Monday, April 5, 2010
By William Kibler, firstname.lastname@example.org
April 4, 2010
CLEARVILLE - The Food and Drug Administration requires that new pharmaceutical compounds undergo rigorous testing before they go to market.
Environmental agencies didn't exercise the same kind of rigor before allowing energy firms to extract gas from shale formations 6,000 feet down, using the relatively new method of "fracking" - pumping chemical-laced water under pressure to break the rock and release the gas, said Dan Volz, director of the University of Pittsburgh Center for Healthy Environments and Communities.
Pennsylvania residents are paying for that failure, said Volz, who spoke here Saturday to about 50 people appalled by the results of drilling over the past couple years.
Drilling companies came in with slick pamphlets that made the process seem profitable and innocuous for landowners, but landowners have found the reality distressing, according to those who attended the hearing.
The situation has grown to crisis proportions in parts of northeast and southwest Pennsylvania, Volz said.
Farmer Ron Gulla spoke of losing a well, a spring and a pond on his property, a high fatality rate with his dairy animals, garbage on his property and unsightly industrial-style installations.
He's in litigation with the company that "trashed my property," he said.
But he hasn't been able to mortgage his property to underwrite the lawsuit because the bank believes the gas operations may have devalued it too much for it to be sufficient collateral, he said.
And there are problems around Clearville.
Property owner Sandy McDaniel spoke of signing a lease with a drilling firm that didn't choose to go into production on her property. Instead, it sold the lease to another firm that installed a gas storage facility in a formation below the Marcellus shale from which the companies extract the gas.
That has involved the same kinds of issues, and she's had pollution problems with "surfactants" called methylene blue active substances in her well water and her pond.
She showed a bottle with water from her well that appeared to contain orange-aid.
Her "pre-tests" had showed no pollution.
"Would the gas company drink this?" she asked rhetorically. "A small dose of poison on a regular basis will eventually kill you."
A few years ago, when the leasing began, "we didn't know how to recognize pollution," she told the group.
"[But] Internet searches have been good to us."
The seriousness of the pollution issues based on research in other areas where fracking has been going on longer have only recently become available, Volz said.
The chemicals used in the fracking mix or released from the shale are getting into the air and into ground and surface water, he said.
They include some that are "endocrine-disrupting," he said, explaining that the chemicals would affect hormones in the body.
There are metals and - most worrisome - organic solvents, including benzene and toluene.
They can evaporate from the ponds where the companies store the used fracking water, he said.
There is currently no acceptable means of disposal for that used water, he said.
Some was pumped into old coal mines previously filled with fly-ash, but that has polluted streams, he said.
Sewage plant treatment doesn't remove the problem chemicals, it just dilutes them, he said.
Overall, the fracking of wells is an industrial process, and there are always spills and leaks in industrial processes, he said.
Cost-benefit analyses done previously on fracking failed to take into account "public goods" like air and water quality and public health, he said.
But "boom-town" models document predictable outcomes that include increases in divorce, alcoholism, mental health issues, conflict between longtime residents and newcomers who have different norms and tax inequities, he said.
Boom times generate more vehicle accidents, more trucks, an influx of kids in schools and more trouble for police, he said.
Gas exploration also strains a local government's ability to handle zoning and planning, he said.
Residents should talk to one another and group together in large cooperatives, hiring expert environmental lawyers, before dealing with the gas companies, Volz said.
Leases need to be tightly written and guarantee protections like water testing paid for by the companies, he said.
Talking to one another also reassures people that they're not "crazy" for being upset at the things they see, said Chuck Christin, operations director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh.
Residents also need to talk with their municipal officials, whom gas company officials have often plied with their "one side of the story" previously, Christin said.
Research needs to be done, but it's time-consuming, and, meanwhile, problems are happening. So for now, organizations trying to mitigate the problem need people to share their stories, Christin said.
The drilling companies are already moving as fast as they can because of the problematic gas drilling legacy in Colorado, said environmental biologist John Stolz of Duquesne University.
The center is working with a Web site to help collect data on drilling and the problems it causes and to enable users to manipulate that data to organize information they can use to get answers about what's happening, Christin said.
For example, they can create their own maps that tell them the location of drilling sites in an area, he said.
The organization is also planning workshops to instruct residents to lead the kind of meetings held Saturday to spread the word more efficiently.
Gulla is pessimistic.
"You can't clean up what they've already wrecked," he said.
A pessimist in the audience said sharing information may help the industry identify and "squash the pests," who point out problems. "You're not going to win," he said.
Volz lashed out at the pessimist.
"You can stop it," he shouted to the group. "Goddamn it, help yourselves and vote them out of office!"
Christin hesitates to blame the politicians.
"We're all addicts" for fossil fuels, he said.
Gov. Ed Rendell was in a difficult situation with the budget last year, leading him to sell leases on public lands to gas drillers, Volz said.
Even environmental agencies are only doing what they're told.
The state Department of Environmental Resources' "hands are tied," because of the lack of supporting national legislation - in the form of the "Halliburton Exemption," granted by the Bush administration, by which drillers don't need to comply with the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, Volz said.
And the Obama administration is hardly in a position to clamp down after campaign promises to work for energy independence, Christin said.
It all happened too quickly, Volz said.
"What was the rush?" he asked rhetorically.
"You would have thought we would have learned our lesson," he said, referring to the state's legacy of pollution problems with coal and other minerals.
Ultimately, it's a political question, a question of regulation and the will to impose it, Volz said. "In the end, it's not about science," he said.
But he's seen a recent upwelling of "real concern," as well as fear and outrage - crossing party lines. "The political consequences are starting to fall on good ears," he said.