Article courtesy by Jim Phillips | February 8th 2013 | The Athens News
Sources in the oil-and-gas industry and government regulators have both been quoted repeatedly as saying that “fracking” for oil and gas is a relatively safe process, which when properly regulated, should pose minimal hazards to public health and safety.
Speakers at a public forum in Athens Tuesday, however, begged to differ in a big way.
Deborah Cowden, a Dayton-area physician practicing family medicine, warned an audience of about 40 people that recent scientific studies of the air pollution from horizontal hydraulic fracturing operations indicate it may pose extremely serious health risks to people living within a mile-and-a-half of such sites.
Cowden said studies of the amounts of organic compounds that typically come out of a fracking site suggest that these risks have been “vastly understated” in earlier literature, and include increased likelihoods of cancer, respiratory problems, immune system dysfunction, and interference with child development.
At a forum in Athens sponsored by the Ohio Environmental Council, a statewide non-profit group, Cowden focused on a major study by the University of Colorado’s School of Public Health. In that study, she said, researchers took 163 samples of the air near a fracking operation in Colorado on a regular basis from January 2008 to November 2010.
What they found was some 78 different volatile organic chemicals being released into the air, many of them serious known toxins. She said these chemicals appear to have come from multiple sources including the drilling operation itself, leakage, deliberate flaring or venting of gas, engines used to power the drilling, condensation tanks, compressor stations and diesel trucks.
They included benzene, toluene and different forms of xylene, of which Cowden noted, “no one argues that these are (not) terribly toxic chemicals.” She also pointed out that some of the worst chemicals, such as these three, were found in 100 percent of the samples taken in the study.
Benzene, she said, is linked to blood cancers such as leukemia, as well as to disruption of the human immune system.
Cowden also warned that past studies looking at the impacts of such chemicals on human health have largely been based on exposures in the workplace – which means that the human subjects were being exposed to the chemicals only while on the job, and their bodies had a chance to detoxify during their off hours. For someone living within a mile of a fracking site, however, she said, exposure might be nearly round-the-clock, meaning the health impacts could be much more serious.
“This is experimenting on a population without your consent,” she said.
Cowden blasted a recently enacted Ohio law that limits physicians’ ability to share the ingredients of a fracking fluid – which are considered to be a company’s trade secret – with others. For example, she said, she is not allowed to share this information with firefighters or emergency medical personnel who may show up to a leak or explosion at a fracking site, or with the neighbors of a patient who she believes may be suffering from exposure to chemicals from a well site.
Under the so-called “gag order” on physicians including in Ohio Senate Bill 315, Cowden said, companies have 60 days from the start of oil-and-gas production to reveal the contents of the fracking fluid they use to shatter underground shale beds. In the meantime, she asked, “how are we going to know what chemicals are there if there’s no data?”
Cowden argued that it’s ludicrous to suggest a physician would be interested in obtaining proprietary information on fracking fluid in order to start his or her own drilling operation and compete in the oil-and-gas market. As for a company’s actual competitors in the industry, she said, they can find out the formula for a fracking fluid simply by ordering a barrel of it and having it analyzed in a lab. She said this raises the question of whom, exactly, SB 315 is trying to keep in the dark about the chemical content of these fluids.
“It’s not the competitors, and it’s not the doctors,” Cowden said. “Who are they afraid of? Think about this.”
Shawn Bennett, a spokesperson for group Energy in Depth in Ohio, said he believes the University of Colorado report is flawed in multiple ways. Bennett said the sampling was done “about a mile downwind of I-70,” and that much of the VOC volume found could have been coming from auto exhausts.
He also noted that Colorado passed more stringent regulations on VOCs in 2010, so that the data from the study may already be obsolete.
Energy in Depth describes itself on its website as “a research, education and public outreach campaign focused on getting the facts out about the promise and potential of responsibly developing America’s onshore energy resource base – especially abundant sources of oil and natural gas from shale and other ‘tight’ reservoirs across the country.”
ANOTHER SPEAKER AT the forum focused on what she called the massive impacts fracking will have on a finite, non-renewable, and crucially important resource – fresh water.
Orianna Carter, an associate professor of biological science at Ohio University’s Southern Campus in Ironton, noted that the earth has undergone some very serious droughts in the past few years, and that 2012 was the hottest year on record in a century of record-keeping.
In some parts of the United States in recent years, Carter said, “waters are sizzling,” fish are dying, and water levels are dropping.
She alleged that none of the serious issues associated with enormous water use have been addressed by the oil-and-gas industry. Carter expressed the most concern about the large Ogallala aquifer in the western United States, which she said has enabled the historically bountiful crop production in that part of the country. Inevitably, she suggested, the huge amounts of water needed for horizontal fracking, which requires millions of gallons for each well, will have to be drawn from the limited supply of fresh water needed for agriculture, human consumption and other uses.
“We’re draining our aquifers,” she warned. “This is important, because there’s going to be a day when there’s not going to be enough water for everybody.”
Carter gently mocked the pronouncements from industry sources and government regulators, in which she said fracking “sounds pretty safe altogether.” But even setting aside pollution concerns, she said, the sheer volume of fresh water required for the process should be alarming.
“My concern is, do we have that much water to spare?” she asked.
Bennett of Energy in Depth responded by noting that when a natural gas such as methane is burned, one of the products is water, which replenishes the water cycle.
“When you burn methane, you are creating H20,” he said.