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Sound step on fracking; EPA is correct in setting standards for the disposal of contaminated water

The Environmental Protection Agency announced on Thursday that it plans to develop national standards for disposal of water contaminated through the natural gas drilling technique called hydrofracking. It's a prudent step.

Hydrofracking has been done for years, but horizontal hydrofracking is a more recent development. It allows drillers to access natural gas trapped deep underground in layers of shale, but requires the use of much larger amounts of water laced with chemicals.

Fracking already is being done in other states, including Pennsylvania. New York is poised to allow it, though most is likely to occur in the central part of the state. One big problem with fracking is what to do with the wastewater, which sometimes has ended up in municipal wastewater treatment plants that are typically unable to handle the water appropriately.

States have dealt with this issue. Pennsylvania has imposed strict rules to put an end to inadequately treated wastewater discharges and New York's Department of Environmental Conservation is bound to produce its own standards. That's fine, as far as it goes.

The problem is that water doesn't stay still. Once it reaches the system of waterways, it flows from state to state and even nation to nation. It's one thing for states to have their own speed limits or sales tax rates, but another thing altogether when the subject is pollution produced in one state at the expense of others downwind or downstream.

Setting disposal standards is not a controversial subject. Even the industry isn't objecting.

"The new guidelines EPA develops will then be used by states to regulate specific wastewater discharges," Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, told the Los Angeles Times in an email. "We stand ready to work with EPA and other stakeholders on the development of these guidelines."

Russell's reaction was both sensible and welcome and, indeed, EPA officials should seek the input of all stakeholders, including municipalities, environmentalists and, yes, the industry.

Hydrofracking remains controversial, which is hardly surprising. It bears the potential to create thousands of high-paying jobs and to produce enough natural gas to ensure that prices remain stable. At the same time, the toxic chemicals used in the process are worrisome to many who want to know that their aquifers and waterways will not be tainted in the rush to drill.

Still, hydrofracking is not going to go away. It's being done already and it won't be long before it is done in New York. We accept that and acknowledge its value. But government has an important role to play in terms of setting the conditions for hydrofracking and, certainly, the disposal of contaminated waste. It is making a responsible decision by getting started now.

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