The Fed Knows the Risks!

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Federal lawmakers told of possible health risks linked to hydrofracking

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WASHINGTON -- Natural gas has been touted as a solution for climate change, air pollution, high fuel costs and America's foreign-oil addiction, but lawmakers and environmentalists said Tuesday such benefits may come at the expense of clean water and the environment.

The industry has "failed to meet minimally acceptable performance levels for protecting human health and the environment," Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said at a hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. "That is both an industry failure and a failure of the regulatory agencies."

The hearing came a day after hundreds of people gathered in Albany to protest hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which blasts water, sand and chemicals deep underground to extract previously unreachable deposits of natural gas -- enough to fuel the country for nearly a century, according to some estimates. Opponents fear fracking could contaminate drinking water, pollute the air and lead to spills or methane leaks.

New York has put high-volume fracking in the Marcellus Shale -- which runs from New York to West Virginia and may be the world's second-largest natural-gas field -- on hold until an environmental impact study is complete. The state's Department of Environmental Conservation said it won't be finished until late summer.

Oversight of fracking has fallen to states because a 2005 energy law exempts the natural gas industry from many federal regulations. Some lawmakers and witnesses at Tuesday's hearing said that's how it should stay.

Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma said authorities have no evidence fracking contaminates groundwater, even though more than one million natural gas wells have been built in the U.S. since the technique was first used in 1949.

The natural-gas industry's boom over the last decade, Inhofe said, is "due in no small measure to absence of federal regulation."

Others say federal authorities need to step in.

"While we believe states should retain the responsibility and should be able to enact more stringent requirements, a federal regulatory 'floor' would ensure at least basic protection of the environment and public health," said Robert Summers, Maryland's acting environment secretary.

Conrad Daniel Volz, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's graduate school of public health, told lawmakers that Pennsylvania's regulators couldn't keep up with the natural-gas boom of the last five years. As a result, he said, some sewage facilities aren't equipped to filter toxins from drilling wastewater before the water enters streams and reservoirs.

Much of Pennsylvania's fracking wastewater is processed in NewYork and other neighboring states, he added.

"There are many contaminants that are not treated by the facilities at all," Volz said.

Knowing exactly which chemicals are used in fracking would help state authorities improve water treatment, some witnesses said. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, a Hurley Democrat, and Pennsylvania Sen. Robert Casey introduced bills last month to do that.

The bills would require companies to disclose which chemicals they use and would allow federal authorities to regulate fracking chemicals in the water supply.

The Environmental Protection Agency is conducting a study of fracking, but complete results won't be published until 2014, according to deputy administrator Robert Perciasepe, who testified at the hearing.

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