What the Frack? New Mexico Wants to Recycle Radioactive Wastewater – Progressive.org

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Madeson New Mexico no fracking billboard 1

One of three billboards placed by the nonprofit WildEarth Guardians at the intersection of I-25 and I-40 in New Mexico. The nonprofit opposes legislation that would allow “treated” fracking waste to be used outside of the oil and gas industry.

In the Permian Basin of southeastern New Mexico, the booming oil and gas fracking industry is running out of storage capacity for its own toxic waste, and it’s getting creative about solutions.

Too creative, according to people concerned about the environmental impacts of the industry. They point to the “Produced Water Act,” a radical departure from established fracking waste policy, which transmogrified from a four-page bill to a thirty-one page act as it was rushed through two House committees, the House floor, a Senate committee, and the Senate floor in a mere three-and-a-half weeks, all with no proper public hearing. 

Current policy establishes that fracking wastewater can either be reused in other fracking wells or stored in injection wells deep underground. Discharging it to the surface is prohibited because fracking waste contains radioactive material.

The Produced Water Act, however, provides a run-around, rebranding fluid fracking waste as “produced water,” meaning “a fluid that is an incidental byproduct from drilling for or the production of oil and gas.” It lays out a process for devising regulations to recuperate the waste and “treat it” for commercial use outside of the oil fields where industry is awash in it, generating in 2018 42 billion gallons of fracking waste in the Permian Basin alone.

Among the options under consideration for the treated fracking fluid are using it for agricultural irrigation and infusing it into New Mexico’s drought-ravished waterways.

“If the governor doesn’t change her tune, the question may become whether the heat of New Mexico chiles is measured by Scoville units or rads.”

Fracking waste is a poisonous admixture of heavy metals, salts, and radioactive decay from uranium and thorium embedded in the rocks from which the fossil fuels are extruded. The notion that “treatment” to make it safe for agriculture and surface water is rhetorical subterfuge, says Rebecca Sobel, senior climate and energy campaigner at WildEarth Guardians.

“There is no technology capable of treating radioactivity and making it safe,” Sobel told The Progressive in a phone call. “If the governor doesn’t change her tune, the question may become whether the heat of New Mexico chiles is measured by Scoville units or rads.”

If the legislature had held a public hearing prior to the enactment of the Produced Water Act, it would have come to light that there is no way to standardize a waste-treatment process because all fracking cocktails are proprietary, different, and nonstandard, she says. But instead the Lujan Grisham administration through the New Mexico Environment Department is holding five regional meetings throughout the state “to engage the public on the topic of treating produced water for use outside the oil and gas industry.” 

Sobel, who attended the meetings in Albuquerque and Santa Fe, describes them as cynical exercises to gauge and manipulate public response to process, presenting information, slide by slide, while avoiding potentially objectionable content.

“At the Albuquerque meeting, a slide showing that four to eight barrels of waste were the byproduct of every barrel of oil was met with objections to the process’s wastefulness, and people said, ‘so let’s stop it altogether,’ ” Sobel says. But at the subsequent Santa Fe meeting, “that slide was gone.”

It’s “a disingenuous process,” Sobel says, in which “the governor is tricking the poorest, brownest state in the nation into becoming a dumping ground.”

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In response, WildEarth Guardians is taking its objections to the streets—literally. 

On October 30, the nonprofit placed three billboards at the intersection of I-25 and I-40 where, according to Clear Channel, the ad space rental company, 372,675 people pass by every week. One billboard, which called attention to the potential hazards to New Mexico’s chile crop, was taken down by Clear Channel on October 31. Phone and email requests from The Progressive for an explanation from Clear Channel have not been answered.  

“The fact that the billboard was removed shows how sensitive to criticism the administration is on this,” Sobel says. 

In an email to The Progressive, the governor’s press secretary, Nora Meyers Sackett, wrote: “I don’t have any knowledge about signs being put up or taken down.” 

Myers Sackett was also adamant that no untreated produced water would be used in New Mexico outside the oil and gas industry. Her stance was echoed by New Mexico Environment Department Cabinet Secretary James Kenney. Asked via email by The Progressive to comment on what he sees as the advantages of using fracking waste for irrigation and to replenish New Mexico’s streams, Secretary Kenney’s response focused on desalination of the water, but not untreatable radiation. He stated, “It makes absolutely no sense to apply untreated produced water to agriculture as the salt alone would render the land fallow.”

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Both the governor’s office and New Mexico Environment Department insist that all policy decisions are based on sound science, produced in collaboration with the New Mexico State University’s Produced Water Research Consortium. In his email, Kenney described the research as “a cornerstone on which we eventually build regulations.” 

According to its website, the Consortium hopes to fast-track “treatment technology” research and serve as a model for the rest of the country. It is funded with a $100,000,000 research grant money the university received in September from the U.S. Department of Energy to create an Energy-Water Desalination Hub at their engineering school.

“Dumping fracking waste in New Mexico is a slick big money boondoggle,” says Sobel.

“Dumping fracking waste in New Mexico is a slick big money boondoggle,” says Sobel. “If industry’s allowed to reuse their toxic waste for agricultural irrigation or replenishing streams and waterways, they’ll make more money profiting off their waste than from oil and gas.”

The Environmental Protection Agency sets the national standards for safe drinking water. It has given the green light for fracking waste to be “part of the portfolio of water rights that can assist with less dependence of ag-to-urban transfers as well as becoming a new water resource for the western United States.” 

The Trump Administration’s repeal of the 2015 rule clarifying the definition of “Waters of the United States” under the Clean Water Act has left New Mexico especially vulnerable according to Amigos Bravos, a water protection advocacy group in Santa Fe. As much as 96 percent of the surface waters in the state could lose protection under the new rules, it says, and New Mexico’s waters do not have state protections to fall back on. 

Others are also concerned. The Rocky Mountain Farmers Union published an editorial in the Albuquerque Journal urging caution: “Go slow and be very careful. Farmers and ranchers understand how the scarcity of freshwater in arid states creates tension between industries, between corporate users and public water suppliers, and between large and small private users.”

In an email to The Progressive Poki Piottin, farmer and president of the Mil Abrazos Community Land Trust and former operator of the Gaia Gardens urban farm in Santa Fe, NM, put it more acutely: “Irrigating with water tainted with toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and other known neurotoxic substances should be called what it is – ECOCIDE.”

Writer-farmer Stanley Crawford has been growing garlic in his northern New Mexico farm for over 40 years. While on book tour for The Garlic Papers: A Small Garlic Farm in an Age of Global Vampires, Crawford emailed The Progressive:

“We can live without oil and will soon have to live without it if we are to have any hope for stalling rapid climate change. But we can’t live without clean water, which is the resource we must above all protect.”

One hundred and seventy miles to the north of the WildEarth Guardians billboards, on a congested oil trucking route near Bloomfield called Route 505, another billboard has been installed. As reported in the Farmington Times, it was posted by Power the Future, whose founder Daniel Turner formerly worked for the Charles Koch Institute. Its website proclaims: “We are the voice of energy workers pushing back on radical green groups and the ideologues who fund them.” 

The billboard calls out “radical environmentalists” who think they “own New Mexico.”

Power the Future

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A billboard along Route 550, south of Bloomfield, New Mexico placed by Power the Future, a group claiming to represent the interests of energy workers.

But Sobel invites oil industry workers to take a closer look at WildEarth Guardians policy initiatives. It has produced a report titled “A Just Transition,” which describes avenues for moving away from fracking and centers workers’ needs, such as skills retooling and other crucial supports. 

“The oil and gas industry in New Mexico has destroyed our clean air, sucked our clean water, and, because of this activity in the Permian Basin, put the whole earth on a pivot,” Sobel says. “A month ago we asked the governor in a letter to slow down plans to dump fracking waste, and urged her to help New Mexico transition from reliance on oil and gas and to develop effective water conservation strategies. New Mexico doesn’t want to become the next Flint.”

This content was originally published here.

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