An unpalatable trade

Great Blue Heron on Lake ClarkeThe 17-foot Old Town Tripper canoe glides easily across the water. A light blue sky mirrors off the surface, blocking the subsurface view in any direction but straight down. A tweak of the Moose polarizer on the end of the camera lens blocks the reflection; suddenly a large Smallmouth bass hovers above a patch of water-weed.

This time of year, a younger me would be swimming a quarter-mile and back across another lake, through the place where a spring created a cold spot – where the upwelling water would make that the last spot to freeze come winter. But there are laws, or at least local ordinances, against swimming in water that isn’t chemicalized and confined by concrete shores. A state regulator once told me we humans exude our medications into the water supply, and treatment plants cannot keep up with removing them.

It’s probably true. A recent study reported metformin, a common treatment for Type II diabetes, has been found to cause sex change and reduced fecundity among Smallmouth bass in the Susquehanna River. Fecundity. A beautiful word, meaning fertility. So the medication intended to control human blood sugar is making fish incapable of making more fish.

Meanwhile, we pretend to keep our water clean while we wash our drugs down the shower drain, recycle them through a treatment plant, and drink them from our kitchen tap. Anyway, can our exposure really be much worse than the industrial poisons generated by, say, fracking?

A few eastern Adams County municipalities draw water from the Susquehanna River, buying it from York Water Company. Before the Crash of 2008, an application was poised to pipe three million gallons of Susquehanna water across York County and into the middle of Adams County, to serve then-burgeoning residential developments in at least two of the fastest growing communities. When the building restarts, so will the demand for piped-in river water.

XTO, a subsidiary of Texas-based Exxon Mobil Corp., had leaked thousands of gallons of used, highly toxic, fracking fluid onto the ground from an open valve. The fluid found its way into a nearby stream, and then to the Susquehanna River. The 450-mile river, apparently, still has enough volume to dilute the poison; no one has yet died, we think, from drinking the river water.

In an out-of-court settlement between the company and EPA, XTO agreed to pay $100,000 penalty and invest $20 million to ensure such a leak would not recur. The leak was one of 31 violations charged against the company by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

In 2014, DEP levied a 4.5 million fine against EQT Corp, which the agency said had declined to fix leakage problems. Last month, the department levied the largest fine ever on a Marcellus drilling company – a record $8.9 million fine against Range Resources for refusing to repair a faulty cement casing that allowed methane gas to leak into nearby private drinking water supplies.

Where will the water come from when we discover our water supply the river no longer able to dilute the chemicals from leaking well casings, left-open storage tank valves, and burst pipelines?

How long will it be until we discover we have traded our river for fossil fuel profits? It is too late to halt fracking; our insatiable addiction to energy demands the constant fix. But we can demand it be done as safely as possible, and pay for the regulators who ensure it.

Any lawyer can attest to words having many meanings. When Exxon and Range Resources say they’re “drilling responsibly,” we need to ask, “Responsible to whom?”

Certainly not the youngster who’s been banned from swimming in the lake.
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