The Dangers of Hydraulic Fracturing

The rolling acres of majestic farm country ranging between Pennsylvania and Ohio to Wisconsin and Wyoming is no stranger to battling the elements, but it wasn’t prepared for the newly formed wells that would soon be taking over the nation.

fracking-mansfield-aerialjpg-69ceaa0bea562c23Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, covers North America’s need for natural gas, allowing the country to break away from relying on foreign oil and gas. Historically hydraulic fracturing was developed in oil fields to increase production volumes, but it has transposed into a development process for bedrock wells.

The process at first seemed simple. In order to release the natural gas and oil that resides under the earth’s surface, a well is drilled deep into the existing infrastructure injecting water and sand under high pressure that cracks open the rock, similar to a mini earthquake. This, in turn, releases hydrocarbon molecules such as oil and natural gas. The idea was to “flush and remove fine particles and rock fragments from existing bedrock fractures or increase the size and extent of existing fractures, resulting in an increased flow of water” (Environmental Services, 2010).

While representatives like Matt Pitzerella of Range Resources, the main manufacturer of oil wells, assured that the communities and the environment living with the natural gas wells in their backyards had nothing to fear, President George Bush was exempting the corporations from policy acts such as the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act amongst many others.[1] The right to know about hydraulic fracturing was slim, and researchers had to delve deeper to find the root of the problems.

According to Ron Bailey[2], a correspondent for Reason Magazine and a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities, fracking has been around for about sixty years. However, this problem is recently surfacing and Bailey assured people that the problem was not as vast as it appears. “So far there are no examples [of polluted water reaching the surface] anywhere, anywhere at all. The problem is when you dig these wells they need to have casing, piping in order to conduct the molecules up. And if you don’t do it right the molecules can escape and get into people’s drinking water. And this has happened” (Reason TV, 2011). Bailey says the poor quality of drinking water has nothing to do with hydrofracturing and that it could happen with normal wells.

Aaron Beck denotes in his book A Prisoner of Hate that “the scientific advances of the age are mocked by the stasis in our ability to understand and solve these interpersonal and societal problems” (Beck, I, II). Natural gas prevents the nation from having to rely on foreign gas and oil, but as Beck says the science is trying to find too many alternatives that go against the natural way of life. Scientists are so desperate to find solutions that they found a quick solution without concern for the consequences.

Studies have shown there is radioactive river water in areas like Pennsylvania. A Duke University study says the  “waste water wasn’t adequately treated before being released into a Pennsylvania river, causing elevated levels of radioactivity” (Koch, 2013). In a study that tested the wastewater from a treatment plant there was “two hundred times greater levels of radium in the sediment” from a crack in the pipes that allowed wastewater to escape in comparison to the water that was further upstream (Koch, 2013). In addition to the discovery of large quantities of radium, another study done early in 2010 by Duke University found that “drinking water wells that are found near fracking sites are six times more likely to be contaminated than other wells” (Koch, 2013).

This phenomenon has been found in several hydrofracturing areas across the country. One comes from Amwell County in Pennsylvania, home to the countries’ largest hydrofracturing site, ranging 575 miles between West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Ohio (Koch, 2013). Range Resources paid landowners between $1500 and more than $500,000 for their land. For the people of Amwell County where the average income is $18,285, the money Range Resources offered for their land meant the difference between poverty and a comfortable lifestyle.

Amwell Township is home to ten gas wells and a compressor station that was, until late summer in 2011, an open five-acre water impoundment chemical pond (Griswold, 2011). The pond was grazed over with fresh fields and hills that cover the gas wasteland but the results remain and continue to pollute the surrounding earth.

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In 2008 Stacey Haney, a landowner in Amwell Township was offered generous compensation for her land, and she convinced her two neighbors to combine their land so they would be afforded tax breaks. After a year, Haney began to notice that her well water was disintegrating her sink faucet and sometimes the water was black. Her water also seemed to be eating away at her washing machine, hot-water heater and dishwasher. There was an odor in Haney’s shower, which according to her was unbearable. Haney said it smelled like “rotten eggs and diarrhea.” Unable to live in the unhealthy conditions, Haney started buying bottled water to cook with and drink, but it was too expensive to buy water to feed the animals on her land.

In 2010, Haney was at a fair near her home when she ran into her neighbor, Beth Voyles who had sold her land to Range Resources as well. Voyles informed Haney that her boxer had recently died and she believed he had been poisoned. Voyles said she saw the dog drinking from a puddle on the side of the road and thought the water was the same water the gas company used to wet down the road. In Voyles opinion, the water had anti-freeze in it that made her dog sick.

Pitzerella of Range Resources denied any use of an anti-freeze substance and said “we do not use ethylene glycol in the fracking process.” He also said that the veterinarian couldn’t prove the dog had been poisoned and another possible cause of death was cancer (Griswold, 2011).

Exactly one month later Haney’s dog died suddenly and soon thereafter her barrel horse died. Upon taking both animals to the veterinarian to be tested for possible cause of death, lab results revealed high levels of toxicity in the animals liver. However, when Range Resources tested the water on Haney’s property, they reported that there were no signs of heavy metal in the water.

Shortly after Haney’s dog and barrel horse died, another one of her dogs began to abort puppies. Out of a litter of fifteen, six were born with cleft palates and died within hours, others had been born without legs or hair and the remaining puppies were born dead. When Range Resources was asked about the incident they responded that they were never notified of the situation.

In 2009 Haney’s son began to develop an illness that put him in the hospital a half dozen times. He was stricken with stomach pains and periods of extreme fatigue causing him to be unable to get out of bed. Haney told reporters that her son couldn’t even lift his head out of his lap, and eventually she had him tested for heavy metals and ethylene glycol, both of which, along with elevated levels of arsenic were found in his system. Pitzerella said there was no evidence that anyone in the household suffered from arsenic, but a few months later, Haney had herself and her daughter tested and found that they both had “small amounts of heavy metals like arsenic and industrial solvents like benzene and toluene in their blood” (Griswold, 2011). Pitzerella said Range Resources was never shown these reports and arsenic has nothing to do with fracking, yet a previous study done by Duke University shows that 2 percent of states wells had arsenic levels that exceeded health standards (Griswold, 2011).

A major cause of the water finding it’s way into landowners’ drinking water is from the well casings used in the process of procuring natural gas. The hydrofracturing process is temperamental; it requires a slow and careful production of the wells that produce natural gas. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found that sixty-five Marcellus wells drilled in 2010 were cited for faulty cement casings resulting in water leaks.

The companies that produce natural gas use chemicals in the process including hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol, magnesium oxide, which are a small fraction of the hundreds of chemicals[3] used at well sites. The types and amounts of chemicals used can vary based on the hydrofracturing company and the site location. When the water and sand is injected into the earth, it is done so through a tube that is encased with cement. If the cement casing is not built properly, the injection will cause the cement to crack, creating a space for the chemicals that are used in the fracking process to escape (Debatin, 2011).

When the cement casings that have many chemicals and heavy metals passing through has a space for the water to escape, it pollutes the surrounding water in the earth that seeps into home wells and drinking water. The Environmental Protection Agency reported in 2011 that water in Wyoming turned up alarmingly high levels of contaminated water. The EPA determined, after collecting samples from 42 homes that “An aquifer in Pavillion, Wyoming contains high levels of cancer-causing compounds and at least one chemical commonly used in hydraulic fracturing” (Lustgarten, 2011). Results from the research done in the area found that residents developed “neurological impairment, loss of smell, and nerve pain they associate with exposure to pollutants” (Lustgarten, 2011).

Scientists are searching for the root cause of people’s ailments that are being reported in fracking areas, “cancer researchers collected air samples every six days for three years within a 500 foot radius of active well pads” (Nations, 2013). The results found that there are two to three dozen differing forms of airborne hydrocarbons produced during hydraulic fracturing and the pumping of natural gas. Documentaries have surfaced presenting incontrovertible evidence of the negative effects of hydrofracturing. Josh Fox, a landowner in Pennsylvania received a letter in the mail in 2006 offering him $100,000 for permission to drill on his land. Wondering why a company would pay him so much money for his land he set out on a cross-country investigation to find out what hydrofracturing was and how it was affecting other people throughout the country. The result of his findings was Gasland; a documentary presenting interviews with government officials and representatives of Range Resources along with interviews with landowners suffering through natural gas drillings. The film reveals there are “six states who documented over 1,000 incidents of groundwater contamination” (Gasland, 2010) and images of the contaminated water that “bubbles and hisses when it comes out” and people who have been directly affected. One woman says she has lesions in her brain and another woman says she gets pains in her body from the polluted water.

The Bureau of Land Management proposed several bills to Congress that would disclose information about the hydrofracturing process.  Measures included in these bills[4] were the disclosure of what chemicals were being used and that states would have sole authority to regulate hydraulic fracturing within state boundaries. Mary Tiemann, a specialist in Environmental Policy,  said “it was proposed that the hydraulic fracturing exemptions would be repealed, thus allowing the fluid injections into the water” (Tiemann; Vann, 2013). The bills that were proposed to Congress were ignored yet they would have required that the chemicals used during the hydrofracturing process would have had to be disclosed.

While the Bureau of Land Management was trying to effect the fracking companies future plans, Range Resources was taking a stand by placing nearly 56,000 fracking wells all over the United States (Frac Focus Registry). In some areas, the wells were placed too close to nature preserves and parks like the Glacier National Park in Montana, where visitors can stand at any edge of the park and throw a rock that will hit any one of sixteen exploratory wells on the grounds. Since 1947, when the first oil and gas well was built in Kansas, natural gas companies have ensured that “1/3 of the current 401 United States National Parks lie either directly above or within twenty-five surface miles of shale basins” (Nations, 2013).

A recent lawsuit taking place in Ohio is fighting against hydrofracturing companies to determine if a fracking permit exempts them from local regulations. In 2011 Beck Energy Corporation began to build wells in Munroe Falls, a suburb of 5,000 and in the process they “sidestepped eleven local laws on road use, permitting and drilling” (The Associated Press, 2013). The lawsuit contends that permission for fracking will be given back to communities and it could limit hydrofracturing in area’s like Pennsylvania where fracking is widespread. “Munroe Falls and it’s allies in the suit argue the law empowered the state to regulate drilling methods but gave it no authority to protect the interests of local communities” (Associated Press, 2013). If Munroe Falls wins the lawsuit, the communities will be able to restrict where hydrofracturing can occur and can prevent companies from drilling on private property.

Due to the addition of natural gas wells in nature preserves across the country, wildlife in dozens of national parks are being affected. James D. Nations, Vice President for the National Parks Conservation Association Center for Park Research, outlines several areas where wildlife is being affected by the chemicals used in the oil wells. The affect a single well can have on wildlife is astronomical; one well reduces forestry by 22 percent, changes the balance of species, results in the loss of native plants and animals and 85 percent of the landscape has been lost on the west coast of the country, according to Nations. In areas like Wyoming, the energy equipment and roads block established wildlife migration routes.

Beck’s fifth discontinuity represents the notion that just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should, and with hydrofracturing on the rise wildlife migration patterns are being disrupted. The noise from the air compressors and industrial traffic has caused birds to find a different path to their winter homes. “These noises create a dispersion of birds and other wildlife in the area, this in turn affects certain plants the animals help pollinate.

Technological advancements meant to help often have the opposite affect especially when scientists and companies try to control the technology. Steven Best and Douglas Kellner present this thought in their book The Postmodern Adventure. According to Best and Kellner, technological advancement “is moving the world into a postindustrial infotainment and biotech mode of global capitalism organized around new information, communications and genetic technologies” (Kellner & Best, 2001). Technology has a recurring trend of getting out of hand and Range Resources is no stranger to this with the lawsuits and bills presented by the Bureau of Land Management trying to oppose hydraulic fracturing across the country.

Range Resources has underestimated the affects that hydraulic fracturing has on the environment. One well requires millions of gallons of water, and the occurrence of this causes a reduced flow of water in rivers. As a result of that, there has been a decline in fish population and changes in the plant population on stream banks. Nations informs residents that included in the plant reduction are the federally protected Dwarf Wedgemussle and there are increasing consequences for the area’s largest river, the Susquehanna River. The reduction of water and the decreasing number of protected plants is a direct result of the water that is injected into a fracked well and rotated back to the surface. “Because of the chemicals injected into the water, it now contains radium and barium that leaves few effective options for disposal and treatment” (Nations, 2013). Although the water is treated for some chemicals to remove certain pollutants, it does not remove all of the chemicals known to kill fish and corrode metal.

Range Resources disposes of the polluted water in distant areas from the fracking sites causing a domino effect. The chemicals and contaminated water become even more widespread which ultimately further harms the environment. The vicious cycle continues as water polluted with hundreds of chemicals is ejected into the earth and then removed and disposed of in lakes and rivers miles away from the fracking site. When this happens, the animals living off the land such as cattle eat the grass which has been polluted with chemical filled water. The animals now have been poisoned, but the owners don’t know and then sell the milk and meat from the cows to grocery stores around the country. This then provides a way for the pollution to spread, much like a disease.

The Frankenstein effect develops continuously through the companies’ efforts to control nature and use it for natural gas. The negative results are astronomical in the fracking process, the government tried to build a mechanism that would produce a free alternative to foreign oil and gas, but the result was widespread pandemonium. Chemicals escaped from the well casings, transferred into groundwater, thus spreading into residents drinking water with the final result of making people ill. Hydrofracturing is a complex and accurate example of technology getting out of control in the hands of those wishing to control it.


[1] Other acts President Bush exempts hydro fracturing from Underground Injection Control, the Safe Drinking Water Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Superfund Act and the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act.

[2] Ron Bailey has an extensive list of published works such as Liberation Biology: The Moral and Scientific Case for Biotech Revolution, Global Warming and Other Eco-Myths: How the Environmental Movement Uses False Science to Scare us to Death, Earth Report 2000, The True State of the Planet and ECOSCAM: The False Prophets of Ecological Apocalypse.

[3] Other chemicals used in hydrofracturing: Glutaraldehyde, Ammonium Persulfate, Sodium Chloride, Magnesium Peroxide, Isopropanol, Boric Acid, Acetic Acid, Citric Acid. For the full chemical list see http://fracfocus.org/chemical-use/what-chemicals-are-used

[4] Included in the proposed bills were H.R 1084/S. 587  repealing the hydraulic fracturing exemption, a bill requiring the disclosure of chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process, in 2008 S. 2248/H.R 4322 proposed hydraulic fracturing regulations would be state by state based and H.R 3973 prohibited the building of fracking wells on Indian land, none of which were enacted.

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  1. Pingback: State of the Union Address: Natural Gas | nmain1

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