What the Frack Are We Doing to Ourselves?

One of the most essential ingredients in life is clean water for drinking, cooking and hygiene. We in the United States do not quite recognize the importance of clean water because we have grown to accept that water contamination is “somebody else’s problem”. That is unfortunate because, according to UNICEF, water contamination leads to 1.8 million deaths per year from diarrhea alone, and 90% of those deaths involve innocent children under the age of 5. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, those deaths represents 15% of all deaths for children under the age of 5. Additional water-related deaths are the result of Cholera, Arsenicosis, Fluorosis, Guinea worm disease, Schistosomiasis, Malaria, Trachoma, and Typhoid Fever. Worldwide, there are 1.1 billion people who do not have access to either clean water or an adequate water supply. The resulting illnesses and deaths or not only the result of bacteriological contamination, but also the result of excessive amounts of toxic compounds, in many cases occurring naturally. Those compounds include arsenic (the cause of Arsenicosis), fluoride (the cause of Fluorosis), and selenium (World Health Organization). Clearly, water that contains any chemical compounds other than two molecules of hydrogen and one molecule of oxygen is less than ideal.

There are many causes of man-made water contamination. These include industrial processes, mining, agricultural runoff, and the inadequate treatment of sewage. In most instances, the process involves businesses or individuals who are either earning tremendous amounts of money by exploiting a local environment or who are avoiding the expenditure of the funds necessary to insure environmental protection where it is directly related to their practices. In many instances, the same practices involve some very significant unproven risks where common sense would dictate the exercise of extreme caution. By far, one of the greatest risks to water supplies today is the practice known as hydraulic fracturing, more commonly known as hydrofracking or simply fracking.

Fracking Is Not Your Friend

Fracking is the process of pumping highly pressurized fluids into wells in order to fracture rock with the intent of releasing natural gas. Fracking is not new. In fact, it has a 60-year history that includes an attempt at releasing natural gas in Rulison, Colorado back in 1969 that involved the detonation of a 40-megaton atomic bomb that was successful in releasing natural gas but contaminated the gas that was released with radioactive isotopes. As you will see, anything goes when there are millions of dollars involved.

Today, fracking wells are typically drilled to depths of 1 – 4 miles below the Earth’s surface, in order to reach subterranean reservoirs of natural gas. From these vertical shafts, horizontal well shafts may extend an additional 1 – 2 miles in various directions. Of course, the aquifers which provide such a significant percentage of the world’s water supply are also located underground. Natural gas, oil, and water are a pretty unhealthy combination that the Earth has generally compartmentalized to prevent contamination. Fracturing the rock far underground, where monitoring is difficult to impossible, is quite logically not a good idea. Unfortunately, that is only a small part of the problem with fracking.

Fracking Fluid, the Mystery Concoction

A far more important cause for concern are the crazy array of chemicals that comprise the so-called fracking fluid. The natural gas industry would like you to believe that it is little more than water and proppants (such as sand) that keep the cracks open while the natural gas is extracted. Guess again. Using Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale range as an example, a single horizontal well shaft requires the intentional contamination of 1 to 5 million gallons of clean water. Anywhere from 60 to 80% of this toxic concoction stays in the ground, eventually to contaminate groundwater. The remaining 20 to 40% is returned to the surface and is referred to as “flowback” or “brine” (due to the salts which are picked up from deep underground), and it is often left in open lagoons to vaporize or trucked to sites (in this case, typically in Ohio) where it is pumped back underground into deep injection wells. In other instances it has been simply disposed into municipal sewage treatment plants where it then contaminates surface water. It has been reported that the Municipal Authority of McKeesport (Pennsylvania) accepts 80,000 gallons of flowback per day, which is then mixed with treated sewage and dumped into the Monongahela River upstream from Pittsburgh.

The chemicals that make up fracking fluid are either admitted or strongly suspected to include such toxins as barium, strontium, benzene, hydrochloric acid, monoethanolamine, potassium hydoxide, glycol-ethers, benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols. Nobody knows for sure because the 2005 Bush/Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act, effectively exempting the gas industry from disclosing a list of chemicals used under what is now commonly referred to as the Halliburton Loophole. Without a legal requirement to provide disclosure at the federal level, the natural gas industry has consistently refused to disclose a list of the chemicals used. Late in 2011, a consortium of 120 environmental organizations filed a petition with the EPA, seeking disclosure under the Toxic Substances Control Act. H.R. 1084: the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act of 2011 (the so-called FRAC-Act) has been introduced in both houses of Congress, but it has met with opposition and has never managed to make it out of committee. In the meantime, several states are pressing for disclosure, and some of the drilling companies have suggested to individual states that there may be approximately 80 chemicals included in the fluid, promising to provide a list … a list that never materializes. During recent Congressional hearings, industry representatives could barely name a chemical compound, although there was no argument with the assertion that the full list of chemicals may be 10 times what had been suggested. In other instances, industry representatives make light of the chemical compounds, emphasizing that fracking fluid contains such harmless compounds as guar gum and sucrose, including an instance where Halliburton (yes, the “Dick Cheney” Halliburton) CFO Mark McCollum drank a glass of fracking fluid and proclaimed that it was delicious and tasted like beer. No surprise, Halliburton (along with Schlumberger) is the nation’s largest manufacturer of fracking fluid.

The Real Stories of People Impacted

Some of the people whose water has been poisoned know better. Take a few minutes to watch this video produced by Time Magazine, outlining water contamination problems in Bradford County, Pennylvania as a result of fracking in the Marcellus Shale. Then listen to the story of Crystal Stroud, who began losing clumps of hair after drilling started 400 yards behind her house in Granville Summit, Pennsylvania.  Testing of her well showed suddenly elevated levels of barium, methane, manganese, chloride, and lead. Blood tests on Crystal and her 4 year old son showed dangerously high levels of barium. Down the road, similar blood tests were done on Mia Root, her husband, and her two daughters, and they showed barium concentrations at 10 times the recommended level. They do not even drink their water, but had used it for cooking purposes.

One Billionaire Behind it All

Who is poisoning the water in Pennsylvania and elsewhere throughout the country? In the case of Marcellus Shale drilling in Pennsylvania, the primary player is Chief Oil & Gas, headquartered in Dallas, Texas and led by billionaire CEO Trevor Rees-Jones. In the first six months of 2010, Chief Oil & Gas was cited for 78 violations by the Pennsylvania DEP, more than any other Marcellus Shale driller in the state and with the highest ratio of violations, at 3.5 per well. Chief is the same company where, in June 2010, a well blowout and fire at a site in Moundsville, West Virginia, injured seven workers and burned for days. Taking a page from the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, nobody from the emergency response team had been trained in fighting a well blowout, and the burning site was found abandoned when responders arrived. Rees-Jones, listed by Forbes magazine as the 88th richest American, is profiled in great detail in the January-February 2012 issue of Mother Jones magazine. A friend of Karl Rove, George W. Bush, and Rick Perry, Rees-Jones is one of the biggest donors to superpacs (particularly pal Karl Rove’s American Crossroads) and Republican candidates in the country, and his contributions appear to pay off big time. For example, back in Pennsylvania, Rees-Jones donated $50,000.00 to the gubernatorial campaign of Republican Tom Corbett, who went on to be elected. Returning the favor, Corbett has made it his mission to keep Pennsylvania the only major gas-producing state without an extraction tax. As if that was not evidence enough of political clout, the governor then appointed Terry Bossert, the government affairs officer (i.e., “lobbyist”) for Chief Oil & Gas to the Pennsylvania Macellus Shale Advisory Committee … essentially a joke that represents industry interests, not the interests of those impacted by the industry’s actions. When you are a billionaire, you have plenty of money to spread around, and Rees-Jones maintains his “nice guy” image through his Parkland Foundation and major philanthropic contributions to the Perot Museum of Nature & Science, Habitat for Humanity, and the Boy Scouts of America. How could such a nice guy be engaged in any activity that could harm anyone?

In Wyoming, where ground and surface water contamination as the result of fracking has also been a major problem, new rules say that companies must submit a full list of chemicals to be used in fracking operations on a well-by-well basis to the Wyoming Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Companies will also be required to report the concentration of each chemical used. The loophole is that drillers retain the right to claim that such information is proprietary and confidential. All of this is in light of a long overdue EPA report on December 8, 2011 that finally linked fracking conducted by Encana Corporation with water contamination in the town of Pavilion, Wyoming. EPA test wells detected benzene in a concentration of 246 micrograms per liter, approximately 50 times the maximum permitted level.

Why Are People Accepting All This?

Well, there are several reasons: First of all, there has been a slick advertising campaign bankrolled by the natural gas industry. For months, you could not watch the evening news on any major network without seeing a lying spokeswoman for the industry talking about the hundreds of thousands of jobs that were being created. Jobs are the second reason. When unemployment is hovering around 10% and jobs have been shipped overseas, anything that brings money into a depressed area will be seen by some as a Godsend and by others as an opportunity. Motels that were as vacant as the Bates for years are suddenly filled to capacity with temporary workers from the gas projects, and the bars and restaurants down the road suddenly have a few patrons with money in their pockets. The third reason is that fracking has reduced the price of natural gas by about 30% over the last 5 years. Once again, when people are having a hard time making ends meet, let alone paying their heating bills, a reduction in the price of natural gas is perceived as a good thing. The reality is that environmental catastrophes like fracking only serve to prolong our dependence upon fossil fuels and to delay a long-overdue transition to renewable energy.

Two-thirds of the state of Pennsylvania sits on top of Marcellus Shale deposits, and the proponents of drilling who will profit from the exploitation are doing everything possible to put a positive spin on their activities. Their marketing people are on the road every day, manning booths and misinformation tables in shopping malls, trade shows, and any place that gathers a crowd. A quick visit to the website of the Marcellus Shale Coalition (an industry-financed group that tries to present itself as some sort of grass roots organization) will show you how, in their words, “we extract the natural gas and protect the environment, why we value the communities where we do business, and the opportunities that the Commonwealth and its residents can realize in the coming years and decades through natural gas exploration and production.” They continue, talking about “the positive impacts natural gas drilling is already having on families, businesses and communities in many parts of Pennsylvania” and how “Marcellus Shale is the energy to fuel our future.”

What About the Deep Injection Brine Wells,
or Was That an Earthquake I Just Felt?

Major national news outlets reported in the first days of 2012 that the City of Youngstown and surrounding areas in Ohio have experienced a series of at least 11 minor earthquakes since March 2011, most recently on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve, when a quake measuring 4.0 on the Richter Scale rattled the area. The two most recent events each occurred within 100 yards of a deep injection brine disposal well owned and operated by Northstar Disposal Services LLC. That 1.7 mile deep well closed temporarily pending further investigation. Injection wells have also been suspected to be connected with earthquakes in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Colorado.

Money may be able to buy politicians and sway public opinion to the point where otherwise rational folks support something that is inherently wrong but appears to somehow fit in to their short-term interests. Think twice. Oil and gas may be almighty these days; however, the day will come when these same people will find a way to profit from selling the clean water that will be in far shorter supply. Unless people make their voices heard, future World Health Organization reports on deaths from water contamination may very well be referencing not only people on the other side of the globe but right here in the United States.

Learn More & Make Your Voice Heard

To learn more, watch “Gasland” by Josh Fox, a film that was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2011. Then get involved. Share this post. Write letters to the editor. Make your voice heard.

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