By Environment News Service
A natural gas drilling rush is on in rural North Dakota. And with it, residents are reporting growing numbers of respiratory ailments, skin lesions, blood oozing from eyes, and the deaths of livestock and pets.
Elsewhere, residents of Texas, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Wyoming and other states who thought they’d hit the lottery by signing natural gas drilling leases have watched their drinking water turn noxious: slick, brown, foamy, flammable.
In December, for the first time, federal regulators scientifically linked hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to the contamination of an aquifer, refuting repeated industry claims that the practice does not pollute drinking water.
It happened in the rural ranching community of Pavillion, Wyoming, an area riddled with 162 natural gas wells dug between 1990 and 2006. Despite a decade of complaints from residents that their reeking water was undrinkable – and that many suffered from nerve damage, asthma, heart trouble and other health problems – state officials did nothing.
Finally the EPA stepped in, launching a three-year study running from 2008 to 2011.
In its report, the EPA identified numerous fracking chemicals in Pavillion’s water. Cancer-causing benzene was found at 50 times safe levels, along with other hazardous chemicals, methane, diesel fuel, and toxic metals – in both groundwater and deep wells.
Now, across the country in Pennsylvania, the EPA is testing drinking water in 61 locations in Susquehanna County for possible fracking-related contamination.
Nationwide, residents living near fracked gas wells have filed over 1,000 complaints of tainted water, severe illnesses, livestock deaths, and fish kills. Complaints, sometimes involving hundreds of households, have risen in tandem with a veritable gold rush of new natural gas wells – now numbering about 493,000 across 31 states.
This month’s hearings on the EPA’s Pavillion report, led by the House subcommittee on Energy and the Environment, have been contentious, with pro-drilling politicians and industry representatives attacking its conclusions.
“The EPA is trying to go after fracking everywhere they can,” said subcommittee chairman Andy Harris, a Maryland Republican. “They’ve had absolutely no proof that fracking had polluted drinking water, that I know of.”
Both he and industry spokesmen implied that the media had created a poorly-informed frenzy, spreading fear and mistrust of fracking.
However, James Martin, the EPA’s regional administrator for the West, testified that cement casings that should have protected drinking water were weak or missing – a possible source of contamination.
Other witnesses, including Dr. Bernard Goldstein, of the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, argued that the public should be concerned, noting that policy makers lack adequate information to protect public health.
Still, the fracking industry goes virtually unregulated. Why? The answer is money.
The oil and gas industry has reaped billions in profits from fracking. And since 1990, they’ve pumped $238.7 million into gubernatorial and Congressional election campaigns to persuade lawmakers that fracking is safe, which has effectively blocked federal regulation.
Republican candidates received at least three times more cash than Democratic candidates. Fracking industry spending especially targeted oversight – members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
Top Congressional recipients include Joe Barton and John Cornyn, both Texas Republicans, with contributions of $514,945 and $417,556 respectively; Lisa Murkowski, an Alaska Republican, who received $372,450; and Tim Murphy, a Pennsylvania Republican who took in $275,499.
James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican, who accepted $357,788, claimed the EPA study was “not based on sound science but rather on political science.”
The industry spent an additional $726 million on lobbying from 2001.
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett also received hefty election support – $361,207. Corbett has signaled willingness to sign a fracking bill passed by the state Senate this month that offers huge benefits to natural gas drillers and essentially prevents municipalities and environmentalists from taking action against the location of wells.
Today, only four of 31 fracking states have significant drilling rules, while the gas industry is exempted from seven major federal regulations.
One of these, the “Halliburton loophole,” pushed through by former Vice-President/former Halliburton CEO Dick Cheney, exempts corporations from revealing the chemicals used in fracking fluid – bypassing the Clean Water and Safe Drinking Water Acts.
Recently, five states have adopted disclosure rules, though they still allow for “proprietary trade secrets.”
Another loophole leaves hazardous waste, including contaminated soil, water and drilling fluids, unregulated by the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
Still another loophole dodges the Superfund law, which requires that polluters remediate for carcinogens like benzene released into the environment – except if they come from oil or gas.
Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, which was invented by Halliburton in the 1940s, injects water, sand and chemicals into the ground at high pressure, blasting apart shale bedrock to release natural gas. However, industry’s reassurance that fracking is an old technology with a proven safety record is misleading.
Modern fracking is drastically different, using new chemical mixtures and millions rather than thousands of gallons of water injected at far higher pressure. It takes between one and 10 million gallons of water to frack one well.
Last week it was revealed that one well in Carrollton, Ohio, required 969,024 pounds (484.5 tons) of chemical additives, 5,066 tons of sand and 10.5 million gallons of water. Up to 40 percent of that water returns to the surface, carrying toxic drilling chemicals, high levels of salts, and sometimes, naturally-occurring radioactive material.
A 1990 industry study concluded that radium in drilling wastewater dumped off the Louisiana coast posed “potentially significant risks” of cancer for people who regularly eat fish from those waters.
Most fracking water remains underground, potentially polluting aquifers and drinking water. Streams and groundwater can be contaminated by spills, surface wastewater pits, and by millions of tons of chemical-laden dirt removed during the drilling process. Sewage treatment plants aren’t equipped to treat chemicals or radioactivity in frackwater that could end up in drinking water.
Today, 65 probable fracking chemicals are federally listed as hazardous. Many others remain unstudied and unregulated, making it impossible to assess the effects on water resources.
EPA documents note that some “cause kidney, liver, heart, blood, and brain damage through prolonged or repeated exposure,” and that fracking fluid migrates over unpredictable distances through different rock layers.
Last August, a national association of pediatricians published concerns that children are more susceptible to fracking chemical exposure than adults.
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