Hey NYT: What the Frak?

This NYT exposé on lax regulation of the booming natural gas industry is a must read, but the paper of record is very late to the party. And the author of the piece, Ian Urbina, is fairly ungenerous in his acknowledgment of that fact when he notes, one quarter of the way into his story, that “some of the [environmental] problems” associated with a new form of gas drilling has been

documented by ProPublica, The Associated Press and other news organizations, especially out West.

For some reason, Urbina and his editors didn’t see fit to offer any links to the in-depth reportage produced by these news outlets (even though links to other primary sources are sprinkled throughout the story). That’s a disservice to Times readers, who, perhaps interested in seeing more of this prior coverage, might want to click on this recent AP story, or this treasure trove of sustained reporting by ProPublica, or any of these stories and dispatches in High Country News. (Self-promotion alert: while living in Colorado in 2008, I reported on an air pollution angle of natural gas drilling for High Country News.)

For all the vaunted cross collaboration between publications these days, it’s unfortunate that some are still so grudging when it comes to giving credit to one’s peers.

11 Responses to “Hey NYT: What the Frak?”

  1. anon says:

    Is that the reporter’s doing, or the editor’s?
    Also note just how unfriendly and downright antagonistic the Times is with their javascript that makes it (on Chrome at least) basically impossible to select a section of text, right click, and google search for it.

  2. Brandon Keim says:

    That’s pretty much the NYT’s M.O. in a nutshell. Arrive late, hog the credit. What’s really frustating isn’t just that it’s immodest or disrespectful, but that it skews the presentation of fact: frakking problems aren’t novel, but have been well-documented for years.

  3. Gaythia says:

    I think that these articles are also an interesting study in journalistic quality and style, and worthy of some speculation on their public impact in that light.
    I see the ProPublica and High Country news pieces as great investigative journalism. The ProPublica work in particular strikes me as a comprehensive go to resource for anyone seriously interested in learning more about the details of this issue. High Country News has been doing effective investigative reporting on this issue here in the west for quite some time. (Note: I am a donor to the High Country News Research Fund).

    The AP piece (1/4/2011) has a no nonsense style that clearly explains that Pennsylvania lacks regulation that other states do have regarding dumping this waste into streams. I think that it could have done a better job explaining that some of the impetus regarding getting PA to take action comes from neighboring states into which Pennsylvania rivers flow. I believe that this is why red flags are waving on the Delaware River, for example. This article simply states that the EPA and other agencies have studies underway. I believe that this article is also clear about when and where dumping has occurred and in noting that some of it is in the past and not being repeated.

    The New York Times obviously has reach and institutional credibility. I think that this particular article would have benefited not only by crediting previous investigative reporting, but also quoting from that work, integrating it into its analysis and raising the articles underlying scientific content. I think that the writing style leans too heavily on the idea that in writing this report the NYT used information from EPA insiders and documents to which the rest of us do not have access. While they have apparently collected an extensive amount information regarding toxic contamination from natural gas wells, I think that their analysis falls short.

    As an analytical chemist, I feel that statements like “radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle” are misleading. Municipal waste water treatment plants are not set up to handle industrial waste, certainly not radionuclides. I especially dislike the sentence: “The Times also found never-reported studies by the E.P.A. and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.” because I do not think that anything can be described as “fully diluted”, only diluted to some detectable level, or below some detection limit. And again, I don’t think that the appeal to the NYT access to secret stuff plays well with the public, and here, is irrelevant. Levels safe for those waste treatment plants to handle would mean levels that meet drinking water standards (at the very least, least with dilution). This means that fracking waste should be handled as a hazardous waste and not enter municipal waste water treatment systems.

    All of the above articles do serve an important public purpose in raising awareness that the rapidly expanding natural gas practices of fracking are in need of better oversight and regulation.

  4. Keith Kloor says:

    Gaythia, I wholeheartedly agree. And glad to hear you support the HCN research fund!

  5. jeffn says:

    Gaythia, just to be clear, you want the fracking waste to be handled as “hazardous waste” due to the contamination from natural radium?
    The article seems to suggest that the waste water coming out of fracking has around three times the drinking water limit of radium (in places where radium is even present- which is not universal). Doesn’t that mean that – at least from a radiation standpoint- you would only need to dilute one gallon of the waste water stream with two gallons of river water for it to be safe to drink?
    Is there anyplace at all where the stream of treated water into a river equals third or more of the river’s total flow- or, to be more specific, a third of the intake at the downstream water treatment plant?
    What is the pro-science basis for arguing that the United States should reject energy independence from natural gas because pre-treatment and dilution waste water has tiny amount of natural radiation levels that falls to more than perfectly safe simply by being poured into a river?
    In fact, isn’t the assumption here that shouting something scary, like “Radiation!” is enough to cause everyone to lose their senses? Or am I being all anti-sciency here?

  6. Dennis Dimick says:

    And for the record, National Geographic covered western natural gas drilling and its impact on groundwater in July 2005:

  7. Gaythia says:

    @5  As reported in the AP piece cited above: “In the two years since the frenzy of activity began in the vast underground rock formation known as the Marcellus Shale, Pennsylvania has been the only state allowing waterways to serve as the primary disposal place for the huge amounts of wastewater produced by a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.”
    A list of possible components of fracking fluids (as they go into the ground) can be found here:
    When the fluids come back to the surface again, they are also contaminated by  natural gas related substances and other minerals underground.  Drilling muds can contain heavy metals and salts.
    I live in Colorado where radon in basements is a common issue and inspections are frequently required as part of the home purchasing process.  Ventilation systems can be added.  Radionuclides are also frequently a problem in groundwater.  Information on efforts by the state to deal with this can be found here:
    If you don’t want to be “all anti sciency” I suggest you read the references above and the ProPublica and High Country News reference provided by Keith in his post.
    I believe that we need to focus on sustainability, and that Natural Gas extraction can and needs to be done with a long term perspective and appropriate safeguards for the environment.

  8. Gaythia says:

    The short answer @5 above would be that in the NYT piece the phrase “could not be fully diluted” probably means that the concentrations of radionuclides are high enough that they will not meet drinking water standards by the dilutions that they will encounter in the wastewater treatment plants and streams.

  9. Keith,
    Good post. Good points. The NYT article was good, and I especially appreciated the Web infographic explaining fracking in such a straightforward way. But it was hardly groundbreaking. Just another example of East Coast chauvinism when it comes to the West, especially the Interior West: They never really delved into the problem when it was happening in the West, and they don’t take Western publications seriously.
    Too bad. It’s our loss and theirs.
    Jonathan T

  10. Alexander Harvey says:


    When did this story become big news? I was aware of it from watching the documentary Oil Land, but at that time I did not know what to make of it as I knew not its provence.

  11. Alexander Harvey says:


    I think I meant provenance

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