A Huge Fracking MessFebruary 22, 2011
Contamination of the drinking water supply. Air pollution. Land irreparably damaged. And devastating health problems. Please help us stop the madness and remove the Halliburton Loophole with our new Action Alert.
Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is a method of natural gas extraction employed in deep natural gas well drilling. Once a well is drilled, millions of gallons of water, sand, and 596 different proprietary chemicals are injected, under high pressure, into a well. The pressure fractures the shale and props open fissures that enable natural gas to flow more freely out of the well.
The safety record that hydraulic fracturing has amassed to date is deeply disturbing. It creates widespread environmental degradation as shown in this video. Fracking in the Susquehanna River Valley in Pennsylvania has ruined a bucolic landscape. Landowners who thought they were at least making money from it are seeing their land values plummet.
The water used for the fracking is being taken from the Susquehanna itself, and who knows what the long-term consequences of that might be. Moreover, fracking also pollutes nearby drinking water aquifers.
Fracking has been used for over 60 years in more than one million wells. Up to eight million gallons of water may be used in each frack. And each well may be fracked up to eighteen times. The water used in the process is thoroughly contaminated, and must be cleaned and disposed of.
Most states require drillers to get rid of fracking liquid by injecting it down shafts thousands of feet deep. But not all states have such disposal restrictions.
The American Natural Gas Alliance says fracking occurs thousands of feet below the water table, far from the drinking water and when the wells do pass through the water table, companies protect the water by lining the wells with concrete and steel casing.
It’s true that the average natural gas well is up to 8,000 feet deep, while drinking water aquifers are about 1,000 feet deep. But the concrete and steel casings are frequently not strong enough to sustain the tremendous pressures being used, and they leak natural gas as well as fracking fluid into water wells.
In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) was passed by Congress to make sure we have clean drinking water which is free from both natural and man-made contaminates. In 2005, the Bush Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. For each frack, 80 to 300 tons of chemicals may be used, though the Bush/Cheney Energy provision exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals used during hydraulic fracturing. This is now commonly referred to as the Halliburton Loophole.
Scientists have identified volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene, which even in low levels can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, confusion, and unconsciousness, and in high concentrations can cause leukemia and death. The American Petroleum Institute stated in 1948 that “it is generally considered that the only absolutely safe concentration for benzene is zero.” The water is also often laden with barium, which is found in underground ore deposits and can cause high blood pressure, breathing difficulties, muscle weakness, swelling of the brain, and kidney damage; radium, a naturally occurring radioactive (and carcinogenic) substance; and strontium, which is necessary in trace amounts for bone development, but in too large amounts can disrupt it and cause cancer.
And of course, many times Western medicine doesn’t recognize chemical burden as the underlying cause of so many of our diseases. Integrative medicine physicians get it, but when chemical dumping and related disease epidemics are so rarely in the mainstream news, it’s difficult to make the public aware of these issues.
Perhaps the tide is turning on that score. Last December the Washington Post noted that hexavalent chromium, the carcinogen made famous by the film Erin Brockovich, has been found in the drinking water of 35 cities across the US, including Washington, DC.
And last month, the Huffington Post reported that Pennsylvania is allowing the dumping of the polluted fracking waters into public waterways. In 2009 and part of 2010, energy company Cabot Oil & Gas trucked more than 44,000 barrels of well wastewater to a treatment facility in Hatfield Township, a Philadelphia suburb. Those liquids were ultimately discharged into a creek that provides drinking water to seventeen municipalities with more than 300,000 residents. The water is treated, but at least 3.6 million barrels of the waste were sent to treatment plants that empty directly into rivers during the twelve months ending June 30, according to state records. And even after a treatment plant has finished processing the wastewater, there is still enough polluted water to cover a square mile in more than 8½ inches of brine.
This was not the first such dumping by Cabot. Vanity Fair reports that in 2008, one Pennsylvania family who lived less than 1,000 feet away from a fracking site, could feel the earth beneath their home shake whenever the well was fracked. Within a month, their water had turned brown. It was so corrosive that it scarred dishes in their dishwasher and stained their laundry. While they did not drink the water at this point, they continued to use it for other purposes for a full year. “It was so bad sometimes that my daughter would be in the shower in the morning, and she’d have to get out of the shower and lay on the floor” because of the dizzying effect the chemicals in the water had on her, according to the homeowner, “and my son had sores up and down his legs from the water.” Everyone in the family experienced frequent headaches and dizziness.
The fracking process also pollutes the air. The natural gas that is released is wet—it is mixed with the water, and must be separated from the wastewater on the surface. Evaporators and condensate tanks steam off VOCs, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The wastewater is then trucked to water treatment facilities. As the VOCs are evaporated and come into contact with diesel exhaust from trucks and generators at the well site, ground-level ozone is produced. Ozone plumes can travel up to 250 miles.
Cabot says that they have stopped disposing of their wastewater and are recycling 100% of it to be reused in other fracks. Other drillers are beginning to follow suit, and John Hanger, secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, said he believed that the amount of drilling wastewater being recycled is now about 70%—an achievement he credits to tighter state regulation pushing the industry to change its ways—but that new figures won’t be available until later this year.
Filmmaker Josh Fox has made an HBO-produced documentary called Gasland, which Variety calls “one of the most effective and expressive environmental films of recent years.” Nominated for an Academy Award and lauded by film festivals nationwide, including Sundance, the film follows Fox on a twenty-four-state investigation of the environmental effects of fracking. What he uncovers is mind-boggling: tap water so contaminated it can be set on fire right out of the tap; chronically ill residents with similar symptoms in drilling areas across the country; and huge pools of toxic waste that kill livestock and vegetation.
The natural gas industry isn’t going to take all this bad publicity without fighting back. Energy in Depth, a public relations group representing oil and natural gas producers, sent a letter to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences arguing that Gasland should be ineligible for a Best Documentary Feature award because it contains inaccuracies, calling it “an expression of stylized fiction.”
Industries that find themselves under a documentary’s magnifying glass will often go on the counterattack in an attempt to improve their image. But this is the first time a direct appeal was made by an industry to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences regarding a nominee for an Academy Award—despite the fact that the filmmaker has abundant evidence for each statement in the film.
Energy in Depth, an association of natural gas and oil producers, says on its own website that 0.5% of fracking fluid contains various acids, salts, petroleum distillates, sterilizers, oxygen removers, antifreeze, and ingredients usually found in glass cleaners, hair coloring, and antiperspirants. That’s anywhere from 10,000 to 25,000 gallons of pure chemicals pumped into the ground per well. The EPA notes that there were 603 rigs drilling horizontal wells in June 2010, more than twice as many as were operating a year earlier.
Yes, the U.S. does need to become more energy independent. Yes, we have a lot of gas rich shale. And, yes, natural gas is far less polluting than other fossil fuels when burned.
But as fracking continues to boom, environmental advocates and natural health advocates must join together to fight it. What is toxic to the environment is toxic to our bodies, and vice versa. We should at the very least know what chemicals are being used.
The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, also known as the FRAC Act, was a bill introduced in both the House and the Senate during the previous Congress. It was intended to repeal the Halliburton Loophole and require the natural gas industry to disclose the chemicals they use. This bill never became law, and at the end of each session all proposed bills and resolutions that haven’t passed are cleared from the books.
Please write to your senators and representative, and ask them to re-introduce the FRAC Act in this session of Congress—and pass it into law!
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