps the largest speculative bubble in human
history and trashed our economy as well as looting our treasury. Our
oil and gas industries, whose profits are obscene, wreck the
environment and poison our water. And the worse it gets for us, the
better it gets for them. You may not need to travel to a theater to see
"Urinetown." It could soon be coming to you.

Join Us: News for people demanding a better world

Common Dreams is powered by optimists who believe in the power of informed and engaged citizens to ignite and enact change to make the world a better place.

We're hundreds of thousands strong, but every single supporter makes the difference.

Your contribution supports this bold media model—free, independent, and dedicated to reporting the facts every day. Stand with us in the fight for economic equality, social justice, human rights, and a more sustainable future. As a people-powered nonprofit news outlet, we cover the issues the corporate media never will. Join with us today!

© 2023 TruthDig