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Old news on pollution

Local coverage needs ‘hook.’

IN THE MIRE: Drilling fluids over-applied at a landfarm near Carlisle.
  • IN THE MIRE: Drilling fluids over-applied at a landfarm near Carlisle.

On April 20, the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality released a report detailing the extent to which “landfarms,” or disposal sites for water-based fluids left over from natural gas drilling, had run afoul of state environmental regulations. Local media outlets pounced on the story, as they should have. It was also refreshing.

The natural gas industry, which has been called a gift from God by some, generally receives favorable news coverage because of the influx of new money and their massive PR efforts.

To anyone familiar with these facilities, however, the ADEQ report told us nothing new.

The release of the report provided what journalists call “a hook,”  a singular moment that news outlets could latch onto. To their credit, some local reporters have covered related events in the past — the closing of landfarms near Searcy and Carlisle, for example. But original reporting on the pollution has been scarce and this is not a problem defined by events. People all across the state — farmers, city council members, environmental advocates, people who live near landfarms - have known for some time that these sites were doing environmental harm that could affect the state for years to come. ADEQ's “landfarm report” simply confirmed those fears and tallied the damage so far.

These facilities operate under “no discharge” permits from ADEQ. A facility can accept water-based drilling fluids (no oils). These fluids are stored in large holding ponds and applied to the land through a sprinkler system. In the permitting process, ADEQ determines how much fluid the soil can safely absorb and operators are prohibited from applying more than that amount.

Lacking its own sufficient resources for regular, frequent inspection, ADEQ relied on the facilities themselves to report on the environmental impact of their operations. So-called voluntary compliance has been a failure. The report found that every facility had violated environmental regulations including over-application of fluids to the soil. Some facilities had accepted oil-based fluids, contrary to the rule. The report concluded that every facility had allowed run-off of waste into waters of the state and that “these facilities, as operated, cannot be considered ‘no-discharge.' ”

What's worse, ADEQ found that some sites had applied such high concentrations of chlorides to the soil that it had been irreparably damaged. Chloride concentration should be less than 1,000 mg/Kg. In some cases, concentrations were as high as 26 to 45 times that amount. High sodium content can also do irreversible damage to soil, causing it to crust. The sodium absorption ratio in soil should be below 12. In some cases, the SAR was as high as 51.  

Although news coverage of the environmental harm associated with landfarms has been sparse, coverage of this particular event was broad. Rob Moritz of Arkansas News Bureau, KTHV, and KARK, all filed informative reports. Samantha Friedman and Laura Stevens of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette gave a detailed front-page account of a complicated issue. One exception was John Brummett's column “Living off the land.” In it, he proposed, as he often does, to break down a complex issue so readers of limited intellectual capability could understand it. The result was 700 words that added, basically, nothing to the reporting.

The reports typically failed to say that the report only made official what many long knew to be true. The only thing that made it “news” was that it was released by a state agency. The local farmer in Hartford didn't need a report to tell him that runoff from these dumping sites had turned a stream-fed swimming hole by his house into a green, turbid cesspool.

The use of the term “landfarm” (I'm guilty of using it, too) is a euphemism for a waste dump. ADEQ public information officer Aaron Sadler says the term was not coined by the agency. Apparently the term comes from the EPA and is embraced by the owners of such facilities. It might make for a more honest accounting to quit using the word.



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