Hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" may kill animals

10/16/2009

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A hydraulic fracturing drill rig in Wyoming
Credit Abrahm Lustgarten/ProPublica

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” as it’s often called, is a process used to drill for natural gas. Because natural gas occurs in bubbles within tight spaces such as shale bedrock, natural gas companies inject water filled with chemicals far and deep into the rock, fracturing it, which allows them to gather up the natural gas.

After many years of secrecy and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) denial that fracking posed any threat to people, wildlife, and water, in late August the EPA released a report suggesting well water in Wyoming contaminated with methane, lead, copper, and hydrocarbons could indeed be from hydraulic fracturing. Wyoming’s not alone. Drilling occurs in 31 states, including Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Colorado, and besides the lack of federal regulations, 21 of these have no state regulations.

Reports of dead and tumored cattle, deer, chipmunks, and other wildlife near fracturing sites have surfaced in various locales - not to mention links to human health problems. On September 16th, 8,000 gallons of frack fluid leaked into Stevens Creek near Dimock, Pennsylvania, causing minnows, salamanders and tadpoles to swim erratically and die. Cabot Oil & Gas was responsible for three frac gel spills within a few weeks time, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is investigating. Yet some environmental groups don't think DEP is doing enough.

Even more tragic, on the border between West Virginia and Pennsylvania, much of the entire 38-miles of Dunkard Creek ecosystem has died in a very short time in mid-September - and officials suspect fracking fluid is to blame. The dead and dying include over 10,000 fish, plus salamanders, frogs, crayfish,  aquatic insects and freshwater mussels, including two candidates for being listed as endangered species – the salamander mussel and the snuffbox mussel. Biologists observing the site have called it the worst environmental disaster of their lifetime.  At first, authorities blamed coal mining waste, but testing found chemicals in the water known to be used by fracking in the nearby Marcellus Shale gas well drilling operations. It’s now being treated as a crime scene, since someone may have illegally dumped fracking fluid rather than treating the chemicals.

Outrage against the secrecy over just what chemicals these companies engaged in fracking are pumping into groundwater has started bubbling over. In Split Estate, a documentary airing tomorrow night, October 17th, on Planet Green about the conflict between surface landowners and the companies extracting oil and gas – including the secretive history of hydraulic fracking – EPA whistleblower Weston Wilson says, “We cannot know what the industry injects in our land. It is exempt from being reported.”

Wilson blew the whistle on the original EPA study, completed during the Bush administration, which claimed fracking caused little or no harm to drinking water because the chemicals are diluted in billions of gallons of water. Oil and gas companies doing hydraulic fracturing have been exempt from complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act since 2005, and also from reporting any chemicals that may end up in surface runoff which is normally covered by the Clean Water Act. As Weston, said natural gas companies need not even disclose what chemicals they use - so citizens have no idea what may sep into their drinking water. While other industries have to list chemicals they used, Dick Cheney got an exemption for fracking. During the early days of Cheney’s Vice Presidency, this former Halliburton CEO successfully pressured then-EPA-head Christine Todd Whitman to exempt fracking. In addition, companies can protect the chemical lists used as trade secrets. Suffice it to say fracking fluid contains many of them.

In his report to Congress, Weston wrote, “EPA's conclusions are unsupportable… EPA decisions were supported by a Peer Review Panel; however five of the seven members of this panel appear to have conflicts-of-interest and may benefit from EPA's decision not to conduct further investigation or impose regulatory conditions.”

A new bill - the FRAC Act - is making its way through Congress (S1215 and HR 2766) to close the 'Halliburton loophole' in the Safe Drinking Water Act, which allows companies to inject chemicals unchecked into groundwater supplies. On top of the chemical contaminants, billions of gallons of water gets pumped into the ground for this process. That’s a lot of water when the precious liquid is being fought for, sold, preserved and conserved in drought-weary, water-starved regions in the U.S. I found the "Reporter's Notebook" video by ProPublica's Abrahm Lustgarten, which I embedded below, to be very well-done and informative (and I've linked to several of his stories above).

Don't forget to check out Split Estate on Planet Green!

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