Air pollution comes from multiple sources in the fracked gas industry

Fractured: Residents have been distrustful of frackers & abandoned by regulators

From an Article by Kristina Marusic, Reporter, Environmental Health News Network, March 1, 2021

This is part 3 of our 4-part series, “Fractured,” an investigation of fracking chemicals in the air, water, and people of western Pennsylvania.

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Pa.—For nearly a decade, Bryan Latkanich has been telling anyone who’d listen that allowing two fracking wells to be drilled on his farm is the worst mistake he’s ever made. “I was a total cheerleader for this industry at the beginning. Now I just want to make sure no one else makes the same mistake I did. It has ruined my life.”

He’s a single father on disability who leased his land in 2010 at the height of the fracking boom, thrilled to have two wells 400 feet from his home in exchange for what he thought would be millions of dollars in royalties, only to run into problem after problem.

The drilling disturbed more land than had been agreed to or permitted, which he alleges damaged the foundation of his home. He caught workers illegally pumping water out of a pit into the woods behind his property. His well water became undrinkable and he and his son Ryan, who was 2 years-old when the wells went in, developed a rash of ongoing, mysterious health issues. The royalties were a pittance compared to what he expected.

Chevron, which owned and operated the two wells, denies any responsibility for these problems, and Bryan has gotten few answers from the state agencies he’s called upon to investigate.

“I was a total cheerleader for this industry at the beginning,” Bryan told Environmental Health News (EHN). “Now I just want to make sure no one else makes the same mistake I did. This has ruined my health and my kid’s health and destroyed my farm. It has ruined my life.”

If any of this sounds familiar, it could be because parts of Bryan’s story have been told in local and national news stories. Or it could be because there are many stories like this.

In fracking towns across the state and country, people like Bryan have struggled to get answers about what’s happening on their land, in their communities—even in their bodies. The state agencies tasked with overseeing the industry and responding to citizen complaints about pollution and health issues are often under-budgeted, understaffed, and overwhelmed.

In Ohio, for example, a three-year investigation published in September 2020 by environmental advocacy group Earthworks showed that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio Department of Natural Resources failed to act on 39 percent of public complaints filed regarding air pollution from the oil and gas industry. The consequences are exemplified by a 2018 incident: After an explosion at an Exxon fracking well in Belmont County, Ohio, the site leaked methane at a rate of about 132 U.S. tons an hour for 20 days, ultimately emitting more of the powerful greenhouse gas than the entire oil and gas industries of France, Norway or the Netherlands do in an entire year. Methane is 84 times more climate-warming than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Similar stories have also cropped up in Colorado, where researchers uncovered a pattern of fracking-related crimes going unreported or unacknowledged; in North Dakota, where journalists found that accidents and spills were underreported and that regulators rarely used the enforcement tools at their disposal to impose sanctions; and in Texas, where reporters revealed the industry was largely left to self-regulate.

On the federal level, fracking wells are virtually unregulated compared to other polluting industries. While oil and gas wells are technically subject to the Clean Air Act, there are no air monitoring requirements for fracking wells, so monitoring and enforcement are largely left to states.

The same goes for impacts to drinking water—part of a 2005 Bush/Cheney energy bill that’s commonly referred to as the “Halliburton Loophole” exempted natural gas drilling from the national Safe Drinking Water Act. There have been many attempts to close this loophole, but none have succeeded.

Even where federal regulations do exist, meaningful enforcement has been lacking, especially in recent years—the Trump Administration oversaw a 70 percent decrease in criminal prosecutions under the Clean Water Act and more than a 50 percent decrease in prosecutions under the Clean Air Act.

In Pennsylvania, inadequate regulatory oversight has led to criminal charges. In the summer of 2020, following a two-year grand jury investigation, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro charged fracking giants Range Resources and Cabot with environmental crimes related to leaks, pollution, and water contamination, promising that he’s still investigating “more than a dozen” criminal cases related to the oil and gas industry and that more charges are forthcoming.

The grand jury released a scathing 235-page report that documents the litany of health issues experienced by residents living near fracking sites, linking them to a long list of failures on the part of the two state agencies charged with protecting them—the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH). That list includes failing to adequately regulate the industry at its outset, failing to adequately train employees to respond to complaints, failing to adequately test for safety, and failing to notify residents about problems that could impact their health in a timely manner.

The Pennsylvania DEP denies those allegations and has hired outside attorneys to respond to the ongoing criminal investigations.

The report also highlighted the problem of a “revolving door” between industry and the department—DEP employees are often hired away by the industry at a much higher pay rate, creating a clear conflict of interest. In one example, the grand jury learned that a DEP employee was hired by an oil and gas company after he’d issued the same company two improper “plugging” certificates, allowing the company to shut down wells without completing the legally required work to ensure that they were safe.

“Such career progression was not uncommon,” the report stated. “This sort of hiring created an unfortunate talent drain for DEP—but more concerning to us was the potential effect on the integrity of the Department’s investigations.”

At a press conference about the grand jury report in July, Attorney General Shapiro said “DEP and DOH have failed Pennsylvanians, particularly during the early years of the fracking boom.”

This pattern has left many residents feeling that even when their complaints are investigated, the results can’t be trusted. A 2017 investigation by Public Herald journalists found that of the more than 4,100 oil and gas-related drinking water complaints filed by residents over a 13-year period, the PA DEP ruled that water contamination occurring near wells was not related to oil and gas activity 93 percent of the time.

Bryan Latkanich’s complaints were among them. In repeated investigations over the years, the DEP acknowledged that Bryan’s water was contaminated, but ruled that Chevron—the company that drilled, operated, and recently plugged the wells on his property—was not to blame. Chevron has maintained that Bryan’s issues are coincidental and have nothing to do with their wells.

“DEP found no evidence that oil and gas activity adversely impacted Mr. Latkanich’s private water supply,” DEP spokesperson Lauren Fraley told EHN, “but did alert him to sampling results that did not meet statewide health and/or aesthetic standards for his consideration.”

Chevron spokesperson Veronica Flores-Paniagua told EHN, “We have taken Mr. Latkanich’s concerns very seriously. Chevron has thoroughly investigated Mr. Latkanich’s concerns, tested his water, and demonstrated that its operations have not affected Mr. Latkanich’s water.”

Regarding the cracks in the foundation, Flores-Paniagua said a Chevron-hired engineer found a crack in the foundation was the result of an improper design, and not because of Chevron’s operations.

Up until now, Bryan has gotten little help figuring out what’s wrong from doctors, oil and gas employees, or state agency representatives. In 2019, EHN collected urine samples, along with air and water samples, from five families in southwestern Pennsylvania—including Bryan and his son—and had them analyzed for chemicals associated with fracking.

Now for the first time, Bryan has clear evidence that he and Ryan are being exposed to harmful chemicals.

Bryan Latkanich makes breakfast in his Fredericktown, Pennsylvania, home in the summer of 2019 while Environmental Health News reporter Kristina Marusic prepares to package urine samples for freezing and shipping. (Credit: Connor Mulvaney for Environmental Health News)

EHN collected three water samples, four air monitoring samples, and six urine samples over a 5-week period from Bryan and his son Ryan, a precocious redhead who was 9 years old at the time.

We found 12 chemicals that are commonly emitted from fracking sites in one or more of their urine samples, including benzene, toluene, naphthalene, and lesser- known compounds linked to negative health impacts including respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, skin and eye irritation, organ damage, reproductive harm, and increased cancer risk.


See this Overview & Frequently Asked Questions

Fractured: FAQs — Environmental Health News Network, 2/25/21


Families in proximity to drilling, fracking and trucking are at risk

Fractured: The stress of being surrounded by gas well pads and heavy equipment operations

From an Article by Kristina Marusic, Reporter for Environmental Health News Network, March 2, 2021

This is part 2 of our 4-part series, “Fractured,” an investigation of fracking chemicals in the air, water, and people of western Pennsylvania.

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Pa.—In the spring of 2019, after years worrying about exposures from a fracking well about a half mile from her grandkids’ school, Jane Worthington decided to move them to another school district.

Her granddaughter Lexy had been sick on and off for years with mysterious symptoms, and Jane believed air pollution from the fracking well was to blame. She was embroiled in a legal battle aimed at stopping another well from being drilled near the school. She felt speaking out had turned the community against them.

“It seemed like practically everyone in the district had leased their mineral rights,” Jane told Environmental Health News (EHN). “We couldn’t get anywhere with the school board, and it seemed like they all had a reason to want us to just shut up and go away.”

The social strain combined with her granddaughter’s illness was enough to make her want to leave. Money was tight for Jane, who is a single caregiver, but she found a deal on a foreclosure in another school district.

The house, white with sage green shutters, sat on a quiet residential street. It was a bit of a fixer-upper, but she didn’t mind the work—she just wanted a safe, comfortable home for her grandchildren, Lexy and Damien, who she’d raised since they were babies. At the time, Lexy was 15-years old and Damien was 13.

The kids fell in love with the house. There were still fracking wells nearby — they’re virtually impossible to avoid in Washington County — but there were none within a mile of the school, and they didn’t see any new wells being drilled close to the house.

Soon after moving in, though, they learned that their new home was within a mile and a half of a well pad with six wells already in production (meaning no longer being “fracked” or drilled, but producing natural gas and oil), and less than a half mile away from a large metal casting facility. An EHN analysis of the air and water at their new home, along with urine samples from the family, suggest they’re being exposed to higher-than-average levels of many of the chemicals they were concerned about at their old house. “We don’t seem to be able to get away from this,” Jane said.

In 2019, EHN collected urine samples, along with air and water samples, from five families in southwestern Pennsylvania and had them analyzed for chemicals associated with fracking.

Here is how we conducted our study

Jane and her grandchildren were one of the five families we studied. We collected a total of nine urine samples from the family over a 5-week period and found 18 chemicals known to be commonly emitted from fracking sites in one or more samples, including benzene, toluene, naphthalene, and lesser-known compounds—all of which are linked to negative health impacts including respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, skin and eye irritation, organ damage, reproductive harm, and increased cancer risk.

Some chemical exposures aren’t detectable in urine if the body has already processed them, so we also looked for breakdown products, or biomarkers, for harmful chemicals. Some of these biomarkers show up when people consume certain foods or beverages, so to determine whether the levels we saw in Pennsylvania families were normal, we compared them against those seen in the average American using U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

We found that urine samples for Jane and her grandkids contained biomarkers for fracking chemicals at levels higher than the U.S. 95th percentile — the value that 95 percent of Americans fall below, according to that CDC data.

All of the family’s samples exceeded the U.S. 95th percentile for mandelic acid, a biomarker for ethylbenzene and styrene. More than half of the family’s samples exceeded the U.S. 95th percentile for phenylglyoxylic acid, another biomarker for ethylbenzene and styrene, and for trans, trans-muconic acid, a biomarker for benzene. A third of the family’s samples exceeded the 95th percentile for hippuric acid, a biomarker for toluene.

Exposure to these compounds is linked to eye, skin, respiratory and gastrointestinal irritation; neurological, immune, kidney, cardiovascular, blood, and developmental disorders; hormone disruption; and increased cancer risk.

The family’s urine samples also suggested that they had higher-than-average exposures to biomarkers for toluene and xylenes, which are linked to skin and eye irritation, drowsiness and dizziness, and central nervous system damage.

There’s no way to know for certain whether the family’s exposures came from fracking emissions. We visited Jane’s home, had her complete an extensive survey about other possible sources of exposure, and recorded the family’s activities around the time of our sampling and did not find other obvious explanations, though the metal casting facility near Jane’s new home could also contribute to these exposures.

The exposures confirm Jane’s worst fears—that the children she’s tasked with protecting are exposed to harmful chemicals simply because of where they live. But the impacts run deeper. The family seemingly cannot escape the effects of an industry that wields tremendous power in the state and is allowed to operate within 500 feet of schools and homes housing children and other vulnerable residents. Researchers warn the impacts extend to the more out-of-sight aspects of health—people’s sleep, their social network, and their overall mental well being.

“I just wish there was more awareness that it really is dangerous for every family that lives here,” Jane said. “It isn’t as safe as we tend to want to make ourselves feel. This is proof.”


See also: When the Kids Started Getting Sick, Eliza Griswold, New Yorker Magazine, March 2, 2021

After pressure from families, Pennsylvania has launched studies into whether fracking can be linked to local illnesses.


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