Putting Environment on the Front Page

June 21st, 2013 · 1 Comment · energy policy, environment

By Denise Tessier

Having critiqued the Albuquerque Journal for lagging behind other media in coverage of local environmental stories, it’s only fair to take note of Journal stories this week that in one case emerged in front of other media, and in all cases were given prominence by placement on the front page.

The first was Monday morning’s “Fracking puts strain on water supply” (June 17), an Associated Press story out of San Francisco that ran in the Journal with the sub-headline: “Demand driving cost up; some farmers fallow fields.”

The story was one a regular reader might be surprised to find in the Journal because it considered a downside of oil and gas extraction by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, by casting an eye on fracking’s consumption of water supplies at a time of extreme drought.

Even more surprising, however, is that the story was not relegated inside, but was run on the front page above the fold line. The AP story (which for non-Journal subscribers may be read here) revealed what AP’s Garance Burke found after analyzing industry-compiled fracking data and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s official drought designations:

The latest domestic energy boom is sweeping through some of the nation’s driest pockets, drawing millions of gallons of water to unlock oil and gas reserves from beneath the Earth’s surface. . .

. . .as energy companies vie to exploit vast reserves west of the Mississippi, fracking’s new frontier is expanding to the same lands where crops have shriveled and waterways have dried up due to severe drought.

In Arkansas, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Wyoming, the vast majority of the counties where fracking is occurring are also suffering from drought. . .

As we’ve pointed out before, the Journal tends to act as a booster when it comes to oil and gas production. It runs pro-fracking opinion pieces, like Thomas Molitar’s “’Fracking’ Essential to Future,” and “Fracking Surrounded by Misinformation,” the latter a critique of the movie “Promised Land.”

(The latter, written by Alex Ritchie, a University of New Mexico associate law professor, makes the case that the State Legislature should advance an amendment to the state Constitution to “make clear that the New Mexico Oil and Gas Act preempts local regulation,” as the Legislature did in 1986 when it prohibited local governments from passing gun bans “in order to avoid a hodgepodge of local laws passed in an ‘emotional state.’” Ritchie said in the absence of such an amendment, the state should “be prepared for future legal battles and the potential impact on all New Mexicans of decreased oil and gas revenues and related impacts on education and essential services.”)

The last story the Journal put on the front page about fracking was James Monteleone’s summation last month of the U.S. Department of Interior’s proposed rules regarding fracking on federal land and the critical reaction the proposal spawned – both from environmentalists who said the rules didn’t go far enough (in term of disclosure of all chemicals and elements used in each fracking job in New Mexico) and from industry reps, who said the rules were unnecessary.

The AP story that ran Monday considered the impact of fracking’s water use on farming, with one Colorado farmer saying he has to compete with wealthy oil and gas companies for irrigation water. The farmer told AP that in a normal year, he would pay from $9 to $100 an acre-foot for water at auctions held by cities with excess supplies, but now the going price is $1,200 to $2,900 an acre-foot.

In south Texas, the AP story said, water tables are dropping. One farmer who used to pray for rain now is selling his water, and he told the AP:

“I realized we’re not making any money farming, so why not sell the water to the oil companies? Every little bit helps.”

While the Journal ran the AP story on the front page and jumped it to A2, it did not run the whole story, cutting about 20 paragraphs (this, based on a comparison with the version run by the Philadelphia Inquirer). The story by Burke is a regional overview of fracking’s impact on water, including how much it takes to fracture a well (“In Texas, the average well requires up to 6 million gallons of water, while in California each well requires 80,000 to 300,000 gallons…”) and how much it costs (“Depending on state and local water laws, frackers may draw their water for free from underground aquifers or rivers, or may buy and lease supplies belonging to water districts, cities and farmers. Some of the industry’s largest players are also investing in high-tech water recycling systems to frack with gray or brackish water.”).

Burke also reported that:

In some states, regulators have stepped in to limit the volume or type of water that energy companies can use during drought conditions.

In northwest Louisiana, as the production rush began in the Haynesville Shale in 2009, the state water agency ordered oil and gas companies to stop pulling groundwater from the local aquifer that also supplied homes and businesses, and use surface water instead. That order is still in effect and has helped groundwater levels to recover, said Patrick Courreges, a spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources.

. . .In Ventura County, at the southern tip of the Monterey Shale and an hour north of Los Angeles, drought-induced pressures on local water systems are already visible; one local water district predicts some groundwater wells will go dry by summer.

On the same day of the fracking/drought story, the Journal devoted a good portion of the rest of the front page, and more than half of the jump page on A4, to “Debate begins on mayor’s ‘Rio Grande Vision’,” a summary by reporter Charles Brunt on the public reaction to Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry’s plan for opening up the river woodlands along the Rio Grande to more public use. It was a good summary of the proposal – including a trail improvements map – and the reaction of the Sierra Club and neighborhoods associations concerned about the plan.

Even more prominence was given to an environmental issue Wednesday (June 19) on which it appears that the Journal had the lead (the Santa Fe New Mexican posted on Wednesday an AP story about the issue, quoting the Journal’s story). The Journal’s story ran front and center with an eye-catching color photo montage, emblazoned with a dramatic white-on-black-strip headline that said, “Residents say ‘death map’ should spur EPA action.” The sub-head: “Cancer risk 18 times higher near uranium mill.”

Journal reporter Olivier Uyttebrouck had traveled to Grants with photographer Roberto E. Rosales to cover a meeting between Region 6 Environmental Protection Agency administrator Ron Curry and residents of about 75 homes near the abandoned Homestake Mining Co. uranium tailings pile and mill, located near Milan, N.M.

The meeting was prompted by the draft EPA report published this month, which revealed that residents near the mill face a cancer risk 18 times higher than what is considered acceptable by the EPA.

Superimposed on a satellite photo of the area – what local residents call a “death map” – were the photos of Gordon and Harriet Wilcox, both of whom died of cancer.

By attending the meeting, Uyttebrouck was able to report the stories of residents who have had cancer and/or are frustrated by a lack of information and delays in relaying to residents the dangers of groundwater contamination and exposure to radiation.

Curry, who is the former head of the New Mexico Environmental Improvement Division (although that was not mentioned in the story), agreed to take residents’ concerns to EPA officials at the Dallas regional office, and said he is willing to “negotiate with corporate entities that own the Homestake site to help finance a remedy once a course of action is identified.”

As the story indicated, groundwater has been contaminated in the area since 1961; alerts against drinking the water were issued in 1974. Contamination is now reportedly showing up in deeper aquifers.

All of this is significant in light of a partnership’s current-day proposal to open what would be the largest uranium mine in the United States – and a possible mill – not far from this site of a previous uranium boom, of which the Homestake mill was a part from 1958 to 1990.

As companies poise to pounce on uranium reserves near Grants and Milan, N.M., while the health and environmental effects of previous mining and milling still linger, continued coverage like this is critical.

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