Hydraulic Fracturing Environmental Concerns
Hydraulic Fracturing is put under the microscope as we examine in detail various environmental concerns associated with the natural gas extraction process.
Renee McClure of Hudson, Colorado can light her tap water on fire. While this disconcerting flammability might surprise some Americans, many residents of New York, Wyoming, Pennsylvania, and other states encounter this problem regularly (follow the links for personal stories). In some parts of Texas, once clean wells now produce gray, fizzy water, and some homes have exploded due to methane evaporated from well water.
These scattered situations have one common denominator: all of these wells are situated near recent natural gas drilling sites. Natural gas companies use horizontal drilling combined with hydraulic fracturing (also known as “hydrofracking”) to extract natural gas from shale.
Gas industry experts and water analysts previously assumed that an impenetrable barrier of rock existed between shallow water tables and the much deeper geologic region drilled for natural gas. However, citizens and politicians of states sitting on huge shale fields have begun to question whether hydrofracking could be endangering water supplies.
Chemicals found in solutions used to facilitate hydrofracking might be causing more health problems than the natural gas in water supplies. Oil and gas companies are not required to disclose these chemicals publically yet, but the EPA subpoenaed Halliburton for the information this November.
So what chemicals are in fracking fluids? A 2004 EPA Report on fluids used in hydraulic fracturing reported “no unequivocal evidence” of health risks. Recently released documents, however, show that gas oil companies negotiated directly with the EPA before the release of the 2004 Sierra Club West Virginia study.
Several independent scientists suspected dangerous chemicals in fracking solution and conducted independent research. Sixty-five of the estimated 300-odd chemicals used in hydrofracking are listed by the federal government as hazardous to humans. One such chemical called “2-BE,” a known component of Gunnison Energy Corporation’s hydraulic solution in Colorado, causes hemolysis (the breakdown of red blood cells).
In a 2002 Memo to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, endocrine specialist Dr. Theo Colborn cited 2-BE as a cause of bloody stool, kidney damage, spleen failure, numbness in extremities, and anemia. The EPA also classified 2-BE ias a possible human carcinogen in a 2010 toxicity report on 2-BE.
Dr. Colborn’s studies correspond eerily to health effects that a few Colorado residents have experienced since gas wells went up near their homes. Chris and Steve Mobaldi in Rifle County, Colorado experienced headaches, red eyes, odors, and sandy water with an oil film when an oil and gas company drilled across the street (with horizontal drilling, pipes can stretch over 2,000 feet from the bore hole). Their dogs developed tumors and their horses died of respiratory illnesses. Chris developed a speech impediment and her gallbladder swelled to the size of a pineapple, with adhesions and a tail.
Laura Amos, also a resident of Rife County, Colorado, did not own mineral rights beneath her property and therefore could not prevent drilling that extended beneath her land. (To understand this legal issue better, please refer to the excellent documentary entitled Split Estate that examines the difficulty land owners have in keeping gas companies off their property.)
Within a few years after gas companies came in, Amos developed hyperaldosteronism, a rare endocrine disruption caused by the same 2-BE about which Dr. Colborn wrote.
In DISH, Texas, private well water became gray and fizzy shortly after hydrofracking began. Texas Railroad Company tested the water of the well of Amber Smith and found arsenic at 7.5 times federal regulations, lead 21 times the EPA standard, and chromium two times the legal limit. A 2009 survey of DISH County residents showed that 71% contracted respiratory ailments, while 16 chemicals were found in concernations above Texas’ legal limits in DISH’s air.
Problems from this air pollution included red eyes, burning eyes, nausea, headaches, runny nose, sore throat, asthma, sinus problems, hypertension, chronic sinus infections, and bronchitis.(Wolf Eagle Environmental, “Town of DISH, Texas Ambient Air Monitoring Analysis; Final Report,” September 15, 2009.) Other Texas residents have experienced radiation poisoning that scientists link to gas drilling in their region.
Gas companies continue to maintain that impermeable shale precludes natural gas and hydrofracking chemicals from seeping into water supplies. Health effects felt by residents in gas-producing states suggest a correlation between hydraulic fracturing and a contaminated water supply. The EPA commissioned a two-year report to examine the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing, due finished in 2012. Until the federal government steps in to regulate gas companies, most affected citizens are forced to drink their flammable, gray, and often toxic water until they can afford to move away from their contaminated water supplies.