Fracking: Don’t have a cow


One of the most disturbing things I’ve seen since I started following the boom in fracking for natural gas several years ago is how often that animals who live near drilling rigs get sick. In particular, creatures — whether it’s wildlife, livestock or pets — are more likely to drink water that’s been contaminated in the drilling process or as gas is being produced. Most of the evidence has been anecdotal, however; this is the first scientific study that I’ve seen.

The news is not good, of course:

The study, by Michelle Bamberger and Robert E. Oswald, found that consequences ranged from near-immediate death to stillbirths and genetic defects in offspring that persisted for years after exposure to fracking wastewater.

While the authors noted that theirs was not a controlled experiment, which wouldn’t be feasible, two cases provided naturally-occurring control groups. On one farm, 60 head of cattle drank from an allegedly wastewater-polluted creek while 36 drank clean water. Of the 60, “21 died and 16 failed to produce calves the following spring. Of the 36 that were not exposed, no health problems were observed, and only one cow failed to breed.”

But Bamberger and Oswald didn’t just look at livestock. They also include cases of humans and their “companion animals” suffering the effects of pollution. In one case, two homeowners “located within two miles of approximately 25 shale gas wells” saw multiple instances of wastewater dumping and spillage.

A child was hospitalized for arsenic poisoning and missed a year of school, and family members tested positive for phenol, a sign of benzene poisoning, and complained of “extreme fatigue, headaches, nosebleeds, rashes, and sensory deficits.” In addition, a horse died of suspected heavy metal poisoning, and a dog and goat experienced spontaneous abortion and stillbirths.

The researchers note that some of the industry practices that are quite likely  making animals and humans sick — such as spreading wastewater on rural roads — are perfectly legal. Other practices may not be, but we’ve seen repeatedly over the last few years that fracking is poorly regulated in states where officials are more eager to please their big campaign donors than protect public health. One example of regulatory failure that was also reported this week is particularly alarming.

This report by the group Earthworks focuses on fracking in Karnes County, Texas:

Based on state reports and independent environmental testing, Reckless Endangerment in the Eagle Ford Shale: Government Fails, Public Health Suffers and Industry Profits from the Shale Oil Boom reveals:  

  • Residents faced with industry pollution desperate for help
  • Regulators documented pollution so dangerous that they evacuated
  • Regulators took no recorded action to protect or warn residents, nor penalize polluting companies
  • Residents are still living with the dangerous air pollution including cancer-causing toxics like benzene

“People are afraid to drink their own water, afraid of what the next nose bleed means, afraid their homes are no longer safe to live in. They are even afraid to speak out,” said Sharon Wilson, report co-author and Texas resident.

“We need regulators, whether they’re in Texas, Pennsylvania or the White House, to put community health before fracking industry profits,” she continued. “Right now, they’re not.”

It’s becoming heartbreaking to read reports like this — but they’ve become commonplace since the practice of fracking took root. It’s not a terrible notion to produce domestic natural gas that might put dirtier fuels like coal out of business. But to do that, both the federal Environmental Protection Agency and state regulators will need to draft much more stringent rules and then step up their enforcement of them. Until them, maybe we should listen to the cows. They’re trying to tell us something.

To read more about the latest Cornell research into fracking’s impact on domestic animals and wildlife, please read:

For more information about the Earthworks report on Karnes County, Texas, please read:

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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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