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Life in the Gas Lane: Living with Drilling, Part II-b

To read the previous posts: Part I and Part II-a.

Can you light your tap water?

Water pollution is a growing concern. Several Bradford County residents have come forward with stories of well contamination, including two in LeRoy Township whose water is flammable [Google Doc]. Both live within a half-mile of gas wells. Since the requirement at the time required water testing only for homes within 1,000 feet of gas drilling, the gas companies get away with saying they didn't cause any of it. Testing is now required for all homes within 2,000 feet, but that doesn't help those like the Spencer family, whose home is 2,400 ft from a well.

There are also reports of "dirty" or "cloudy" water, but, like the flammable water situation, gas companies fight any possibility that drilling is responsible. And, quite simply, there's no way to prove or disprove either side's claims.

In addition to possible drilling-caused contamination, there have been a couple of spills. Chesapeake Energy and Schlumberger Technology were each fined by the PA Dept. of Environmental Protection (PADEP) for a 2009 spill of 295 gallons of hydrochloric acid in Asylum Township. The cleanup required the removal of 126 tons of soil. Talisman Energy (formerly Fortuna) was fined $3500 for a release of "flowback fluid" into the Sugar Creek in Troy Township. Talisman also had a diesel fuel spill. These were "minor" incidents according to DEP.

Unlike many of our fellow residents around the state, we have not had any "major" incidents, but there is constant worry about contamination from fracking fluid injected into the wells and from the "flowback," "brine," or "wastewater" that is returned as part of the drilling process. What happens if fracking fluid or wastewater containing it is released into a stream, pond, river, or lake? What if a dam breaks at the fracking "ponds"?

Well, that depends -- on the chemical composition and the amount released. Unlike many states, Pennsylvania requires natural gas companies to disclose the individual chemical "ingredients" used in their fracking gels. As proprietary information, the formulas -- the particular combinations and amounts used -- are not required to be disclosed.

In 2006, Salon ran an article about the EPA's lax stance on fracking fluid which included this:

Because so many of the chemicals used in the fluid are proprietary, the industry isn't required to disclose their contents or ratios of concentration. The products' material data safety sheets, OSHA-required forms available on the Web, warn that the volatile chemicals have serious skin, respiratory and nervous-system effects. So far, [Theo] Colborn and her staff [of The Endocrine Disruption Exchange] have identified 190 chemicals that could be used in fracking fluids in Colorado, but there could be far more. A study by the Canadian government found more than 900 chemicals used in the fracking process.

Of the chemicals Colborn has identified, many have never been subject to any long-term animal studies to determine their impact on fetuses, children and other vulnerable human subpopulations. Also troubling, the EPA doesn't require that companies study how different chemicals interact or change in composition when exposed to heat. The literature that does exist only indicates acute health reactions; it doesn't explain what could happen in the long-term when people are exposed to lower doses on an intermittent or constant level.

According to The River Reporter and The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) [PDF], of the 54 chemicals listed with the state of Pennsylvania, 21 are "readily airborne" and 34 are water-soluble. Together, they can affect nearly every bodily system in humans, including causing developmental problems in fetuses, as well as affecting birds, fish, and other wildlife.

Now, according to Mike John of Chesapeake Energy, this is perfectly safe, because drilling chemicals make up just under 1% of the fracking fluid. Which, admittedly, doesn't sound like much when you're talking one to three million gallons of fluid per well.

Until you realize that every million gallons of fluid injected into a well contains just under 10,000 gallons of chemicals.

And that about one-third of the fracking fluid injected into a well is never recovered.

Assuming a low one million gallons per well, that's about 3,300 gallons of chemicals that remains after each well is drilled. Multiply that by the 1000+ wells expected to be drilled over the next few years, and we're talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.3 million gallons of chemicals -- many of them known carcinogens, most of them toxic -- that we can only hope will remain underground. Even if this is true and we'll never see those chemicals again, what about a spill that happens before or during the injection process, or a dam breach at one of the wastewater pits? Even if the entire process goes right at the site, when it comes to wastewater, some companies have treatment facilities on-site, some don't. When they don't, that wastewater is first stored in an open-air "brine pond," until it can be transported by tanker truck to a treatment facility -- through towns, past homes, schools, parks, rivers, and streams.

Safe? Well, we can hope so, but personally, I'm about burned out on simply "hoping" things turn out well. We could trust the gas companies -- after all, they don't want to poison us, right? But the simple fact is: Water contamination is not a rare or localized phenomena; it happens everywhere there is natural gas drilling. It's already happening in Pennsylvania.

The question then becomes, not "will it happen in Bradford County?" but just how bad will it be when it does happen?

Part II -c will cover the changes to our landscape.

- - -

Once again, I throw out the caveat that, like the previous post, my comments are based on my personal observations, conversations with friends and family, community discussions, and local newspaper articles.

And I add the warning that this is based on my experiences, mostly in the Wysox and Towanda area. I can't really speak for the effects (except in very general terms) in other towns and communities. Some things are county-wide, some seem limited to (or worse in) my area, possibly because it is roughly at the center of the county and is the county seat.

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Submitted by libbyliberal on

"... they don't want to poison us." You comment provocatively and drolly. But the unspoken response is, "But if it comes up and it is inconvenient not to, they sure as hell will." Corporations as psychopaths, indeed. 2400 feet away vs. 2000 feet away technicalities. This is chilling.

Thank you for your straightforward and stunning work here. I am going to forward this link to a newspaper friend. We gotta get this out there.

Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare. (Japanese proverb)

Submitted by lambert on

in the Marcellus Shale -- upstate NY, for example. It's happening in ME with landfills.

At the margins....

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win. -- Mahatma Gandhi

Submitted by PA_Lady on

I can't claim any credit except for doing some Google searches and writing up this series.

Hopefully though, it wakes people up, because -- as you said -- if poisoning us is more convenient than not, or is cheaper than not, the gas companies will do it. They'll give us prettier justifications wrapped in bows, but they'll do it all the same.

Submitted by lambert on

Because we see the results where we are "grounded," so to speak.

However, I believe that the same corporate playbook is being used all over the United States, just for different resources. Unfortunately, with the FAIL in Versailles, there seems no way to link the localities up by going vertically. It would be nice if we could link horizontally. "Drill, baby, drill" goes for everything, and both parties enable it.

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win. -- Mahatma Gandhi

Submitted by lambert on

... where an old guy, who looked like he came in from the woods, was pissed because nobody'd gotten him the bottled water he was promised after the landfill operator poisoned his well and his kidneys failed.

"Who's going to pay? BP?"

People make the connections, even if both legacy parties and our famously free press are paid to obfuscate them.

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win. -- Mahatma Gandhi

Submitted by libbyliberal on

the local level horror-saturated citizenry has to listen to the rhetorical grand scheme minimizing bilge re solutions.

Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare. (Japanese proverb)