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Fracking chemicals

Just how harmful can 1 percent be?

Published Jul 8, 2010 10:10 PM

Potentially toxic and carcinogenic chemicals are used in the hydraulic fracturing process to obtain natural gas from shale. Whenever industry officials are confronted with concerns regarding their use, their standard answer is, “The chemicals account for less than 1 percent of the fluid that is blasted underground.”

The problem with this pat response is that they never say what these chemicals are.

A recent editorial in a Philadelphia paper revealed that “during a process known as ‘fracking,’ drillers pump millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals underground to break apart the shale deposits and release the gas trapped in the rock. Much of that fracking fluid comes back to the surface, in concentrations saltier than ocean water.” (Philadelphia Inquirer, June 17)

At a workshop held during the recent U.S. Social Forum in Detroit, Julian Rodriguez-Diaz of the Ithaca, N.Y.-based Green Guerrillas noted that “one to seven million gallons of water are used per frack [well].” Rodriguez-Diaz presented a slide show with photos of wells being drilled on a friend’s property near Ithaca, explaining that one well pad could have up to 24 wells with as many as 16 pads per square mile.

Doing the math, this means there’s a potential for between 3,840,000 to 26,880,000 gallons of fracking chemicals to be used in one square mile — hardly a minor amount. Rodriguez-Diaz credited Shaleshock.org for his statistical information.

His slides also demonstrated clearly invasive aspects of the process, in which hundreds of trucks carry water and chemicals over mountainous dirt roads to drilling sites. One slide challenged industry claims of bringing jobs to the areas involved. License plates on vehicles at the site showed few from Pennsylvania or New York.

DEP releases chemical list

Around 1,500 natural gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the Marcellus Shale region in the past three years, some within view of homes, farms and public roads. In the recently released film “Gasland,” producer Josh Fox noted that more than 200,000 new wells are proposed in Pennsylvania and New York, with 50,000 in the New York City watershed alone. Fox has come under heavy criticism from the natural gas industry for sounding the alarm about the impact of industry practices across the U.S.

Despite gas industry claims that fracking fluids have not migrated into ground water, several incidents of contamination have resulted in a growing public concern and demands for regulation. At least 18 species of fish were killed last September when high levels of dissolved solids polluted 26 miles of Dunkard Creek in Greene County, Pa.

In early June, a well blowout in Clearwater County, Pa., resulted in a gas explosion and a 16-hour uncontrolled spill of about a million gallons of toxic wastewater into a creek in Moshannon State Park.

In May the state Agriculture Department quarantined 28 head of cattle on a farm in central Pennsylvania after they came in contact with wastewater that leaked from a natural gas well holding pond. The state was contacted after the family that owned the farm noticed that grass had died in the area. Tests found chloride, iron and other chemicals in the wastewater. (Associated Press, June 1)

These and other incidents led to pressure on the Pennsylvania Department of Environment Protection to release a list of 80 chemicals used in fracking fluids in the state. In New York, regulators also published a list of more than 250 chemicals that could potentially be used there in natural gas drilling.

At the Social Forum workshop, Rodriguez-Diaz said up to 596 different chemicals have been used in the natural gas drilling process in 34 states.

The list provided by the Pennsylvania DEP includes naphthalene, classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as a possible carcinogen, and toluene and xylene, both linked to central nervous system depression. While an important first step, the DEP list falls short of really educating the public about the potential danger.

Of the chemicals identified by DEP as being used in fracking fluid, 34 are soluble, allowing them to move into surface and underground water. These include chemicals that cause cancer and disorders of the brain and nervous system, blood, and the immune system.

Wastewater sitting in holding ponds can evaporate into surface air. Twenty-one chemicals are readily airborne, including nine that cause reproductive problems and six known carcinogens. All the known airborne chemicals can harm the skin, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract or liver — problems frequently reported near fracking wells across the U.S.

Rodriguez-Diaz’s slide show presentation also illustrated the connection between giant oil companies and chemical and drilling industries, noting a link between oil giant ExxonMobil with Halliburton and Schlumberger. These same two corporations played major roles in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, along with British Petroleum. The slide show included photos of several trucks with Halliburton’s logo.

One West Virginia woman at the workshop provided a poignant account of being impacted by coal company mountain-top removal and then having to abandon her family home after her water well was poisoned by fracking fluids.