Concerned about Fracking, Part 2: Water Pollution, Radiation, & Drought

by Margaret Roberts

In this three-part series on fracking and human health, Margaret Roberts of Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer and the New York State Breast Cancer Network explores some of the many reasons health advocates and others are concerned about the combination of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) with horizontal drilling, a large-scale industrial practice taking place with increased frequency across the nation. Part 1 considered “air pollution and accidents.” Part 2 on “Water Pollution, Radiation, & Drought” discusses how the gas released and chemicals used in fracking increase the potential for water pollution, exposure to radiation, and drought resulting from the huge amounts of water taken for fracking processes that are not then available for agriculture, commercial needs and drinking water. Part 3 on “Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals (EDCs) and Earthquakes” discusses how certain chemicals used in fracking operations and/or released from shale rock fractures during earthquakes contribute to a host of negative health outcomes including the development of breast cancer. Earlier versions of these articles were published from CRAAB.org.


Around the nation, citizens are joining together to express their concerns about fracking. On January 8th, 2013 I attended one such event, a rally on the concourse of the Empire State Plaza in Albany, New York, near the Convention Center where hundreds of law-makers and government officials convened to hear the State of the State address. Most also heard the boisterous and persistent voices of thousands of fracking opponents, some of whom represented more than 100 organizations and businesses from all regions of the state. It was an exciting and, at times, very moving rally, one much larger than organizers had predicted.

Dont Frack NY 2013Public opinion polls show that a majority of New Yorkers are opposed to high volume hydraulic fracturing (HVHF), probably due to ongoing news about accidents, water and air pollution, and links to earthquakes and illnesses in people who live near drill sites. Another concern, gaining widespread acceptance, is that the methane released from fracking is a potent greenhouse gas responsible for accelerating climate change, which can lead to catastrophic storms, droughts, and wildfires. We are demanding answers to important questions about the effects of HVHF on the health of people and their environments, and about who gets to decide whether and where such operations may safely occur.

Who decides on whether and where to frack?

As some scientists and advocates have pointed out, a lack of transparency among policy makers and various states’ departments of health and environmental conservation, as well as the gas industry itself, breeds distrust when it comes to the topic of fracking.

In 2012, for instance, the Governor and Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Joseph Martens stated that decisions about permitting HVHF in the Marcellus Shale regions of the state would depend on the results of health impact studies and a health assessment review by the Department of Health (DOH), which contracted with three scientists to review undisclosed research studies and reports. In February 2013, DOH Commissioner Nirav R. Shah MD, MPH sent a letter to Mr. Martens saying that the DOH needed more time for a comprehensive review, and that he wanted to consider the results of three separate studies which he claimed were, “the first comprehensive studies of HVHF health impacts at either the state or federal level.”

Dr. Shah’s decision to wait for the results of new studies was welcome and reasonable. But many advocates questioned why he hadn’t also publicly discussed the environmental impact studies and health reports that were already documented. There have been hundreds of reports of illnesses of people who live near drilling sites. There are thousands of incidences of leaks, spills, explosions, well blow-outs and burn-off pollution, illegal wastewater treatment and discharges, and methane gas migration. One of many detailed publications is Riverkeeper’s “Fractured Communities” (2010), which describes “hundreds of case studies demonstrating that industrial gas drilling, including horizontal drilling using high-volume hydraulic fracturing, results in significant adverse environmental impacts.”

By December 2013, Dr. Shah revealed that he had traveled to California and Texas among other unnamed places to study fracking and stated that there was new data to consider. He did not say what that data was, or what it meant for public policy going forward. Without adequate, evidence-based communication on industrial operations known to impact communities and public health, citizens are left out of the decision-making processes that will affect them sooner or later.

Other Studies Expected to Influence the New York Department of Health:

  • The US Environmental Protection Agency study of potential impacts of HVHF on drinking water resources commissioned by Congress, and including 18 research related projects, released a progress report listing over 1,000 chemicals associated with HVHF processes. A final report was expected in 2014, but has not yet been released.
  • The Geisinger Health Systems study, which cares for patients in Pennsylvania, is undertaking studies to analyze health records for asthma and other respiratory diseases, accidents and injuries, as well as birth outcomes for residents who live near fracking operations in the state.
  • The University of Pennsylvania’s “Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology” will collaborate with scientists from Columbia University, Johns Hopkins University, and the University of North Carolina to investigate and analyze reports of nausea, headaches, breathing difficulties and other illnesses from people who live near gas drilling sites, compressor stations, and wastewater pits. They will also study the toxicity of “flowback” water, air quality, and diesel exhaust.

Why the concern about fracking?

To permit any large-scale industrial process when there are no epidemiological studies of long-term health effects seems short-sighted, especially when the process involves toxic chemicals that are connected to serious and chronic diseases, including cancer.  A paper by Theo Coburn and colleagues, “Natural Gas Operations from a Public Health Perspective,” published in Human and Ecological Risk Assessment (2011) explains that of the chemicals used in fracking,

“More than 75% could affect the skin, eyes, and other sensory organs, and the respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Approximately 40% to 50% could affect the brain/nervous system, immune and cardiovascular systems, and the kidneys; 37% could affect the endocrine system; and 25% could cause cancer and mutations. These results indicate that many chemicals used during the fracturing and drilling stages of gas operations may have long-term health effects that are not immediately expressed.”

Most of these chemicals are mixed with water and sand, then pumped deep underground to fracture shale rock and release natural gas. Anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of this fracturing fluid returns to the surface during a “flowback” period that usually lasts 10-14 days, until gas production begins. The amount of flowback fluid, which picks up additional chemicals and elements from the shale itself, ranges between 420 thousand to 2.52 million gallons per well, for each hydraulic fracture. Once gas production begins, the wastewater emerging from the well (i.e., “produced water”) represents 30 to 70 percent of the initial water injected into the well. Both types of wastewater — flowback and produced water — contain potentially harmful components, including heavy metals, naturally occurring radiation from radon, and other elements.

The Marcellus Shale Formation that underlies parts of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey and western New York has higher rates of radon than most shale deposits. In 2011, the EPA released documents to The New York Times disclosing that in Pennsylvania more than 179 wells produced wastewater with high levels of radiation, and over 100 wells had levels of radium or other radioactive materials that were 100 times the levels of safe federal drinking-water standards. At least 15 of the wells produced wastewater carrying more than 1,000 times the amount of radioactive elements regulated as acceptable.

What happens to the wastewater?

Drillers trucked some of the wastewater to public sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania and other states, including New York, but some treatment plants were not equipped to remove all of the highly toxic contaminants or radioactive substances. At least 12 sewage treatment plants in three states discharged wastewater into rivers, lakes, and streams that was only partly treated.

In addition to processing at treatment plants, wastewater is injected back into the ground for long-term storage. Unfortunately, the Class II Wells the EPA created specifically for the gas and oil industry to hold that salty brine with potentially toxic metals and radioactive substances, is neither a fail safe nor an adequately regulated system of waste storage. As reported by ProPublica in 2012, records from different areas in the country show that these wells have repeatedly leaked, sending dangerous chemicals percolating to the surface or, on some occasions, leaching into aquifers that contain a significant portion of the nation’s drinking water. Scientific America reported in 2012 that during the past several decades over 30 trillion gallons of toxic fluid has been injected deep into the earth and though many scientists say that scenario isn’t likely, some geologists are concerned it will eventually cause widespread contamination. The greatest hazards are spills, leaks and illegal discharges related to faulty surface operations.

From late 2007 to 2010, inspections of 220,000 wells revealed 17,000 structural failures. Most states don’t even release data on fracking activities, but using data available from individual state governments, researchers at FracTracker, an independent oil and gas research group that started as a mapping project at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, counted more than 1.1 million active oil and gas wells across just 36 states.

Does fracking produce other water pollutants?

Natural gas is a fossil fuel formed primarily of methane, but it can also include other gases – ethane, propane, butane and pentane. The natural gas delivered to your home has been refined and is almost pure methane. An Associated Press article of January, 2014 states that “Experts say the most common type of water pollution involves methane, not chemicals from the drilling process.”

Robert Jackson PhD, a professor of environmental sciences at Duke University, concurs. In a 2011 study, Jackson’s research team sampled 141 residential drinking water wells in northeastern Pennsylvania and upstate New York (where vertical drilling, not HVHF, takes place) and found that 82 percent of drinking water samples were contaminated with methane, and that the level of contamination rose sharply with proximity to drilling sites, with average concentrations six times higher for homes less than one kilometer from fracked wells. Even more disturbing, the average methane amount in residential wells was within the defined action level for recommended hazard mitigation by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and the maximum amount found was well beyond that threshold and indicated the potential for explosion.

The researchers also found higher levels of ethane and propane in water samples taken near  wells, with ethane found in 30 percent of samples, in concentrations 23 times higher at homes within a kilometer of a well. Propane was detected in 10 of 133 samples, all of them taken from homes within a kilometer of drilling. Dr. Jackson noted that the simplest explanations for the higher gas concentrations are: (1) faulty or inadequate steel casings, which are designed to keep gas and any water inside the well from leaking into the environment; (2)imperfections in the cement sealing; or (3) gaps between casings and rock.

In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued 90 violations for faulty casing and cementing on 64 Marcellus shale gas wells; 119 similar violations were issued in 2011.

Can Fracking Lead to Water Shortages?

In many dry regions of the country, communities are competing with gas companies for scarce water. In 2013, thirty communities in southwestern Texas faced water shortages or complete water loss due to the confluence of severe droughts and fracking. That region has thousands of wells and each one uses 8 million gallons of water per day when it is fracked, severely depleting the wells and water sources of residents. In New York, fracking will require many billions of gallons of water during a 15-year period. This water will be taken from rivers, lakes, wetlands, ponds and wells and can never be re-used or re-cycled because it will be contaminated with toxic fluids.

What will happen to water sources in during hot summers and periods of drought? Will agriculturally based businesses and farms have to compete with gas drillers for water?

This is one reason why many businesses oppose fracking. In New York, over 1,500 companies signed a letter to the Governor stating their concerns. Many business owners, along with farmers, food and beverage suppliers, restaurant owners, tourist and recreation companies, and members of the Idle No More group of the Akwesasne Mohawk Reserve attended the recent rally to let their voices (and drums) be heard.

Margaret Roberts, MFA was one of the founding members of Capital Region Action Against Breast Cancer (CRAAB!) and its Director for two years, before becoming the Program Coordinator and Director of Development. She was a founding member of the New York State Breast Cancer Network (NYSBCN) and sits on its Environmental Committee.  The first non-profit she started in 1995, Pen & Palette, offered creative art workshops for cancer survivors under its “Coping Through Creativity program.” From 2003 to 2005 the cancer survivors in this program wrote and produced a play about their experiences with cancer entitled, “Alive, Alive, Oh!” Margaret became involved in cancer awareness and advocacy after both of her sisters died from different forms of cancer; one sister (a non-smoker) had lung cancer and her other sister had breast cancer. As a primary caregiver, Margaret became intimately aware of the complexities of breast cancer, and the need for more support and education programs in her community. To advance education about the disease Margaret was the director, co-writer, co-researcher and graphic designer for the True Burden of Breast Cancer Risk Factors Project, a community-based program that educated women’s organizations and over 400 students at six colleges about risk factors for breast cancer, including new information about environmental connections to the disease. Margaret has received numerous grants and awards to advance her work.

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