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Fracking and Unsafe Drinking Water: Gasland

Updated: Apr 7

The H20 Project is not the only documentary that has explored water quality and contamination. The central theme of the film "Gasland" is the negative impact hydraulic fracturing imposes upon thousands upon thousands of American homes in rural parts of America. Hydraulic Fracturing is the process of injecting liquid at high pressure into subterranean rocks, boreholes, etc so as to force open existing fissures and extract oil or gas. It was invented in 1947. Fracking sites release a toxic stew of chemicals in the air and water that are harmful to human health and are known to cause severe headaches, asthma symptoms, childhood leukemia, cardiac problems and birth defects. The United States is the fastest-growing country in the production of shale oil, using deep vertical-horizontal drilling and hydraulic rock stimulation by fracking. The areas where fracking is most profitable include the Great Plains from Canada south into Texas, the Great Lakes region and an area known as the Marcellus Shale, which reaches from central New York into Ohio and south to Virginia, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. A magnitude 4.7 earthquake on January 28, 2018, a magnitude 5.7 on December 16, 2018 and a magnitude 5.3 on January 3, 2019, to list a few, were all caused by fracking according to research done by the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco. Fracking also requires the use of huge amounts of freshwater, which must often be transported to the fracking site. The average fracking job uses roughly 4 million gallons of water per well, or about as much water as New York City uses every six minutes; thousands of wells are fracked each year.

Without fracking, does this mean we have little to no new natural gas supplies? The vast majority of new natural gas production in the U.S. comes from shale wells, and those wells require fracking to produce. Without natural gas supplies, it will cost more for the average American to heat, cool and keep the lights on in their homes. What about the social costs of fracking? Cleanup of drinking water contamination is so expensive that it is rarely even attempted. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, Cabot Oil & Gas reported having spent $109,000 on systems to remove methane from well water for 14 local households, while in Colorado, cleanup of an underground gas seep has been ongoing for eight years at a likely cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The provision of temporary replacement water supplies is expensive. Cabot Oil & Gas reported having spent at least $193,000 on replacement water for homes with contaminated water in Dimock, Pennsylvania. Fracking can also pollute drinking water sources for major municipal systems, increasing water treatment costs. If fracking were to degrade the New York City watershed with sediment or other pollution, construction of a filtration plant would cost approximately $6 billion. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health recently warned that workers may be at elevated risk of contracting the lung disease silicosis from inhalation of silica dust at fracking sites. Silicosis is one of a family of dust-induced occupational ailments that imposed $50 million medical care costs in the United States in 2007. Fracking and associated activities also produce pollution that contributes to the formation of ozone smog and particulate soot. Air pollution from drilling in Arkansas' Fayetteville Shale region imposed estimated public health costs of more than $10 million in 2008.

The clearance of forest land in Pennsylvania for fracking could lead to increased delivery of nutrient pollution to the Chesapeake Bay, which already suffers from vast nutrient-generated dead zone. The cost of reducing the same amount of pollution as could be generated by fracking would be approximately $1.5 million to $4 million per year.

Gas operations in Wyoming have fragmented key habitat for mule deer and pronghorn, which are important draws for the state's $340 million hunting and wildlife watching industries. The mule deer population in one area undergoing extensive gas extraction dropped by 56 percent between 2001 and 2010. Fracking also produces methane pollution that contributes to global warming. Emissions of methane during well completion from each uncontrolled fracking well impose approximately $130,000 in social costs related to climate change. The truck traffic needed to deliver water to a single fracking well causes as much damage to local roads as nearly 3.5 million car trips. The state of Texas has approved $40 million in funding for road repairs in the Barnett Shale region, while Pennsylvania estimated in 2010 that $265 million would be needed to repair damaged roads in the Marcellus Shale region. Fracking can affect the value of nearby homes. A 2010 study in Texas concluded that houses valued at more than $250,000 and within 1,000 feet of a well site saw their values decrease by 3 to 14 percent. Fracking has several negative impacts on farms, including the loss of livestock due to exposure to spills of fracking wastewater, increased difficulty in obtaining water supplies for farming, and potential conflicts with organic agriculture. In Pennsylvania, the five counties with the heaviest Marcellus Shale drilling activity saw an 18.5 percent reduction in milk production between 2007 and 2010.

Josh Fox, the director and writer of the eye opening documentary, was offered $100,000 for his gas rich land in Pennsylvania. This monetary offer for a priceless piece of his own history prompted him to search for the consequences of natural gas drilling, which include highly unsafe drinking water, serious health issues for those who live close to the sites, and a general disruption of people’s ways of lives as gas companies blithely take over chunks of land (regardless of the connection people inevitably feel to their homes). I fully agree with the standpoint of Josh Fox, because not only do I feel it is morally wrong to ignore the concerns of citizens who feel their homes and rights are being violated, it is also a reflection of a poor law system in which certain loopholes allow oil and gas companies to override laws such as the Clean Water Act that are designed to protect the integrity of our environments and our lives. Federal law is completely ignored because of ulterior motives involving money, power and thoughtless bulldozing of natural landscapes for profit. We are ignoring the inherent value of pristine environmental systems. Oil companies may try to dissuade the general public from believing their mining activities have any harm to the environment or drinking water, that they care about any incidences of water contamination, and that their activities “support America”. If their practices were so harmless, then why won’t they truly reveal the plus or minus 597 "proprietary" chemicals in their fracking solution? What other explanation do they have for the serious side effects people who live near these sites are suffering, when prior to the development of fracking devices, they did not suffer at all? Why is the water suddenly undrinkable, for many people all throughout America, directly after the implementation and usage of these sites and methods? It is not purely coincidental. Furthermore, as Josh Fox points out, when will it become YOUR backyard? This is a fight not just for rural America, but for all of America. Rivers are not just solid branches of water easily identified on the maps....their tributaries are like the thousands upon thousands of blood vessels and capillaries coursing from our veins. The watershed of one place is far reaching, and if homes in the Marcellus Shale, for instance, are negatively impacted by Fracking, it won’t be very long before people in Delaware have contaminated water as well. Passively allowing companies such as Haliburton to continue their practices with impunity, including ignoring the law, is an infringement upon our right to clean water. Wherever fracking does occur, local, state and federal governments should at least comprehensively restrict and regulate fracking to reduce its environmental, health and community impacts as much as possible. Ensure up-front financial accountability by requiring oil and gas companies to post dramatically higher bonds that reflect the true costs of fracking. Over and over again, throughout American History, short- term resource extraction booms have left a dirty long- term legacy, imposing continuing costs on people and the environment years or decades after those who profited from the boom have left the scene. Fracking contaminates drinking water:

-Spills and well blowouts have released fracking chemicals and flowback or produced water to groundwater and surface water. In Colorado and New Mexico, an estimated 1.2 to 1.8 percent of all gas drilling projects result in groundwater contamination.

-Waste pits containing flowback and produced water have frequently failed. In New Mexico, substances from oil and gas pits have contaminated groundwater at least 421 times.

-Faulty well construction has caused methane and other substances to find their way into groundwater. Recent studies have suggested that fracking may also pose a longer-term threat of groundwater contamination. One study used computer modeling to conclude that natural faults and fractures in the Marcellus Shale region could accelerate the movement of fracking chemicals—possibly bringing these contaminants into contact with groundwater in a matter of years. In addition, a recent study by researchers at Duke University found evidence for the existence of underground pathways between the deep underground formations tapped by Marcellus Shale fracking and groundwater supplies closer to the surface.

-The potential for longer-term groundwater contamination from fracking is particularly concerning, as it raises the possibility that contamination will become apparent only long after the drillers responsible have left the scene. Among the costs that result from drinking water contamination are the following: Groundwater Cleanup Groundwater is a precious and often limited natural resource. Once contaminated, it can take years, decades or even centuries for groundwater sources to clean themselves naturally.

-As a result, the oil and gas industry must be held responsible for restoring groundwater supplies to their natural condition. Methane contamination of well water poses a risk of explosion and is often addressed by removing it from water at the point of use. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, Cabot Oil & Gas reported having spent $109,000 on methane removal systems for 14 local households in the wake of drillingrelated methane contamination of local groundwater supplies. In addition, the company spent $10,000 on new or extended vent stacks to prevent the build-up of methane gas in residents’ homes.

-Such measures do not remove methane from groundwater supplies, but merely eliminate the immediate threat to residents’ homes. Removing other toxic contaminants from groundwater is so costly that it it rarely attempted, with costs of hundreds of thousands of dollars or more. In 2004, improper cementing of a fracking well in Garfield County, Colorado, caused natural gas to vent for 55 days into a fault terminating in a surface waterway, West Divide Creek.

-In response to the leak, the company responsible for drilling the well, Encana, engaged in regular testing of nearby wells and installed equipment that injects air into the groundwater, enabling chemical contaminants in the water to become volatile and be removed from the water, using a process known as air sparging. These activities began in 2004 and were still ongoing as of mid-2012.

-The cost of groundwater remediation in the Garfield County case is unknown, “In Dimock, Pennsylvania, Cabot Oil & Gas reported having spent $109,000 on methane removal systems for 14 households.” The Costs of Fracking but likely runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more. A 2004 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) document, referring to the work of a federal roundtable on environmental cleanup technologies, estimated the cost of air sparging at $150,000 to $350,000 per acre.

The legal system often offers little relief for those whose health is impacted by chemically tainted air or water. In order to prevail in court, an individual affected by exposure to toxic chemicals must prove that he or she has been exposed to a specific toxic chemical linked to the health effects that they are experiencing and that the exposure was caused by the defendant (as opposed to the many other sources of possible exposure to toxic chemicals that most people experience every day).

Many waterways in the Marcellus Shale region drain into the Chesapeake Bay. The loss of forests to natural gas development could add to pollution levels in the bay, threatening the success of state and federal efforts to prevent the “dead zone” that affects the bay each summer. Sources: Skytruth, U.S. Energy Information Administration, Chesapeake Bay Program

The public at large will eventually pick up "the tab" for the cost of our energy driven consumption needs and practices that ultimately impact our water supplies and ecosystems.
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