Whenever a new fracking study comes out, you can be sure that fossil industry stakeholders will run over to the history machine and crank out a purported decades-long safety record. The problem is, until recent years fracking was confined mainly to low-population areas in the western US. Now that fracking has flooded into Pennsylvania and other northeastern states, researchers finally have a big enough data pool to draw some conclusions, and they ain’t pretty.
Pennsylvania And The Johns Hopkins Fracking Studies
Last year, researchers at Johns Hopkins University linked fracking to increased risk of premature birth in Pennsylvania (fracking is short for hydrofracturing, a formerly unconventional gas and oil drilling method that involves pumping high volumes of chemical brine into shale formations).
In a stunning twist of irony, earlier this summer researchers at the same school found an increased risk of asthma linked to fracking in Pennsylvania — just in time for the Pennsylvania-based company Mylan to face withering criticism for price gouging related to its EpiPen asthma relief product.
Deepening the irony, the Mylan CEO who oversaw the price increases is the daughter of US Senator Joe Manchin (D), a vigorous advocate for fracking who represents the neighboring state of West Virginia.
The latest study from Johns Hopkins just turned up this week in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Here’s the money quote:
…Pennsylvania residents with the highest exposure to active natural gas wells operated by the hydraulic fracturing — or fracking — industry are nearly twice as likely to suffer from a combination of migraine headaches, chronic nasal and sinus symptoms, and severe fatigue.
The researchers do offer an important caveat — the delivery mechanism from wellhead to symptoms in someone living nearby has yet to be charted with precision. However, the team does offer a “plausible” explanation:
…Well development generates air pollution, which could provoke nasal and sinus symptoms. This type of drilling also produces stressors such as odors, noise, bright lights, and heavy truck traffic. Any of these stressors could increase the risk of symptoms. Migraine headaches, for example, are known to be triggered by odors in some individuals.
Right On Cue…
As indicated by the Johns Hopkins team, fracking is an intensive industrial operation, so aside from any impacts that are specific to fracking, local residents may also be experiencing the kind of health impacts that any rural community would suffer when it is suddenly industrialized.
That cluster primarily applies to surface impacts. The question of sub-surface impacts has opened up a whole ‘nother can of worms related to water quality.
Due to the high volume of liquid involved, fracking has also been linked to water contamination and earthquakes related to wastewater disposal.
As for the drilling operation itself, coincidentally (or not), this week the American Petroleum Institute also offered up a commentary on fracking safety, which was published by our friends over at Fuel Fix.
As described by API, a new University of Cincinnati study of 23 water wells in the Utica shale formation, which partially encompasses Pennsylvania, found no linkage between nearby fracking operations and high methane concentrations in groundwater.
So, here’s the predictable money quote from API:
…the science is clear, and the evidence — including 65 years of safe operation — is overwhelming. No cases of drinking water contamination have been documented in the Marcellus, Utica, Barnett, Permian, Eagle Ford, Woodford, Fayetteville, Haynesville, Bakken, Denver- Julesburg, Piceance, Raton, or any other shale plays where hydraulic fracturing has been used.
Considering that there are thousands of fracked wells in the US, it’s no surprise that some — or even the vast majority — have been good neighbors. However, that’s no consolation to the communities that are coping with unsafe wells.
In fact, API cherry-picked the research team’s full body of work for its article. The researchers also sampled water wells in other shale formations and did find fracking-related methane concentrations.
API’s choice of referring to the Utica formation was purposeful. It’s a relatively deep formation, and researchers are beginning to gather evidence that risks are greater when drilling takes place in shallow formations. A recent Stanford University study had this to say on the subject:
… At least 6,900 oil and gas wells in the U.S. were fracked less than a mile (5,280 feet) from the surface, and at least 2,600 wells were fracked at depths shallower than 3,000 feet, some as shallow as 100 feet. This occurs despite many reports that describe fracking as safe for drinking water only if it occurs at least thousands of feet to a mile underground …
Also, if you caught that thing about “documented” in the API statement, that’s a key word. Thanks to a Bush-era loophole in federal water safety regulations, drillers are entitled to keep the ingredients in their fracking brine under wraps. Drillers are also not required to test groundwater in the neighboring community before they begin drilling. That’s part of the reason why it has been almost impossible to document cases of water contamination.
Settlements with gag orders have also provided the industry with an avenue for quashing documentation of contamination.
Nevertheless, last spring a jury found enough evidence of methane contamination to award $4.24 million to two home owners affected by fracking operations in Dimock, Pennsylvania.
API also cites a major study released by the US Environmental Protection Agency, which found no systematic impact on the nation’s water resources from fracking. However, the authors of the study were careful to point out that critical information gaps (see Bush loophole, above) prevented them from reaching any other conclusion.
Far from providing any definitive answers about fracking safety, the EPA report was basically a cry for help.
The scientific community has responded accordingly with a blistering critique calling for more data, so stay tuned.
Image: via US Geological Survey.