Clear-eyed look at fracking shows how ugly it is


One point that I’ve strived to make about fracking from Day One is quite simply this: There was a rush without judgment — a race by Big Oil and Gas to get as many holes in the ground before the public, and the officials they elect, had any sense at all of the real impact. In Pennsylvania, for example, at the epicenter of the Marcellus Shale drilling boom, landmen raced to sign leases and get drilling underway in the late 2000s, long before the term “fracking” had even entered the public vernacular.

Indeed, it wasn’t really until the wide release of the documentary “Gasland,” at the start of this decade, that a national conversation about unconventional drilling for natural gas got underway. Of course, by then some of the fallout was already occurring: Drinking wells destroyed by methane and other types of pollution, massive dumping of radiation-laced wastewater into local streams, beautiful rural communities now breathing foul air. For states like Pennsylvania or Oklahoma, trying to control fracking at the point was more than a little late.

But other states were invited late to the fracking party, and there it’s been a different story. The state of Vermont, knowing what we know now about the process, banned fracking altogether, while in New York activists have pressed successfully for a moratorium blocking unconventional gas drilling to remain in place. The bottom line is that given a chance to actually investigate the health issues surrounding fracking, state officials have been reluctant to approve the process. In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley, who has a strong record on environmental matters, created a task force in 2011 to study whether fracking should be allowed in his state. The result is quite damning:

The report singled out worker health a concern for the prospect of fracking in Maryland. Though fracking would bring jobs to Maryland, the report reads, those jobs are more dangerous than others, promising a “greater risk of harmful occupational exposures than many other industries in Maryland.”

“Of particular concern are exposures to crystalline silica, hydrogen sulfide, and diesel particulate matter, as well as fatalities from truck accidents, which accounted for 49% of oil and gas extraction fatalities in 2012,” the report reads. It goes on to cite the social dangers the fracking industry poses, including “mental distress, suicide, stress, and substance abuse.”

“These social hazards also put a strain on communities, as evidenced by increased incidence in violent crime arrests, drug violations, and sexually transmitted infections,” the report reads.

As well as occupational dangers, the report highlights the possible dangers to residents who live near gas wells, including “throat & nasal irritation, sinus problems, eye burning, severe headaches, persistent cough, skin rashes, and frequent nose bleeds.” These health impacts have been documented in states that allow fracking — one Texas family won a lawsuit against an oil and gas company after they claimed a fracking operation near their home caused nose bleeds, muscle spasms, and open sores. The report also pointed out that disadvantaged populations, including children, the sick and the elderly could be more at risk from the dangers of fracking.

The only “good news” in the report is that, because of Maryland’s underlying geology, the state would not be at risk for the types of earthquakes that have plagued Oklahoma and other states to the west. As they say, thank God for small favors. Otherwise, the report confirms what we’ve already come to know over the last five years: That fracking is an especially unhealthy way for humans to feed our addiction to fossil fuels. If America’s governors — as well as our president and members of Congress — are going to ever truly focus on energy policy, the emphasis needs to be heavily on renewable energy, so that soon we can look back at the time of fracking for what it was: A regrettable, avoidable mistake.

Read more from ThinkProgress about Maryland’s damning probe into fracking:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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