Regulators can’t keep up with the many dangers of fracking


Over the last five years or so, the average citizen has learned a lot about the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for the shale oil and gas that’s trapped deep under the American soil. Thanks to Josh Fox and his “Gasland” documentaries — and the indelible image of a rural homeowner lighting his kitchen tap on fire — a lot of the focus has been on the threat of tainted water. But we now know that some of the greatest threats to public health are in the air.

From Pennsylvania to south Texas, people who leave near fracking rigs complain constantly of noxious odors and report symptoms that we associate with breathing polluted air, such as constant headaches or nausea. That begs the question: How can the Big Oil and Gas companies get away with that? When it seems so clear to so many local residents that fracking causes air pollution, why can’t state regulators, or the federal Environmental Protection Agency, do something?

A new scientific study may have found the answer:

People in natural gas drilling areas who complain about nauseating odors, nosebleeds and other symptoms they fear could be caused by shale development usually get the same response from state regulators: monitoring data show the air quality is fine.

A new study helps explain this discrepancy. The most commonly used air monitoring techniques often underestimate public health threats because they don’t catch toxic emissions that spike at various points during gas production, researchers reported Tuesday in the peer-reviewed journal Reviews on Environmental Health. The study was conducted by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit based near Pittsburgh.

A health survey the group released last year found that people who live near drilling sites in Washington County, Pa., in the Marcellus Shale, reported symptoms such as nausea, abdominal pain, breathing difficulties and nosebleeds, all of which could be caused by pollutants known to be emitted from gas sites. Similar problems have been reported by people who live in the Eagle Ford Shale in South Texas, the subject of a recent investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, InsideClimate News and The Weather Channel.

While residents want to know whether gas drilling is affecting the air near their homes — where emissions can vary dramatically over the course of a day — regulators generally use methods designed to assess long-term, regional air quality.

They’re “misapplying the technology,” said lead author David Brown, who conducted the study with three of his colleagues at the Environmental Health Project.

This is a significant finding, but there’s a bigger principle involved here. The entire history of the fracking boom in America has been marked by this philosophy — drill first, and ask questions later. State and federal regulators allowed this new technology to race forward without knowing the actual risks — or even how to check for them. That’s why we seem to be learning just now of the evidence — which is nearing the point of overwhelming — that fracking is linked to earthquakes. Every day I see a new report from a new region — this just came out today:

Scientists warn that large-scale fracking for shale gas planned by Mexico’s oil company Pemex will cause a surge in seismic activity in northern Mexico, an area already prone to quakes.

Experts link a 2013 swarm of earthquakes in the northern states of Tamaulipas and Nuevo León to hydraulic fracturing or fracking in the Burgos and Eagle Ford shale deposits – the latter of which is shared with the U.S. state of Texas.

Researcher Ruperto de la Garza found a link between seismic activity and fracking, a technique that involves pumping water, chemicals and sand at high pressure into the well, opening and extending fractures in the shale rock to release the natural gas.

I remain very concerned, in particular, about the fracking that is taking place in Southern California, and the recent rise in seismic activity in that heavily populated area. While it’s difficult to prove a direct correlation — that part of the world has long been at risk for earthquakes — it’s hard not to believe that deep-well injection of so much wastewater so close to major fault lines is a terrible idea. Maybe it’s time to change our history with fracking — to start asking questions before it’s too late.

Check out a summary of the Environmental Health report on fracking and air pollution:

Read more about the link between fracking and earthquakes in Mexico:

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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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