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What's next for Dan Volz?

Last week Conrad "Dan" Volz  resigned as director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities (CHEC) at Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health.  As a researcher and public health advocate at Pitt since 2004, Volz has been vocal on the impact of the hydraulic fracturing process on the environment and as well as public health. 

During his seven years at Pitt, Volz has worked on numerous research projects ranging from assessing the risk of water and fish contamination from nuclear detonations in the Aleutian Islands to Allegheny River Stewardship Projects. Under the terms of the interview, Pop City agreed not to discuss his relationship with the university at this time.

Are you walking away from the concerns you've been raising about Marcellus Shale drilling and the dangers it poses to our health and the environment?

Not at all. My intention is to be more of an advocate for public health around the issue of Marcellus Shale.

I am leaving the university to work on these greater questions. It's time that someone rose up and spoke out about environmental policy and how it's not only playing out in Southwestern Pennsylvania, but the world. I'm working on a book on the environmental consequences of our search for oil, gas and coal. All these extracted industries have a negative consequence. We have to understand, balance and prioritize each of these operations. Doing it outside the university structure is the best way for me to do it.

Will you continue your work with Fractracker?

This has yet to be worked out. I'm leaving the university. Fractracker is a tool for citizens and environment organizations, as well as the industry and government, to look at the potential impacts of this process. It is managed by CHEC. The software license is owned by the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds. It was done this way because The Heinz Foundation felt it was important to place this outside the university in case there was a problem with the university. In fact, Samantha Malone, a doctoral student and the director of communications for CHEC, just won the Rosencrantz Prize for best environmental project for Fractracker. This is academically very important. Certainly I will be participating as a citizen can on Fractracker. I may have a more formal arrangement in the future.

Today we had breaking news (April 20, 2011) that the DEP has asked drillers to stop taking wastewater discharges to 16 sewage plants in the state, thoughts?

The breaking news of DEP finally taking real action to close the wastewater issue is a great one, something that I feel I've made a substantial contribution to through my senate and EPA testimony. I think the DEP should immediately review permits for grandfathered treatment plants because there still is a public health problem from them and they should not be polluting the streams of Indiana County.

What are your biggest concerns?

This industry is unlike the conventional oil and gas industry we all grew up with. Those operations were simple. You drilled a hole, the wells produced geysers and the oil and gas came out of the ground naturally and was recovered. This operation is very different conceptually; it's a highly industrialized operation.

To release the gas, drillers must mechanically fracture the shale layer, which requires up to five million gallons of water with added amended chemicals, some of which are quite hazardous. It takes hundreds of containers of chemicals that are brought onsite by trucks. With this comes the possibility of spills. After the well is fractured, there are thousands, maybe millions, of gallons of very toxic flowback that are put into an impoundment onsite. This is being done in communities next to where people live. These toxic chemicals can become airborne; people breathe them.

So many things can go wrong. There can be overflows, tears can occur in the liner, wells can explode, they catch on fire. There can be a catastrophic blowout, such as in Clearfield County; (We were very lucky this occurred in a state forest area, and not in Mt. Pleasant or Hickory.) There is no planning in place to deal with these kinds of evacuations. Our region is honeycombed with underground mines; drilling through these mines is a concern. We have to be very careful about all of this.

Last week you testified in Washington, D.C. , before the U.S. Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works. How involved have you been on the federal level? 

I was selected to speak on how contaminants in the fracking process might move into surface water. I gave a presentation three months ago describing how contaminants in the flowback are being put through both brine treatment facilities and sewage treatment plants and coming out the other end and going back into Blacklick Creek. I testified that at least nine contaminants were entering the creek at levels well over health standards and reporting requirements in permits for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). I also went into great detail about how the DEP should have never issued these permits in the first place. They knew about the more than 20 toxic contaminants in the flowback.

Giving permits to facilities that don't treat for all of these contaminants is a problem. The DEP has a major responsibility to ensure that contaminants don't reach our surface water. As a result, I was asked by the two Senate committees--Environment and Public Works and a subcommittee of Water and Wildlife--to testify at the hearing last Tuesday on these same issues. I spoke to three specific problems: the unregulated citing of these wells throughout the five-state region and the potential for catastrophic blowouts; an increase in the violations as related to the polluting of the water throughout the Commonwealth and general violations of the Safe Streams Law; finally, the problem of contaminants from the flowback entering surface water.

What should the state be doing to protect our drinking water?

It is a shame that we have rushed to drill so many wells in such a short time without developing regulations that would have helped the industry to recycle the waste water. In my view, the state has illegally allowed operators to discharge this flowback through sewage treatment and brine treatment plants. This practice is prohibited in areas like Oklahoma that has a legacy of oil and gas exploration. New York and Maryland have banned hydraulic fracturing until it has been further studied.

We need to find a way to treat this wastewater and ensure that it is treating all the contaminants--the radionuclides of radium, all the slick water elements and organic compounds that come out of the shale layer--and ensure they are not put into the waters of the Commonwealth period.

Do you drink tap water?

I live in Gibsonia on a farm and have well water. I run my water through a sedimentation tank--chlorinate to precipitate out the sulfides and then though a charcoal filter to remove organic compounds. For drinking and cooking I also use a Brita. Pittsburgh has one of the best sources of water from the Allegheny since it flows through areas that were glaciated; it's a healthy ecosystem. I drink tap in Pittsburgh. I have great confidence in a very dedicated water group here to let people know when there are problems. I have more confidence in what I know than the unknowns of bottled water.

Proponents of the industry claim this process has been done successfully and safely in other places, like Wyoming and Texas. Would you agree?

What is happening in Pennsylvania is unique (geologically) in the Marcellus Shale field. To liberate the shale in Pennsylvania, you need to use "slick water fracturing," amending water with all kinds of chemicals, surfactants, lubricants. The use of horizontal drilling, combined with "slick water" in the Marcellus, is actually new. Every formation has its own essential hazards. This combination brings new conditions to the table.

Out west, yes, vertical drilling has been done. But the EPA, under the last administration, hadn't done any real studies on this. Now that the EPA is looking into this, we are finding there are real problems that can be ascribed to this procedure in the west, especially in Pavilion, Wyoming, where total petroleum hydrocarbons associated with oil and gas exploration have been found in the water wells of people who live in the area. Now that the EPA and other agencies are actually looking for problems, they are being found.

What are your feelings about Gov. Corbett's support of the drilling industry and his appointments to key positions and panels?

Gov. Corbett and Gov. Rendell are one and the same. Gov. Rendell opened the state up to the drillers lock, stock and barrel. He leased out our public lands and state parks. To me, there has been no disruption in policy. We need regulations to control this industry. Unfortunately, Gov. Rendell did not take the proper public health cautionary measures.

The only point of departure is the severance tax issue (which Rendell supported). I certainly hope we don't get a severance tax until the regulator climate for this operation is more developed, then I would be a big supporter. If done now, I'm concerned that a dedicated stream of funding will dissuade the politicians, DEP and other regulators from adding the regulations needed for this to be done safely.

What can the average citizen do to ensure that Marcellus Shale drilling is done safely and responsibly?

This is not scientific. This is a public debate. People need to be political. In my view, it's very difficult for individuals to make an impact on state and federal government. We're pretty far removed. But certainly local politics can help on this, especially around the issues of where gas wells can be cited in a community, by zoning and planning commissions. Local communities have the right to put restrictions on any industry.

Deb Smit is innovation news editor at Pop City.  Email us here.

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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