What the frack? It’s damaging water supplies and causing earthquakes – so why is the Environmental Protection Agency so slow to act?
The rural town of Dimcock, Pennsylvania, in the US, rests in the rolling hills in Susquehanna County. It used to be picturesque, but today it boasts more blight than Appalachian charm.
In 2009, local claims of water contamination by Dimcock’s residents had reached almost hyperbolic proportions, with reports of wells spontaneously combusting, kitchen faucets spouting corrosive liquids, pets mysteriously shedding their hair, and morning showers resulting in skin lesions.
This is probably because the town, which is home to fewer than 2000 residents, sits on top of the Marcellus shale, a massive formation of sedentary rock that the US Department of Energy estimates contains some 262 trillion cubic feet of valuable and recoverable natural gas. “It probably transforms the US energy outlook for the next 100 years,” Tony Hayward, the former chief executive officer of the oil company BP, has remarked. The oil was extracted using hydraulic fracturing, also known as ‘fracking’.
This week – three years after the residents first lost access to their drinking water – the US Environmental Protection Agency has launched an investigation into the source of water contamination in the area.The inquiry is part of an ongoing study that the Agency is currently undertaking to assess the environmental health consequences of fracking. A preliminary report is expected at the end of the year, and a final assessment is slated for 2014.
The Dimcock study follows a ground-breaking report issued in December of last year, in which the EPA for the first time attributed water contamination to fracking.
In addition to ground-water contamination, fracking also bears the dubious distinction as a leading cause of earthquakes in areas not known for seismological activity. Examples of this have been seen in the US and closer to home. Examples of this have been seen in the US and closer to home. In the UK town of Blackpool last year two earthquakes were confirmed to have resulted from fracking.
The State of Ohio rung in the New Year with the 11th earthquake to shake regions surrounding fracking waste-water injection well sites. The epicentre of the quake, which occurred in Youngstown, was only 330 feet away from the quake that had happened the week before, and all 11 have taken place within two miles of the injection wells.
The ongoing study coincides with a landmark environmental regulation debate in New York over the proposed future of natural gas drilling in the State’s portion of the Marcellus shale. The New York Department of Environmental Conservation, which regulates drilling, received 22,000 comments from the public on its proposed rules. Officials say they cannot remember ever receiving more than 1,000 comments on any prior environmental issue.
The subject has aroused concern in the public health community as well. Earlier this month, leading health experts converged at a conference sponsored by the non-profit organization Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy. In his opening remarks, Adam Law of Weill Cornell Medical Center said: “When it comes to hydro fracking, our guiding principle for public policy should be the same as the one used by physicians: ‘First do no harm.’ There is a need for scientific and epidemiologic information on the health impacts of fracking. Frankly, no one should be unleashing even more fracking until we have the scientific facts.”
However, in the context of global concerns over energy security and a recession that in spite of soaring Wall Street activity will not abate the future of fracking may hinge on economic considerations irrespective of emerging environmental data.
The significance of the ongoing EPA investigations relates directly to a study published last year predicting a massive increase in natural gas extraction. Analysts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) projected that shale gas extraction would increase exponentially over the coming decades owing to its low cost and domestic availability.The appeal of cheap energy could all but cripple the renewable sector, and encourage the continuation of practices that have left scars on the land and imperilled fresh water.Tagged in: contamination, earthquakes, Environmental Protection Agency, environmental regulation, EPA, fracking, gas, hydraulic fracturing, oil extraction, public health, uk, us, water pollution
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter