Epic Contamination: Fracking Could Foul the Ancient Roman Hot Springs of Bath


Julius Caesar is rolling over in his grave.

Some 2,000 years ago, the Romans built a magnificent temple and bathing compound around Great Britain’s only hot spring. To this day, the complex in the ancient city of Bath flows with natural, steamy waters known around the world for their health benefits and powerful healing qualities. During the heady days of the Roman Empire, it was said Caesar himself made the water that bubbles up from these celebrated springs.

Photo credit to Bath Tourism Plus/Colin Hawkins

Although it didn’t end well for Julius Caesar who was assassinated by his friend Marcus Brutus (and Rome eventually fell to a persistent group of warring Germanic tribes), the Roman temple and its healing pools in Bath have survived for two millennia.

But fracking may end that epic run.

In a story that is triggering outrage and disbelief across Europe and around the world, the existence and integrity of the beautifully preserved Roman site – that attracts more than a million tourists annually – is now in jeopardy as modern industrial practices slam headlong into ancient history. Here’s how the UK’s Guardian newspaper covered this stunning story last week:

Concerns were raised on Wednesday that the controversial process of extracting gas from underground could pose a threat to Bath’s world famous hot springs.

Bath and North-East Somerset council fears test drilling in the Mendip hills could lead to exploitation of shale gas resources through “fracking”, which the local authority warns could harm the springs.

The council said two companies [Eden Energy and UK Methane] were applying to Mendip district council for permission to test drill for the gas, which is found in shale formed from deposits of mud, silt, clay and organic matter. It is extracted by drilling down into the ground and then by “fracking”, a process of hydraulic fracturing of the shale using high pressure liquid to release the gas.

Clearly, nothing is sacred – at least not to the fracking industry. There’s just too damn much money to be made to preserve anything, let alone nonessential little things like the environment or history.

Fortunately for Caesar, there are some level-headed individuals on the city council in Bath. Here’s what council leader Paul Crossley had to say: “There is great concern that the process of fracking will result in the water courses leading to the natural hot springs being contaminated with pollutants from this process, or for the waters to adopt a different direction of travel through new fractures in the underlying rocks.”

It’s certainly not a stretch to see how a process that has been tied to earthquakes could shake things up enough to redirect a significant portion or all of the hot spring water away from Caesar’s baths. I wonder how the good Emperor would react if his healing waters became contaminated with arsenic, barium, bromide and a smorgasbord of other heavy metals, not to mention radioactive material from deep within the earth. Or, heaven forbid, if the pools dried up due to the rerouting of the steamy waters. Those responsible would most assuredly be thrown to the lions.

Unlike Caesar, the local city council is burdened with more subtle, less direct modes of opposition. Here, sadly, the lions are not an option. But the council seems prepared to fight tooth and nail for what it sees as a key economic asset to the area.

More from council leader Crossley: “The council has obtained the very best expert advice on this matter and there is little to suggest that any thought has been given to the potential for damage to the deep-water sources that supply the springs in Bath. The hot springs are a crucial part of the tourist attraction that sustains thousands of jobs in the city. The council must stand up against these drilling proposals in the strongest possible terms.”

Although the story out of Bath is certainly the most outrageous fracking assault we’ve heard in a long while, there are many other places in the United Kingdom that are facing similar intrusions and the accompanying concerns. Consider this from a Sept. 29 opinion piece in the Irish Times:

Industrial-scale geographically dispersed fracking may severely damage the northwest’s potential to attract tourists. The perception (and reality) of a region as an industrial landscape may outlast the employment benefits of gas drilling. Increased truck traffic, air pollution, noise pollution, industrial accidents, negative visual impacts, disruptions to fishing grounds, and fears over lake and stream pollution will change the character to gritty and industrial.

Once the Lough Allen Basin becomes known for methane smells, industrial compressor stations, loud noise, well flare-offs, bad roads, deteriorating poisonous water quality and massive truck traffic, the word will get out and the area will no longer be the wonderful “natural” vacation destination it is now. The industrialisation may also hit land and property values.

The Lough Allen Basin is located in north-central Ireland, but it could be just about anywhere fracking is getting a foothold. Frackers like to talk about how many jobs the controversial process generates and what a boost it is to local economies, but what they are loathe to discuss is the lasting damage fracking can have on towns and cities, including places of historical import like Bath. The economic loss to the ancient English town would be huge and permanent should Caesar’s healing baths be turned into metallic, radioactive cesspools.

If it wasn’t already crystal clear, this story should do away with any lingering doubt: Frackers will stop at nothing to make a buck. They will exploit every nook and cranny of our global landscape. If we let them, it seems they will take everything – including our history.

Read the full report from the Guardian on fracking in Bath: http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/sep/28/shale-gas-threaten-bath-springs

Here’s the opinion piece from the Irish Times on fracking in the Lough Allen Basin: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/opinion/2011/1003/1224305143508.html

© Smith Stag, LLC 2011 – All Rights Reserved

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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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