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As politicians conspire with energy bosses

New studies show dangerous effects of ‘fracking’

Published Nov 17, 2011 9:41 PM

As the natural gas industry expands hydraulic fracturing — “fracking” — across the U.S., concerns surface almost daily that call into question the safety of this process. At the same time, legislative actions that would pave the way for further industry expansion are being met with a rising number of protests.

On Nov. 9, the Environmental Protection Agency released results of testing in two environmental-monitoring water wells in Pavillion, Wyo., that found “benzene at 50 times the level that is considered safe for people, as well as phenols (another dangerous human carcinogen) and acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel.” (Abrahm Lustgarten, ProPublica, Nov. 10)

According to Lustgarten, the chemical compounds detected by the EPA are “consistent with those produced from the drilling processes,” including a solvent called 2-Butoxyethanol (2-BE), widely used in hydraulic fracturing. The carcinogen 2-BE is implicated in a rare, deadly cancer. The EPA established no link between these chemicals and those used in agriculture or other industrial activities.

The EPA findings were consistent with water samples it has collected from 42 homes in the Pavillion area since 2008, when ProPublica began reporting on health concerns there. Hundreds of natural gas wells have been drilled around Pavillion over the past 20 years.

Lustgarten reported that Pavillion residents have been complaining for a decade that fracking has “caused their water to turn black and smell like gasoline.”

The EPA report found water samples “were saturated with methane gas that matched the deep layers of natural gas being drilled for energy. The gas did not match the shallower methane that the gas industry says naturally occurs in water.”

Lustgarten cited disturbingly similar reports in Susquehanna and Bradford counties in Pennsylvania, including in the town of Dimock. More than a dozen residents there, even though they won lawsuits against gas drillers after their water wells were poisoned, remain without a reliable source of safe drinking water.

As in Wyoming, Lustgarten noted that residents in areas of Pennsylvania where fracking has rapidly expanded in recent years suffer “neurological impairments, loss of smell and nerve pain” linked to exposure to pollutants.

The reaction of Pennsylvania state officials, including Gov. Tom Corbett, who is clearly in the pockets of the natural gas industry giants, has been to ignore residents’ cries for help.

Corbett is pushing to limit local control over the natural gas industry. A bill introduced in the Pennsylvania House on Nov. 1 would implement most of the legislative recommendations of the governor’s appointed Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, which is heavily weighted with gas industry spokespeople.

The bill targets several Pennsylvania cities, including Pittsburgh, which have passed legislation limiting or banning fracking. Pointing to similar legislation in Ohio that negated local bans on drilling, Corbett in a letter to the Legislature played the “create jobs” card, implying that Pennsylvania must be driller-friendly in order to keep Ohio from “luring” away jobs.

This is the same Corbett whose draconian budget led to the elimination of thousands of public employee jobs across the state earlier this year. Most jobs associated with drilling in Pennsylvania are either temporary or already held by skilled workers from states with a long history of drilling activity.

But local governments are fighting back. Because of public outcry, several local officials are signing on to a response letter that will be distributed to the General Assembly in Harrisburg on Nov. 14 in defense of the right of municipal governments to protect their residents. (cleanwater.org)

They are taking heart from the delay of the $7 billion Keystone XL Pipeline until a new environmental review can be done. If finished, the pipeline would carry the dirtiest grade of oil all the way from Alberta, Canada, to Texas.

Borrowing from a platform of the Occupy Wall Street movement, several government watchdog groups held a press conference in Harrisburg earlier in November to detail how a total of $747 million in campaign and lobbying contributions from the natural gas industry financed Corbett’s campaign for governor and Pat Toomey’s campaign for the U.S. Senate.

On Nov. 21, protesters will gather in Trenton, N.J., to call on the Delaware River Basin Commission not to lift a ban on fracking that has been in place for three years.

The Delaware River Watershed provides drinking water to 15 million people in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

It took more than half a century to clean up damage to the Delaware River Basin from an earlier industrial age. One major tributary — the Schuykill River — “once ran almost black with coal dust.” As recently as 1940, the Delaware River “was an open sewer.” (Philadelphia City Paper, Nov. 10) It took the 1973 Clean Water Act to upgrade municipal water treatment plants.

Today the DRBC is under heavy pressure from the natural gas industry and their political cronies to open the watershed to fracking for the first time. The proposed rule changes would allow nearly 20,000 fracking wells to be drilled in the Delaware River Basin.

Fracking and earthquakes

Oklahoma, a state known more for nasty tornadoes, was seriously shaken on Nov. 4 by earthquakes, one of an unexpected 5.6 magnitude centered in Lincoln County. Until two years ago, Oklahoma typically had about 50 earthquakes a year, but in 2010, 1,047 quakes shook the state. Many scientists have linked the Nov. 4 quake, and more than 1,000 small earthquakes in Arkansas as well as a series of quakes in Texas and West Virginia, to a waste disposal practice connected to fracking.

Fracking involves the injection of millions of gallons of water, mixed with more than 200 chemicals and sand, deep into underground shale formations to drive natural gas to the surface. The process leaves millions of gallons of gas-drilling waste so toxic that there is no safe way to dispose of it.

In the last few years, drillers disposed of fracking “flowback” by reinjecting it into deep “injection” wells. There are 181 injection wells in Lincoln County, where most of the Nov. 4 earthquakes occurred.

While scientists in Oklahoma will not confirm the connections, studies by the British Geological Survey of similar unusual earthquake activity in areas with a high concentration of fracking led to Britain suspending drilling operations in 2009.

The Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission identified four disposal wells that it recommended shutting down after swarms of earthquakes, as many as two dozen in one day, shook the state in spring 2010. Arkansas ordered a moratorium on new disposal wells. After the ban, earthquake activity dropped by two-thirds.

Concerns have also been raised about potential damage to the expanding network of natural gas pipelines that run through the areas now experiencing quakes.

The link between injection wells to dispose of toxic substances and higher incidents of earthquake activity is not new. The U.S. Army’s Rocky Mountain Arsenal drilled a deep well for disposing of very salty water that included metals, chlorides, waste water and toxic organics in 1962. The Army discontinued use of the well in February 1966 because of the possibility that the fluid injection triggered earthquakes in the area. (OilPrice.com)

In 1990, a study of RMA events, “Earthquake Hazard Associated with Deep Well Injection — A Report to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency,” released by Craig Nicholson and R.I. Wesson, also established the link.

In July 2001, the EPA released an 87-page study that concluded that “in 1967 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Geological Survey determined that a deep, hazardous waste disposal well at the Rocky Mountain Arsenal was causing significant seismic events in the vicinity of Denver.”

Despite these studies and earlier warnings, the ability of the natural gas industry to insure politicians’ silence and complicity through campaign contributions has allowed the industry to continue its hazardous practices.