By Seren Nurgun, Staff Writer for Save The Water™ | May 27, 2016
The human and environmental impacts of traditional and unconventional oil and gas operations have been scrutinized in the U.S. at an increasing pace since the last few decades. Recent years’ public frustration and recent scientific research have aimed the focus specifically on the possible water contamination in West Virginia and Pennsylvania – part of the Marcellus Shale – in relation to the expansion of directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) techniques used to retrieve oil and natural gas respectively. Located in the Appalachian Basin and most of Pennsylvania, the Marcellus Shale has been and continues to be a rich source of oil and natural gas.
One study completed by a team from Duke University, found elevated levels of chloride, bromide, manganese, strontium, and barium, which are all known to exist within fracking wastewater, in a touristic waterway known as Wolf Creek in West Virginia (Fragoso 2016). Another study, completed by a team from the United States Geological Survey, found elevated levels of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs) also at Wolf Creek (Fragoso 2016). These studies were prompted by local worries of possible fracking wastewater leaching occurring from nearby wells (Fragoso 2016). Wolf Creek is just one example of water contamination fears being substantiated by studies. Even when the data is collected, other elements and considerations complicate the management of this system.
There are various factors related to the current complex state of affairs with unconventional oil and gas operations. The separation of land and undersurface mineral rights, known as a split estate, is controversial (Ray). This essentially means that landowners who don’t have the right to minerals have no control over the fate of the condition of their land and air. Additionally, water and noise pollution could be byproducts of shale gas drilling processes. Even the mineral rights owners who receive payments are usually not knowledgeable about the true impacts of fracking on their lives. Furthermore, the provision of compensation for damages done to a property is up to the discretion of individual states. There is also insufficient assessment and regulation of the necessary disposal of large volumes of wastewater. The most significant factor is the resulting possibility of surface and groundwater contamination with endocrine disrupting chemicals used in drilling and fracking, plus radioactive compounds and heavy metals freed from underground during the process. These pollutants can lead to dangers to life in the water, ecosystems, as well as to human health. More specifically, EDCs have been shown to affect multiple functions in the human body, including the reproduction system, growth, and the immune system (Fragoso 2016). Although scientists have collected data from the affected areas, there is a lack of intensive studies in each state to discover the possible impacts of developing oil and natural gas retrieval technologies on surrounding surface and groundwater.
According to Snyder et al., there are three categories of endocrine disrupting chemicals. They include compounds that mimic or block natural estrogen, compounds that mimic or block natural testosterone, and compounds with direct or indirect effects on the thyroid. Scientists have been researching the effects of EDCs on various organisms for over 70 years, including observational studies on frogs, sheep, cheetahs, alligators, and fish. Because experiments on humans are not possible, scientists acknowledge a lack of official data describing exactly how EDCs affect humans. Based on historical data, some scientists have hypothesized that a decrease in sperm quality and quantity over the past 50 years might have been caused by EDCs in the environment. Other scientists have theorized that increases in breast, testicular, and prostate cancers can be attributed, at least in part, to EDCs. Some endocrine disrupting compounds that humans can potentially encounter include perchlorate (found in fireworks, matches, and more), synthetic estrogen diethylstilbestrol (used in agricultural production), and alkylphenol polyethoxylate surfactants (used in wastewater treatment plants). The majority of scientists in this field believe more research and data is necessary to better understand the details of potential short-term and long-term effects that EDCs may have on humans.
On a positive note, some cities and counties have been revising existing ordinances to include local fracking waste bans and remain positioned to investigate any party that may be responsible for any pollution or contamination due to negligence. Next steps include additional long-term monitoring and data dissemination in order to ensure greater efficiency and fewer health and safety risks (R. Vidic et al. 2013). Full protection from potential devastating effects would require a systematic approach to problem solving through holistically considering relevant scientific, social, and legal implications involving all stakeholders of oil and shale gas production systems.
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