New York Has a Drinking Problem

Environmental columnist Hamida Kinge looks at two threats to New York State’s drinking water — liquid gasoline in Long Island, and radioactive Marcellus Shale upstate — and wonders whether the state is doing enough to keep toxic water out of the tap.

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In September, I blogged about how emissions-lowering technologies at coal-fired power plants have increased heavy metal contaminants in water discharged by the plants. Sadly, a technology that makes the air cleaner has the potential to make the water dirtier. The same could be said for MTBE, or methyl tertiary-butyl ether, a chemical compound added to gasoline to reduce air pollutants. The compound was added to gasoline starting in 1979 but was banned in New York state and California in 2004.

A suspected carcinogen, MTBE has been leaking into Long Island’s water supply for years. On the island, hundreds of leaky underground gasoline storage tanks are leaching it and other toxic compounds into the groundwater supply. Though leaky gas storage tanks are not unique to Long Island – the potential for leaks from damaged or old tanks exists everywhere – the island is one of the few places in the nation that sits directly atop an aquifer. And that aquifer is its sole drinking water supply.

A recent investigative story by Long Island Press reported that hundreds of the leaks and spills continue to go unresolved by the state, leaving the safety of island’s drinking water in limbo. In one extreme case, at a gas station in Elmont, Long Island, state environmental inspectors found an MTBE plume which stretched nearly 1,750 feet beyond the gas station, at a concentration of 24,000 times* the drinking water standard (This was the concentration level at the gas station site itself.).

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the agency which inspects and remediates the spills, has already remediated hundreds of contaminated sites on Long Island. The problem is that there are still hundreds backlogged – some dating back to the 1980s. That’s because, the DEC explains, there are so many leaks and spills that cleaning up the toxic plumes can run into the millions and can take over a decade. Critics of the DEC, however, are saying that its Spills Incident Database is filled with inaccurate information and too many cases remain open for too long.

But it’s not just liquid gasoline that is plaguing New York state’s water. In central New York, close to Syracuse, energy companies are about to begin drilling into Marcellus Shale, a radioactive, carbonaceous black shale which contains natural gas reserves, for natural gas. But, as the DEC has found, wastewater produced by the drilling is radioactive. A recent story in Scientific American reported that the DEC analyzed 13 samples of wastewater that was brought thousands of feet to the surface and found dangerous levels of radioactivity. The sampled contained radium 226, a derivative of uranium, “as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink.” The DEC is in the process of doing more tests.

If the same results are found in other tests, it could mean a lot of complex planning and regulating for the state of New York. While that may include tougher regulations and more expenses for the natural gas industry, it seems the bulk of the burden from the drilling would be on the state. The waste would need to be carefully managed by waste handlers licensed to deal with radioactive materials, and the waste may even need to be shipped across the country to secluded waste sites, according to experts. The state would need to create a set of regulations for how radioactive waste would apply to gas drilling and determine how the waste could impact water supplies, the environment and public health.

All of the above could become a logistical nightmare for New York, as well as a potential health nightmare for the public. Radium has been linked to bone, liver and breast cancers, though there is much disagreement around how much exposure is a danger for workers and for the public. The state health department has warned the DEC that they could have a hard time disposing the waste, and that waste handlers may need to be tested for radiation exposure as much as nuclear plant workers. The DEC continues to assert that the radium concentrations in the Marcellus Shale are “generally not a problem for water discharges, or in solid waste streams.”

Most gas drilling wastewater is treated by waste water treatment plants and released into waterways. But Marcellus Shale wastewater may be too radioactive for that, and the state DEC told ProPublica that it does not yet know where it will treat the water, since there currently are no facilities in New York that can handle highly radioactive wastewater. The DEC said it relies on drilling companies to ensure there is a treatment option, and then reviews company plans. That’s an interesting response, considering that the oil and gas industries are exempt from federal laws dictating handling of toxic waste. In short, if the Marcellus Shale drilling moves forward, New York state will surely wind up bearing the brunt of the toxic cleanup, which will not only be costly to the state’s pockets, but in the long run may cost residents their health.

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Hamida Kinge has written about everything from food security to ocean acidification to luxury cell phones. She was a 2009 fellow of the Scripps Howard Institute on the Environment and a 2008/09 reporting fellow of the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting. She has contributed to Next American City, Grist, Philadelphia City Paper and U.R.B. domestically as well as Europe-based magazines Essential Macau and Straight No Chaser. For the past year, she has been teaching English as a foreign language to international students and business professionals. Hamida has also been a volunteer English tutor for the International Center in New York.

Tags: new york cityinfrastructureenergycity water

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