(This is Part 2 of 3. Part 1 looked at a state gag order on physicians; Part 3 examines why Pennsylvania is giving special consideration to the natural gas companies.)
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. Jospeh 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."
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