Stopping fracking: The air war


As recently as five years ago, few Americans had even heard of fracking. The controversial process for freeing pockets of trapped natural gas or oil from deep shale deposits — which was not economically viable using conventional drilling — was only well known to industry insiders, who pushed special protection for fracking through Congress back in 2006. When the landmen and the first wave of drillers showed up in places like rural Pennsylvania, property owners hard hit by a bad economy were more tuned into how much money they might make than to the environmental impact.

When the Josh Fox documentary “Gasland” first publicized what was happening in his corner of Pennsylvania, the initial complaints were fixated on what was happening underground. Tainted water wells and faucets that could catch fire with a lighted match, thanks to leaking methane, were often the result of shoddy drilling practices. In hindsight, however, it should have been obvious that one of the worst impact from fracking was all the pollution — methane and other chemicals — getting released not just into the water supply but into the air.

Folks are noticing now:

Today, a robust coalition of 64 local, state and national groups filed a petition calling on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to immediately set pollution limits on oil and gas operations in populous centers around the U.S., according to a joint press release. The petition urges the EPA to exercise its authority under the Clean Air Act and require oil and gas companies to limit toxic air pollution from wells in an effort to protect public health.

“More than 150 million Americans now live near oil and gas wells or above shale areas where companies are looking to drill or engage in hydraulic fracturing, and EPA needs to set standards that restrict the hazardous air pollutants they put into the air,” said Earthjustice attorney Emma Cheuse, who filed the petition on behalf of the groups. “Oil and gas wells release chemicals linked to cancer, birth defects, and respiratory disease, and EPA should protect our communities, especially our children, from exposure to these hazards.”

With fracking and other extraction methods encroaching onto urban, suburban and other populated areas, the groups say it is vitally important for the EPA to regulate the energy sector’s hazardous air pollution. The petition states that at least 100,000 tons per year of dangerous air pollution from oil and gas well sites—such as benzene, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, methanol, naphthalene and more—are currently being released freely into the air. These pollutants have been linked to respiratory and neurological problems, birth defects and cancer.

 “Oil and gas wells release chemicals that have clearly and definitely been linked to health harms from nose bleeds and headaches to cancer, birth defects, and respiratory disease,” said James Dahlgren, MD, an internist with a sub-specialty in toxicology and member of Physicians for Social Responsibility-Los Angeles. “I’ve witnessed the harm these toxics cause to people and given everything we know about these pollutants, the EPA must take action to protect communities from exposure to these clear hazards.”

This lawsuit came to my attention over the weekend because one of the 64 groups taking action is the Louisiana Environmental Action Network, or LEAN, a group that I’ve done some work for in the past and is headed up by a tireless advocate for the state’s ecology, Marylee Orr. I’m glad they’re on the case because while Louisiana has been greatly impacted by America’s recent fossil fuel explosion, most of the activity so far has been on the production end — increased pipeline activity, “oil bomb” trains, and oil refining. But in recent weeks, there’s been a big push — opposed by some hardy local residents — to bring fracking as close to home as the heavily populated New Orleans suburbs.

This is a part of the world which — as I’ve written frequently over the years — has earned its nickname of “Cancer Alley,” for the concentration of so many oil and chemical plants and the high rate of disease that comes with it. Louisiana already has ridiculously high rates of benzene and other toxic chemicals in the air that we breathe, so the arrival of fracking is about as welcome as the next Cat 4 hurricane. It’s time that our federal regulators — who dropped the ball in the 2000s — take another close look at the totality of fracking. This includes the air pollution, the water pollution, the waste of billions of gallons of potable water, the high rate of worker injury, and the risk of earthquakes from deep well injection. Fracking isn’t just wrong for Louisiana; it’s wrong for everywhere.

Read more about the 64 groups urging the EPA to limit air pollution from 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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