What the frack? It’s damaging water supplies and causing earthquakes – so why is the Environmental Protection Agency so slow to act?

Katherine Rowland
fracking 300x225 What the frack? Its damaging water supplies and causing earthquakes   so why is the Environmental Protection Agency so slow to act?

A natural gas valve is viewed at a hydraulic fracturing site. Image: Getty

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.

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  • Penny_Reese

    What “nuclear debris” from Fukishima? There’s been no significant release of radiation from Fukishima.

  • Penny_Reese

    Your argument logically cannot be so. We have seen a slight rise of a bit over a degree in the last century. Our belief that the cause of this is CO2 is entirely dependent on mathematical models. Our belief that this rise will continue at a particular rate is also entirely dependent on those models. It cannot be simply to do with “observation and measurement” with so many complex factors involved. If you have this idea that we have measured CO2 go up by a hundred parts per million, seen the temperature rise by about 1.6C and have suddenly said: ignore anything else that affects the climate, we don’t need models, let’s just conclude that X rise in CO2 produces Y rise in global average mean temperature, then you have no idea whatsoever how complex climate science is.

  • Lady G-force

    Where have you been?  Over 200,000 people were evacuated because of the radiation released and around 80,000 of these people (from 20km around the plant) will not be able to return to their homes for a generation said the Japanese government.  Even TEPCO – the company responsible for the plant – admitted just one month after the accident that already radiation equal to a tenth of Chernobyl had been released.  And by the end of August, Japanese scientists admitted that the amount of radioactive caesium released was far more than from Chernobyl.

  • Lady G-force

    Very silly comments.  The complex modelling amd analysis that the climate scientists have used to arrive at their conclusions INCLUDE many other factors that affect the climate, other than CO2. 

  • Penny_Reese

    Which is what I said. The poster I replied to said the conclusions didn’t depend on computer models but were just observation and measurement. Which is plainly ridiculous to anyone with the slightest knowledge of climate modelling.

  • Penny_Reese

    Well, there was also an earthquake and tsunami, you know. And just because you take precautions, doesn’t mean the thing you took precautions against happened. I’ve heard the suggestion that people wont be able to live within 20km from around the plant for a generation. I don’t believe it and would bet money against it. The post I replied to was talking about “nuclear debris”. The sole injuries due to radiation so far consist of three people who were treated for minor radiation burns on their shins due to being some of the first on the site after the disaster and wading around in the water all day. They were kept in hospital overnight as a precaution, if I remember rightly. That’s it. Some people seem to think people died due to radiation! Your example of “radioactive caesium” is an example of misdirection. You say “radioactive caesium was far more than from Chernobyl”. Well firstly the figures reported in January say 15,000 TBq. Chernobyl was estimated at over 80,000TBq. But secondly, Caesium-137 (which is what you’re talking about) is only one of the things emitted. Whilst Chernobyl released all that Caesium-137, it was also actually leaking fuel particles and other things. You can’t simply pick the thing you want to compare that looks worst. That’s like finding a statistic that the number of dogs that died in two separate disasters was similar and saying that the disasters are therefore similar. Even if one of those disasters happened to involve hundreds of people dying. What about Strontium or Iodine – both more deadly – why did you not compare those? Both of which were released by Chernobyl in quantity? It is wrong to liken Fukishima to Chernobyl. General expert consensus is that radiation damage from Fukishima will be a couple of orders of magnitude less than Chernobyl.

    I repeat: there have been no fatalities due to Fukishima. If that had been an oil or gas powerstation, we’d be looking at deaths quite certainly. Do you remember Piper Alpha? 167 deaths from an oil rig fire. Or how many coal mining accidents can you count? Even wind power in its short history has racked up over 40 workers dead so far. Plus over a dozen members of the public from burning or breaking wind turbines. It seems that there is a double standard wherein people being burned, crushed, suffocated or knocked dead by a flying wind turbine blade are somehow considered “normal”, but even the suggestion of deaths due to nuclear power (and I repeat, no radiation-based fatalities from Fukishima) makes headlines around the world. Or if you’re more interested in the environment than lives, look at the environmental damage due to Deepwater Horizon – far worse than radiation from Fukishima. Far, far worse!

    So yes, Fukishima released a small amount of radiation. This will statistically make a very small rise in cancer incidences in the affected area. I agree that this is tragic and I do not trivialise it. But I also point out that these were very old reactor designs from the 1960’s, they were hit by not only one of the biggest Earthquakes we’ve ever seen but a massive tsunami shortly thereafter and they still have caused less fatalities than wind power! It’s not that I am suggesting anyone is wrong for objecting to the very small amount of radiation leaked (in very exceptional circumstances, even you must admit), but it is irrational to go after nuclear power if that is your motivation. You should turn on almost any method of power-generation before you turn on nuclear power.

    The original poster’s comments about “nuclear debris” are ill-informed and misleading.

  • CrystalForce

    Your summary in Newspeak would be…..doubleplusungood

    Under the spreading chestnut tree

    I sold you and you sold me—

  • Dan

    I was with you all the way until the part where you rationalized stability. In Wisconsin we are prevailed upon to allow mining of our “old” sand, desirable because it is well worn and spherical. This, then, is injected into the fractures to hold the substrates apart. In it’s most primitive view, then, you are asking us to believe that massive rock formations ( over 12 square miles worth) artificially forced open, and then held open with ” ball bearings ” is somehow geologically stable????

  • Pacificweather

    Radiation can only be emitted from something with mass. Dust is debris. Water vapour is debris. The original post was neither il-informed or misleading, merely brief.

  • Pacificweather

    Sara, please comment on:
    It is shale so it isn’t solid rock ant it has been further fractured.
    Water is a lubricant that may reduce friction and allow continuing movement (earthquakes).
    They didn’t want gas and oil to escape into the Gulf of Mexico but it did.

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