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Clearspeak: Burn on, big river

Community Columnist

Back in the bad old days, before the Clean Water Act had a chance to do much good, the Cuyahoga River where it runs through Cleveland was so polluted it periodically caught on fire.

The Cleveland Fire Department declared the river an official fire hazard. One wonders what the firemen used to put the river out when it burned. Water? Probably not a good idea.

One of my favorite musicians, Randy Newman, wrote a song about the Cuyahoga called “Burn On.” The chorus goes like this, “Now the Lord can make you tumble / And the Lord can make you turn / And the Lord can make you overflow / But the Lord can’t make you burn/ Burn on, big river, burn on.”

Nowadays, thanks to effective environmental regulation, the Cuyahoga is clean. But if the Cuyahoga no longer burns, other water does — drinking water near fracking sites. Turn on kitchen faucets in places that are at the epicenter of the fracking frenzy — Colorado, say, or Pennsylvania — light a match, and the tap water bursts into flame.

Not the water exactly — rather, the methane gas in the water. Methane gas that many believe was put there by fracking. You can take a tour of flaming faucets near fracking sites on YouTube at youtube.com/watch?v=Xg4VNGFP6qE.

As an environmental lawyer, what I find especially disturbing is that all this burning water likely derives from an exemption Congress put into the Safe Drinking Water Act at the urging of then-Vice President Dick Cheney, a former CEO of gas driller Halliburton. Halliburton, Cheney’s former firm, patented hydraulic fracturing in the 1940s, and remains one of the three largest manufacturers of fracturing fluids. Halliburton staff were actively involved in review of a 2004 Environmental Protection Agency report that was a basis for Congressional regulatory action on fracking in 2005.

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