From Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer! (CRAAB!):
By Margaret Roberts, CRAAB! Board member
Because of many recent reports about the further
dangers of fracking, our next issue will run a third
article in this series entitled “Fracking: Earthquakes
& Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals.”
On January 8th, CRAAB! member Kim Baker and I attended an anti-fracking rally on the concourse of the Empire State Plaza, near the Convention Center where hundreds of law-makers and government officials convened to hear Governor Cuomo’s State of the State address. Most also heard the boisterous and persistent voices of thousands of fracking opponents, some of whom represented more than 100 organizations and businesses from all regions of the state.
It was an exciting and, at times, very moving rally, one much larger than organizers had predicted. Public opinion polls now show that the majority of New Yorkers are opposed to high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), probably due to continual news about accidents, water and air pollution, and links to earthquakes and illnesses in people who live near drill sites. Another major concern, gaining widespread acceptance, is the fact that methane is a potent greenhouse gas that will accelerate climate change that can lead to more catastrophic storms, droughts, and wildfires. We hope that Governor Cuomo and his administration are cognizant of these facts and reports.
Who will make the decision?
In 2012, the Governor and DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens stated that any decisions about permitting HVHF in the Marcellus Shale regions of NYS will depend on the results of health impact studies and a health assessment review by the DOH which has contracted with 3 scientists who are reviewing undisclosed research studies and reports. In February, 2013, DOH Commissioner Nirav R. Shah, M.D., M.P.H. sent a letter to Mr. Martens saying that the DOH will need more time for a comprehensive review, and that he wants to consider the results of three separate studies which “are the first comprehensive studies of HVHF health impacts at either the state or federal level.” See side box.
Dr. Shah’s decision to wait for the results of these studies is welcome and reasonable, but we question why he hasn’t publicly expressed concerns about environmental impact studies and health reports that are already documented? There have been hundreds of reports of illnesses of people who live near drilling sites. There are thousands of incidences of leaks, spills, explosions, well blow-outs and burn-off pollution, illegal wastewater treatment and discharges, and methane gas migration. (One of many detailed publications is Riverkeeper’s 2010 “Fractured Communities.”)
In December, 2013 Dr. Shah did reveal that he traveled to California and Texas, among other unnamed places to study fracking and that there was new data to consider, though what this is he wouldn’t say. As some scientists and advocates have pointed out, the lack of transparency among policy makers, and various states’ departments of health and environmental conservation, as well as the gas industry is disappointing and breeds distrust.
Why the concern?
To permit a large-scale industrial process when there are no epidemiological studies of long-term health effects seems short-sighted, especially when the process involves toxic chemicals that are connected to many serious and chronic diseases such as cancer. According to a paper submitted by Theo Coburn and colleagues, “Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective” published in Human and Ecological Risk Assessment, in September, 2011, of the chemicals used in fracking, “more than 75% could affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Approximately 40% to 50% could affect the brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys; 37% could affect the endocrine system; and 25% could cause cancer and mutations. These results indicate that many chemicals used during the fracturing and drilling stages of gas operations may have long-term health effects that are not immediately expressed.”
Most of these chemicals are mixed with water and sand, then pumped deep underground to fracture shale rock to release natural gas.
- About 10-25% of this fracturing fluid returns to the surface during the “flowback” period that usually lasts 10-14 days, until gas production begins. The amount of flowback fluid, which picks up additional chemicals and elements that were present in the shale, ranges between 420,000 – 2,520,000 gallons per well for each hydraulic fracture.
- Once gas production begins, all wastewater emerging from the well is called “produced water,” which is about 30-70% of the initial injected water.
- Both types of wastewater—flowback and produced water— contain potentially harmful ingredients, including heavy metals and naturally occurring radiation from radon and other elements
The Marcellus Shale Formation that underlies parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and western NY, has higher rates of radon than most other shale deposits. In 2011, the EPA released documents to The New York Times that disclosed that in Pennsylvania more than 179 wells produced wastewater with high levels of radiation, and over 100 had levels of radium or other radioactive materials 100 times as high as the safe levels set by federal drinking- water standards. At least 15 wells produced wastewater carrying more than 1,000 times the amount of radioactive elements considered acceptable.
What happens to all this wastewater?
Drillers trucked some wastewater to public sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania and other states, including New York, but some treatment plants were not equipped to remove certain highly toxic contaminants or radioactive substances. At least 12 sewage treatment plants in three states discharged wastewater that was only partly treated into rivers, lakes and streams. Besides processing wastewater at treatment plants, it’s also injected back into the earth. As reported by “ProPublica” in 2012, records from different areas in the country show that wells drilled to bury fracking wastewater deep underground have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals percolating to the surface or, on rare occasion, leaching into aquifers that store a significant portion of the nation’s drinking water. Scientific America reported in 2012 that during the past several decades over 30 trillion gallons of toxic fluid has been injected deep into the earth, and some geologists are concerned it will eventually cause widespread contamination, though many scientists say that scenario isn’t likely. The greatest hazards are spills, leaks and illegal discharges related to faulty surface operations. From late 2007-2010 inspections of 220,000 wells revealed 17,000 structural failures.
Does fracking produce other water pollutants?
Natural gas is a fossil fuel formed primarily of methane, but it can also include other gases – ethane, propane, butane and pentane. The natural gas delivered to your home has been refined and is almost pure methane. An Associated Press article of January, 2014 states that “Experts say the most common type of water pollution involves methane, not chemicals from the drilling process.” Robert Jackson, Ph.D., a professor of environmental sciences at Duke University, concurs. In his 2011 study, his research team sampled 141 residential drinking water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York (where vertical drilling, not HVHF, takes place) and found that 82% of drinking water samples were contaminated with methane, and that the level of contamination rose sharply with proximity to drilling sites, with average concentrations six times higher for homes less than one kilometer from fracked wells. Even more disturbing, the average methane amount in residential wells was within the defined action level for recommended hazard mitigation by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the maximum amount found was well beyond that threshold and indicated the potential for explosion.
The researchers also found higher levels of ethane and propane in water samples taken near wells, with ethane found in 30% of samples, in concentrations 23 times higher at homes within a kilometer of a well. Propane was detected in 10 of 133 samples, all of them taken from homes within a kilometer of drilling. Dr. Jackson noted that the simplest explanations for the higher gas concentrations are:
- faulty or inadequate steel casings, which are designed to keep gas and any water inside the well from leaking into the environment;
- imperfections in the cement sealing or
- gaps between casings and rock.
For the study see: pnas.org/content/110/28/11250.full
In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued 90 violations for faulty casing and cementing on 64 Marcellus shale gas wells; 119 similar violations were issued in 2011.
Can Fracking Lead to Water Shortages?
Not only water quality but water quantity is an issue. In many dry regions of the country, farmers are competing with gas companies for scarce water. This past fall, thirty communities in southwestern Texas faced water shortages or complete water loss due to the confluence of severe droughts and fracking. That region has thousands of wells and each one uses 8 million gallons of water per day when it is fracked, severely depleting the wells and water sources of residents.
In New York, fracking will require many billions of gallons of water during a 15-year period. This water will be taken from rivers, lakes, wetlands, ponds and wells and can never be re-used or re-cycled because it will be contaminated with toxic fluids. What will happen to water sources in western NY during hot summers and periods of drought? Will NY’s famous wineries, small farms and yoghurt manufacturers have to compete for water with gas drillers?
This is one reason why many upstate NY businesses oppose fracking. According to the BusinessesAgainstFrackingNY.com, over 1,500 companies have signed a letter to Governor Cuomo stating their concerns. Many business owners, along with farmers, food & beverage suppliers, restaurant owners, tourist and recreation companies, and members of the Idle No More group of the Akwesasne Mohawk Reserve attended the recent rally to let their voices (and drums) be heard. For news of other protests and campaigns coming up, please visit: nyagainstfracking.org or frackaction.com
Excerpt from the CRAAB Newsletter Winter-Spring2014.pdf