Hydraulic fracturing, which involves injecting millions of gallons of chemical-laden water at high pressure into a well drilled both vertically and horizontally into a rock formation deep within the earth to extract natural gas, is rapidly spreading. There are approximately 500,000 natural gas wells in 34 states, and the industry projects that 19,000 new wells will be drilled this year. Fracking is one of the significant recent technologies through which this nation hopes to attain energy independence.
There are real problems, however. Fumes from drilling rigs and wastewater pits in Colorado and Pennsylvania have caused a variety of alarming symptoms in residents, forcing them from their homes. Spilled drilling fluid containing antifreeze has killed pets and livestock. After fracking has occurred, drinking-water wells have been tainted with barium, arsenic and other toxins. Leakages from large pits, resulting in dangerous chemicals becoming airborne, have poisoned homeowners. Soil at a wastewater impoundment that blew up and burned in Avella, Pennsylvania was found to have dangerously high levels of arsenic and tetrachloroethene, a carcinogen and central-nervous-system suppressor.
Because its end product is a relatively clean fossil fuel, fracking has been touted by industry and government as helping the U.S. achieve energy independence while combating climate change. However, the process itself is so energy-consumptive that some scientists believe it produces more greenhouse gases than the burning of coal.
New York State is one of two states — the other is New Jersey — that has imposed a temporary ban on fracking. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) is in the processing of completing its review of a supplemental environmental impact statement. When it is approved, governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to lift the moratorium.
The DEC must first address the more than 66,000 comments submitted last year in response to the second version of its environmental impact statement and proposed regulations, which DEC commissioner Joe Martens characterized as “a very long and tedious process” at an Albany conference two weeks ago. He said he hoped to complete the process by summer.
An industry publication reported that Martens recently met with Norwegian company Norsk Energy, which has leased 180,000 acres in New York and is particularly keen on Utica Shale, a rock formation underlying the Marcellus that extends into Ulster County. The company, which began applying for drilling permits last summer, was “encouraged by the meeting.” It noted that the commissioner had appeared to backtrack from previous comments that New York would wait until the EPA completes its study of hydraulic fracturing before moving ahead.
Numerous health professionals and environmental groups who found the environmental impact statement’s assessment of fracking’s health risks lacking had requested an independent study. But the New York State Assembly’s proposal for a $100,000 study of fracking’s adverse health impacts was dropped during last month’s budget negotiations.
Fracking injects hundreds of toxic chemicals into the ground, disposes of thousands or millions of gallons of chemical-laden wastewater per well (which may be further contaminated by radionuclides, or radioactive particles, and other harmful substances from deep within the earth), disposes of the even more toxic “brine” fluid that comes up with the gas once the well is in production, and burns up large quantities of diesel fuel.
Fracking was exempted from the oversight of federal environmental laws, such as the Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act, as a result of the so-called “Halliburton loophole” in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Government support for the unfounded assertion that hydrofracking was safe has had the effect of shifting the burden of proof of a health impact onto the citizen.
Though the companies, citing proprietary privilege, didn’t reveal the types of chemicals they use, a couple of states now require more disclosure. The industry is failing to comply fully. In Wyoming, for example, Halliburton and other companies have gotten 50 “secrecy” exemptions from the regulatory agency.
Opponents of fracking have charged that the states and local governments have lacked the political will and don’t have the resources to protect public health. Because the companies haven’t revealed the chemicals they use, it’s difficult for citizens, health professionals and municipalities to assess the health risks from drilling.
Residents at risk
In 2004, the EPA released a study claiming that hydrofracking was safe. According to ProPublica, however, information buried in the study did note problems. The EPA identified some of the chemicals as biocides and lubricants that “can cause kidney, liver, heart, blood, and brain damage through prolonged or repeated exposure” and “found that as much as a third of injected fluids, benzene in particular, remains in the ground after drilling and is likely to be transported by groundwater,” reported ProPublica.
According to another ProPublica article, in 2010 the University of Colorado-Denver School of Public Health did a study in Garfield County that concluded benzene and ozone-forming emissions from drilling was carcinogenic, putting residents at risk for respiratory and neurological ailments as well as for birth defects. The analysis found volatile organic chemicals five times above the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Hazard Index level of acceptable amounts. The school recommended long-term monitoring for a cluster of wells to be drilled in a new area. Instead, the Garfield County board of commissioners ended the researchers’ contract.
Other efforts to track cases and assess the health impacts from fracking have been thwarted. For example, Pennsylvania had planned to budget $2 million this year to create a statewide registry to track respiratory problems, skin ailments, and other illnesses related to gas drilling — data that’s desperately needed to assess and measure the dangers and protect citizens. The funds were withdrawn. Legislators also recently passed a law requiring doctors to sign a confidentiality agreement in return for access to information on chemicals used in fracking that had affected their patients, which prevents valuable information that could protect the public from being disseminated.
However, with thousands of cases of contamination of drinking wells from fracking fluids reported in the past four years, along with alarming increases in air pollution in heavily fracked areas, government can ignore the threat only at its peril. The EPA is currently conducting a review of the health impacts from fracking. The agency has just issued its first rule, a requirement that drilling companies capture the methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas, that’s released when a well is first drilled, and transfer it to pipes for use as fuel. The companies, however, don’t have to comply until 2015. Legislation introduced in Congress to restore EPA oversight and override the 2005 law has failed to pass.
The EPA has confirmed that hydrofracking was the cause of the contamination of drinking-water wells with arsenic and other toxic chemicals in Pennsylvania and Wyoming. Even the Pennsylvania Department of Protection, a sorry excuse for environmental regulation, had to admit after a university study of toxic metals that fracking wastewater trucked to municipal wastewater treatment plants on the Monongahela River was poisoning the drinking water of the people in Pittsburgh. That department asked the fracking companies to stop using sewage plants to treat their waste. But here in New York the DEC’s proposed regulations would allow disposal of fracking waste, which it termed nonhazardous, in municipal sewage treatment plants.
Independent sources have been compiling data on some of the chemicals and products used by the fracking industry, of which the most comprehensive is The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX). TEDX has compiled an as yet incomplete list of nearly 1000 products and has evaluated the health impact of each chemical. The findings include the following:
Over 78 percent of the chemicals are associated with skin, eye or sensory organ effects, respiratory effects and gastrointestinal or liver effects. The brain and nervous system can be harmed by 55 percent of the chemicals. Usually appearing right after exposure, the symptoms include burning eyes, rashes, coughs, sore throats, asthma-like effects, nausea, vomiting, headaches, dizziness, tremors, and convulsions. Other effects, including cancer, organ damage, and harm to the endocrine system, may not appear for months or years later.
A total of 210 chemicals (58 percent) are water-soluble while 131 (36 percent) are volatile, meaning they can become airborne. Of these volatile chemicals, over 93 percent can harm the eyes, skin, sensory organs, respiratory tract, gastrointestinal tract or liver. Compared with the soluble chemicals, far more of these chemicals (86 percent) can cause harm to the brain and nervous system.
Seventy-two percent of the volatile chemicals can harm the cardiovascular system and blood, and 66 percent can harm the kidneys. Because they can be inhaled, swallowed, and also reach the skin, the potential for exposure to volatile chemicals is greater than exposure to those that are soluble in water.
Many of these chemicals, particularly those that affect the immune systems and reproductive development, are harmful to humans in extremely low doses. The industry argues that the chemical composition of the fluids are too diluted to be dangerous. But some 80 to 330 tons of chemicals are required for each well, according to estimates published on the non-profit organization Earthworks.
When the gas surfaces, produced water, called brine, comes up with it, in a process that continues through the 20- or 30-year life of the well. The brine, which contains a more potent brew of chemicals, is hauled away to evaporation pits. Some municipalities in New York State are using brine from vertically drilled wells, which contain the same harmful substances, as road deicers and dust suppressors on county fairgrounds. (The Ulster County Legislature, which has banned fracking on county property, this month introduced a resolution for a law prohibiting such of the brine on county roads and property.) The DEC doesn’t consider the wastewater and brine to be hazardous waste.
Another concern is depletion of water resources. According to EPA figures, 70 to 140 billion gallons of water are required to frack 35,000 new wells — equal to the annual water consumption of dozens of cities with a population of 50,000. Fracking contaminates fresh water, in some cases withdrawn from municipal drinking sources (such as the Susquehanna River), with chemical waste.
Air pollution is yet another concern. Tons of toxic chemicals, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and methane volatize into the air and mix with nitrogen oxides from the exhaust of diesel-driven equipment and trucks which make thousands of trips per well result in ground-level smog which can spread to a distance of 200 miles, notes TEDX, Fumes from 27,000 wells in formerly pristine areas of Wyoming have caused the state to fail federal standards for air quality for the first time in history in 2009; the levels of smog exceed at times those in Los Angeles.
Pennsylvania to Ithaca
Tom Shelley, a retired chemical safety specialist who formerly worked at Cornell University and New York State, claims air pollution from fracking operations in central Pennsylvania is wafting over his home town of Ithaca. Monitors in the air have identified hydrocarbons and elevated levels of methane, he said.
Shelley said that the rate of asthma among children who live near drilling rigs is six to nine times higher than normal. He fears low-level impacts on fracking chemicals and pollution, experienced over a long period of time, might result in a bigger health impact than a more pronounced one-time exposure — meaning the effects may not show up for years.
Paul Rubin, an outspoken hydrologist based in Ulster County who does consulting work on fracking’s impact for environmental and citizen groups, said the chemicals from drilling could eventually infiltrate the groundwater supplying drinking water to urban populations. “The bottom line is that the cement and steel sealant in the well casing, no matter how thick, will fail. Once the chemicals have entered the groundwater, the chemicals will migrate to the river valleys, where most of the population lives. It may take a long time to get into our valleys, but at the end of the day when you have thousands of wells you end up with contaminated loads. We need to protect our aquifers.”
Rubin said he’s been advocating for tracers in the drilling fluids, which would enable people to track contaminants back to a particular well and operator, establishing the link between the drilling operations and their harmful effects.
Shelley said he was optimistic that fracking won’t make much headway in New York, thanks to a battle being fought at the grass-roots level. “Right now there are almost 100 towns in New York that have passed land-use laws banning industrial activities like hydrofracking,” he noted. “Such a spotty pattern of land use allowed for hydrofracking won’t be profitable. It’s at the town level one can ban industrial uses through zoning. So far, the cases have held up in court.”