The natural gas industry defends hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, as safe and efficient. Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-industry non-profit organization, claims fracking has been “a widely deployed as safe extraction technique,” dating back to 1949. What he doesn’t say is that until recently energy companies had used low-pressure methods to extract natural gas from fields closer to the surface than the current high-pressure technology that extracts more gas, but uses significantly more water, chemicals, and elements.
The industry claims well drilling in the Marcellus Shale will bring several hundred thousand jobs, and has minimal health and environmental risk. President Barack Obama in his January 2012 State of the Union, said he believes the development of natural gas as an energy source to replace fossil fuels could generate 600,000 jobs.
Barry Russell, president of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, says “no evidence directly connects injection of fracking fluid into shale with aquifer contamination.” Fracking “has never been found to contaminate a water well,” says Christine Cronkright, communications director for the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
Research studies and numerous incidents of water contamination prove otherwise.
In late 2010, equipment failure may have led to toxic levels of chemicals in the well water of at least a dozen families in Conoquenessing Twp. in Butler County. Township officials and Rex Energy, although acknowledging that two of the drilling wells had problems with the casings, claimed there were pollutants in the drinking water before Rex moved into the area. John Fair disagrees. “Everybody had good water a year ago,” Fair told environmental writer and activist Iris Marie Bloom in February 2012. Bloom says residents told her the color of water changed (to red, orange, and gray) after Rex began drilling. Among chemicals detected in the well water, in addition to methane gas, were ammonia, arsenic, chloromethane, iron, manganese, t-butyl alcohol, and toluene. While not acknowledging that its actions could have caused the pollution, Rex did provide fresh water to the residents, but then stopped doing so on Feb. 29, 2012, after the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said the well water was safe. The residents vigorously disagreed and staged protests against Rex; environmental activists and other residents trucked in portable water jugs to help the affected families. Joseph P. McMurry of the Marcellus Outreach Butler blog (MOB) declared that residents’ “lives have been severely disrupted and their health has been severely impacted. To unceremoniously ‘close the book’ on investigations into their troubles when so many indicators point to the culpability of the gas industry for the disruption of their lives is unconscionable.”
In April 2011, near Towanda, Pa., seven families were evacuated after about 10,000 gallons of wastewater contaminated an agricultural field and a stream that flows into the Susquehanna River, the result of an equipment failure, according to the Bradford County Emergency Management Agency.
The following month, DEP fined Chesapeake Energy $900,000, the largest amount in the state’s history, for allowing methane gas to pollute the drinking water of 16 families in Bradford County during the previous year. The DEP noted there may have been toxic methane emissions from as many as six wells in five towns. The DEP also fined Chesapeake $188,000 for a fire at a well in Washington County that injured three workers.
In January 2012, an equipment failure at a drill site in Susquehanna County led to a spill of several thousand gallons of fluid for almost a half-hour, causing “potential pollution,” according to the DEP. In its citation to Carizzo Oil and Gas, the DEP “strongly” recommended that the company cease drilling at all 67 wells “until the cause of this problem and a solution are identified.”
In December 2011, the federal Environmental Protection Agency concluded that fracking operations could be responsible for groundwater pollution.
“Today’s methods make gas drilling a filthy business. You know it’s bad when nearby residents can light the water coming out of their tap on fire,” says Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation. What’s causing the fire is the methane from the drilling operations. A ProPublica investigation in 2009 revealed methane contamination was widespread in drinking water in areas around fracking operations in Colorado, Texas, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania. The presence of methane in drinking water in Dimock, Pa., had become the focal point for Josh Fox’s investigative documentary, Gasland, which received an Academy Award nomination in 2011 for Outstanding Documentary; Fox also received an Emmy for non-fiction directing. Fox’s interest in fracking intensified when a natural gas company offered $100,000 for mineral rights on property his family owned in Milanville, in the extreme northeast part of Pennsylvania, about 60 miles east of Dimock.
“Some of the chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing-or liberated by it-are carcinogens,” Dr. Sandra Steingraber told members of the Environmental Conservation and Health committee of the New York State Assembly. Dr. Steingraber, a biologist and distinguished scholar in residence at Ithaca College, pointed out that some of the chemicals “are neurological poisons with suspected links to learning deficits in children,” while others “are asthma triggers. Some, especially the radioactive ones, are known to bioaccumulate in milk. Others are reproductive toxicants that can contribute to pregnancy loss.”
An investigation by New York Times reporter Ian Urbina, based upon thousands of unreported EPA documents and a confidential study by the natural gas industry, concluded, “Radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.” Urbina learned that wastewater from fracking operations was about 100 times more toxic than federal drinking water standards; 15 wells had readings about 1,000 times higher than standards.
Research by Dr. Ronald Bishop, a biochemist at SUNY/Oneonta, suggests that fracking to extract methane gas “is highly likely to degrade air, surface water and ground-water quality, to harm humans, and to negatively impact aquatic and forest ecosystems.” He notes that “potential exposure effects for humans will include poisoning of susceptible tissues, endocrine disruption syndromes, and elevated risk for certain cancers.” Every well, says Dr. Bishop, “will generate a sediment discharge of approximately eight tons per year into local waterways, further threatening federally endangered mollusks and other aquatic organisms.” In addition to the environmental pollution by the fracking process, Dr. Bishop believes “intensive use of diesel-fuel equipment will degrade air quality [that could affect] humans, livestock, and crops.”
Equally important are questions about the impact of as many as 200 diesel-fueled trucks each day bringing water to the site and then removing the waste water. “We need to know how diesel fuel got into some people’s water supply,” says Diane Siegmund, a clinical psychologist from Towanda, Pa. “It wasn’t there before the companies drilled wells; it’s here now,” she says. Siegmund is also concerned about contaminated dust and mud. “There is no oversight on these,” she says, “but those trucks are muddy when they leave the well sites, and dust may have impact miles from the well sites.”
In addition to the normal diesel emissions of trucks, there are several incidents of leaks, some of several thousand gallons, much of which spills onto roadways and into creeks, from highway accidents of tractor-trailer trucks carrying wastewater.
Research “strongly implicates exposure to gas drilling operations in serious health effects on humans, companion animals, livestock, horses, and wildlife,” according to Dr. Michelle Bamberger, a veterinarian, and Dr. Robert E. Oswald,a biochemist and professor of molecular medicine at Cornell University. Their study, published in New Solutions, an academic journal in environmental health, documents evidence of milk contamination, breeding problems, and cow mortality in areas near fracking operations as higher than in areas where no fracking occurred. Drs. Bamberger and Oswald noted that some of the symptoms present in humans from what may be polluted water from fracking operations include rashes, headaches, dizziness, vomiting, and severe irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat. For animals, the symptoms often led to reproductive problems and death.
Significant impact upon wildlife is also noted in a 900-page Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) conducted by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation, and filed in September 2011. According to the EIS, “In addition to loss of habitat, other potential direct impacts on wildlife from drilling in the Marcellus Shale include increased mortality . . . altered microclimates, and increased traffic, noise, lighting, and well flares.” The impact, according to the report, “may include a loss of genetic diversity, species isolation, population declines . . . increased predation, and an increase of invasive species.” The report concludes that because of fracking, there is “little to no place in the study areas where wildlife would not be impacted, [leading to] serious cascading ecological consequences.” The impact, of course, affects the quality of milk and meat production as animals drink and graze near areas that have been taken over by the natural gas industry.
Research by a team of scientists from Duke University revealed “methane contamination of shallow drinking water systems [that is] associated with shale-gas extraction.” The data and conclusions, published in the May 2011 issue of the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, noted that not only did most drinking wells near drilling sites have methane, but those closest to the drilling wells, about a half-mile, had an average of 17 times the methane of those of other wells.
Before a Congressional hearing, Michael Krancer, Gov. Tom Corbett’s DEP secretary, claimed studies that showed toxic methane gas in drinking water were “bogus,” and specifically cited as “statistically and technically biased” the Duke University study. Two of the study’s researchers fired back. In an OpEd article in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Robert Jackson and Avner Vengosh suggested, “Rather than working to discredit any science that challenges his views, the secretary and his agency should be working to get to the bottom of the science with an open mind.”
As if water pollution wasn’t bad enough, fracking operations may also impact the air and increase greenhouse gas levels. A team of researchers from Cornell University determined that the leaking of methane gas into the air from fracking operations could have a greater negative impact upon the environment than either oil or coal. In the May 2011 issue of the peer-reviewed Climatic Change Letters, environmental biologist Dr. Robert Howarth, engineer Dr. Tony Ingraffea, and ecology researcher Renee Santoro, conclude, “The footprint for shale gas is greater than that for conventional gas or oil when viewed on any time horizon, but particularly so over 20 years. Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20% greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is comparable when compared over 100 years.”
The response by the industry and its political allies to the scientific studies of the health and environmental effects of fracking “has approached the issue in a manner similar to the tobacco industry that for many years rejected the link between smoking and cancer,” say Drs. Bamberger and Oswald. Not only do they call for “full disclosure and testing of air, water, soil, animals, and humans,” but point out that with lax oversight, “the gas drilling boom . . . will remain an uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale.”
Dr. Helen Podgainy, a pediatrician in Coraopolis, Pa., says she doesn’t want her patients “to be guinea pigs who provide the next generation the statistical proof of health problems as in what happened with those exposed to asbestos or to cigarette smoke.”
[Assisting on this series, in addition to those quoted within the articles, were Rosemary R. Brasch, Eileen Fay, Dr. Bernard Goldstein, and Dr. Wendy Lynne Lee. Dr. Walter Brasch‘s current book is Before the First Snow, a critically-acclaimed novel that looks at what happens when government and energy companies form a symbiotic relationship, using “cheaper, cleaner” fuel and the lure of jobs in a depressed economy but at the expense of significant health and environmental impact. The book is available at amazon.com and from the publisher, Greeley & Stone.] Photo: bill baker // CC 2.0