By Laura Grace Weldon. The following article has been condensed from a much more comprehensive document, from the perspective of a small farm in eastern Ohio.
A dairy farm is the first in our area to begin hydraulic fracturing. This process was developed to extract formerly unattainable gas and oil from rock a mile or more below the surface. Unlike old style wells bored straight down or at a slant, these go down and then proceed horizontally. Using a mixture of water, sand, and chemicals the rock is fractured (hence the name) to release fossil fuels. This is commonly called fracking.
The bucolic farm is snuggled along gentle hillsides. An Amish buggy went by as I took in the dissonant sight of Holsteins grazing and huge rigs marked Halliburton parked just off the narrow rural road. Drilling hadn’t started. I wondered if fracking chemicals could possibly affect those cows and wind up in their milk.
The industry paints a pretty picture of drilling and fracking. It seems to me they’re blurring the distinction between decades of experience in vertical drilling methods and the much newer process of fracking. It’s not hard to find incidents around my hometown of older-style wells causing trouble. That includes homes with explosive levels of methane as well as a house explosion linked to inadequate cementing of well casings. Apparently such problems have occurred in both vertically drilled wells and fracked wells.
But technically, assertions that fracking is safe are largely true. That’s because industry and government regulatory agencies use the term “fracking” only as it relates to the actual process of pumping fluids into the ground to break apart rock. So when they make claims about fracking safety, they don’t include what happens while drilling, constructing the well, setting off explosions, dealing with blowouts or well fires, storing waste water in open containment basins, vapors emitted from condensate tanks, open flaring to burn off gasses, transporting waste, injecting waste water into deep disposal wells, or at any point in the future when the wells may leak.
I think it’s time we developed a new word or phrase to discuss the issue more clearly. For now I’ll use “fracking-related activity.”
The promise of a hefty income rising from the ground well below our feet comes at a time when many Americans are reeling from unemployment, poor housing prices, and debt. And all over the country, property owners like small to medium dairy farms are losing their livestock and often their land because they can’t turn a profit. Fracking seems like a life line.
At an open house meeting last fall, a conversation between an Ohio property owner and industry representatives was tape recorded. The property owner asked about chemicals used in fracking. He was told, “We don’t put any chemicals down in the ground. We just use regular, fresh water.” Later another industry representative qualified that statement slightly, saying the process uses household chemicals like dish washing detergent.
And leases may be misleading. A New York Times review of 111,000 documents showed that most homeowners aren’t aware what rights the industry takes.
- A majority of leases do not require companies to compensate landowners for water contamination or damages to the land.
- Even if state regulations force industry to replace contaminated drinking water, not all costs are covered nor are needs of crops or livestock included.
- Many consumer protection laws do not apply.
- Some leases deduct costs such as hauling to or from the site.
- Energy companies can use the property to build roads, store chemicals, cut down trees, run equipment 24 hours a day, and build containment ponds (in some instances covering them with dirt rather than hauling away the waste).
- Few landowners are fully aware that their property becomes, in essence, an industrial site.
- Some homeowners’ insurance policies will not cover problems related to fracking.
- They also may not be aware of a potential loss in property value.
But local citizens have very little control over fracking. Depending where they live, fracking may occur under cemeteries and in state parks. Some cities as well as colleges are considering lease offers. Despite regulations that normally zone residential areas apart from industrial areas, drilling can take place near homes and schools. Residents in Colorado, Texas, West Virginia, and elsewhere are advocating for stronger regulations to protect schoolchildren from the noise and dust generated by these sites. In some areas drilling sites are only required to be 350 feet from schools and 200 feet from homes.
Any talk of jobs is likely to generate enthusiasm in our still flagging economy. Those of us living in shale oil areas have been told that an employment boom is around the corner. In Ohio we’re assured that our state will see 65,000 jobs and $3.3 billion in wages within two years. But analysis of data from states already experiencing a fracking boom finds only a modest rise in employment, even when factoring in supply chain jobs and increased spending by workers and landowners. Looking more closely at the numbers, it’s clear that the majority of the energy paychecks are going to out-of-state contract workers who handle drilling and hauling.
Oil field workers are exempt from certain safety rules, leading to a higher rate of accidents than other industries. In one state alone, police found that 40 percent of the 2,200 oil and gas industry trucks inspected were in such serious disrepair they were taken off the road. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fatality rates for oil workers are seven times the national average.
Fracking-related activity actually places a heavy burden on municipalities. The industry estimates over 200,000 new wells will be fracked across the U.S. in the next decade. Each one requires 500 to 1,500 truck trips to haul equipment, water, and waste. Massively increased traffic brought by these heavy rigs is likely to hasten the deterioration of roads and bridges.
The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) puts out regular report cards on the country’s infrastructure. They note that bridges are normally built to last 50 years. The average U.S. bridge is now 43 years old. Overall, the ASCE gives U.S. infrastructure (including roads, bridges, and water supply) a grade of ”D.”
The fluid that comes back from fracking contains ingredients that didn’t go in. This means naturally occurring matter such as heavy metals, volatile organic compounds (including benzene, toluene, xylene), radioactive materials (including lead, arsenic, strontium), even acidic microbes. How do the chemicals and other toxins linked to fracking-related activity get into the environment? Here are a few routes.
- Leaks and spills during transportation, mixing, or other fracking-related activity. The industry reports millions of gallons spilled in one state alone.
- Liners that leak or burst, spilling fluids into the soil. Birds and other wildlife are known to be affected.
- Exhaust from diesel trucks and diesel generators running day and night.
- Flaring of gas (burning into the air), venting of gas (directly releasing into the air), as well as air release via dehydration units and condensate tanks.
- Evaporating unknown quantities of chemicals into the air from open containment “ponds” of fracking waste. Misters often spray the liquid in the air to speed up the process. This is standard across much of the industry.
- Contamination of ground water at depths used for drinking water, typically caused by failures of well casings but also possibly due to increased permeability of rock layers.
- Inadequate treatment of waste water at sewage plants.
- Waste water released into surface bodies of water.
- Spraying treated fracking brine on roads to control dust or melt ice, a method approved by Ohio EPA and used in many other states although the U.S. EPA advises against this practice.
When I set out to find all I could about fracking I didn’t anticipate such disturbing information nor could I have known fracking would soon intrude on our lives. I recently learned that fracking leases have been signed within sight of us to the west, north, and south. I’m concerned about our land where our cows graze and our chickens scratch. I’m concerned about my family’s health. And I’m wondering if you’re concerned too.
>>> Laura Grace Weldon lives on a small farm in eastern Ohio and is the author of Free Range Learning. >>>