Friday, September 5, 2014

The Real Cost of Fracking

Earlier this week I had the pleasure of talking with Michelle Bamberger, a veterinarian and co-writer of the newly-published book, The Real Cost of Fracking (Beacon Press, Aug 2014). Like many living in Ithaca, Michelle Bamberger and her co-researcher, Robert Oswald had never heard about fracking until about five years ago. That’s when they learned that their property was surrounded by leased land and that their land, even without a lease, could be drilled under through a process called compulsory integration.

They were concerned about potential threats to air and water, to local wineries, tourism, and agriculture. But their involvement with veterinary medicine made them keenly aware of what was happening to animals and livestock in drilling areas. Upon hearing stories about cattle and other animals becoming sick and dying after exposure to drilling fluids, they began documenting health problems -  just as they would do when tracing a new disease. What they learned was that too often the people living in the homes and on the farms experienced health symptoms as well.

Bamberger and Oswald published their findings about impacts of gas drilling on human and animal health in a peer-reviewed journal a couple of years ago. But, says Bamberger, “we realized early on that there are a lot of people who would never pick up a scientific article.” So she and Oswald began writing a book that would reach a broader audience.

The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s shale gas boom is threatening out families, pets, and food is a collection of case studies from Pennsylvania – families and farmers who have seen their animals and children suffer, watched their homes and land lose value, seen their retirement dreams shatter and, in one case, have become shale gas refugees. The book is well-documented, with lots of notes, well-indexed, well-grounded in science – and at the same time very readable.

In the beginning, Bamberger and Oswald outline the difficulties faced by scientists who are trying to study health impacts related to drilling. They discuss baseline water testing, safe drinking water standards, and challenges of air testing. Then they delve into individual case studies. In one chapter they tackle issues of farming and food supply; in another they examine issues of environmental justice.

“We wanted to take our scientific writing and turn it into an interesting story,” Bamberger says. Reading a chapter leaves you asking: if that were me, what would I do?

One caveat the authors put forth at the beginning of the book is that they do not use the real names of the people whose stories they share. While the names are made up, the stories are not, “but each of these stories represents hundreds of similar cases in this country,” Bamberger says.

Collecting information presented a number of challenges for the researchers – from the physical difficulties of reaching some of the locations to obtaining information. One of the obstacles to their research was non-disclosure statements. In many cases where drilling contaminated water wells, the drilling company would require homeowners to sign a statement pledging that they would not talk about their water contamination or any settlement issues before providing drinking water to the home.

The biggest problem with non-disclosure statements, says Bamberger, is that they inhibit the ability of health officials and state regulators to obtain important information about an incident.

Focusing on the health of pets and livestock may seem an odd way to document human health impacts, but Bamberger explains that animals are often the “sentinels” that indicate problems exist. Think: canary in a coal mine. While people head off to work and school, livestock and pets remain on the farm or in the home all day long, exposed to contaminants in air and water. Animals also have higher rates of reproduction and shorter gestation periods than humans, so problems with birth defects often show up earlier, Bamberger points out.

But sentinels can’t replace monitoring – and that’s what’s needed in shale gas country says Bamberger. She points to what happened after the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico: the FDA stepped in because of concerns about seafood absorbing chemicals from the spill. They monitored for oil dispersants and other chemicals – and continue to monitor seafood. But there’s no monitoring of milk, meat or vegetables in and around gas wells, even where there have been spills on pastureland. At almost every meeting she's been to, Bamberger says someone asks whether the food from Pennsylvania farms in gas drilling areas is safe.

As far as whether New York should allow fracking, Bamberger says there’s a lot of science that shows we’re not ready. “Scientists are raising red flags,” she says, “but no one is listening. The government’s not listening. We should get it right before we go further.”

Monday, September 1, 2014

243 and counting... contaminated water cases in PA

Back in July the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) admitted that oil and gas operations damaged water supplies 209 times since end of 2007.

Finally – six years into the Marcellus gas boom – DEP has released details of 243 cases in which oil and gas companies were found to have contaminated private drinking water wells. This past week the agency posted online links to the documents. Names and identifying information has been redacted, but you can read the documents here.

Some of these cases date back to 2008 but, when you look at the dates, DEP never got around to responding to them until months - or in some cases - years later. The cases include some where a single drilling operation affected multiple water wells.

Problems listed in the documents include: spills (waste fluids and other pollutants); high levels of methane gas; ethane; heavy metals; and wells that went dry or were otherwise undrinkable. These documents cover drilling-related water well problems in 22 counties, but most of the cases come from Bradford, Susquehanna, Tioga, and Lycoming counties.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

PA Researchers ask: Will increased family income from gas leasing benefit child-wellbeing?

A couple days ago Penn State University announced that a team of sociology researchers received a grant to study family income and well-being of children in the Marcellus shale region of Pennsylvania and New York. The burning question: is there a difference in the quality of life and academic achievement in children growing up in families that receive gas drilling money compared with those in the same area who receive no money?

According to PSU, the project is supported by a $150,000 grant from the Russell Sage Foundation. Molly Martin, associate professor of sociology and demography at Penn State, is leading the team of researchers who plan to review and analyze data from Pennsylvania and New York school districts located above the Marcellus Shale region. Using Geographic Information Analysis (GIS), they will be able to merge annual maps of Marcellus Shale wells and gas pipelines and locate them within school district boundaries. They will be able to study individual data in various categories by school district, analyzing differences in such things as health outcomes, academic achievement, obesity, teen pregnancy, high school graduation and juvenile delinquency.  

You would think this sort of research – the “do kids do better in families with more money” – has already been done. And you’d be right. In the 2002 Winter/Spring issue of the journal Children and Welfare Reform, Sheila Zedlweski writes, “It is well documented that children in families with greater incomes do better across a wide range of indicators. Economically secure children tend to be healthier and do better in school; they are less likely to be involved in criminal behavior and are more likely to graduate from high school and to earn higher incomes as adults. In contrast, poorer children tend to have fewer opportunities for success.”

Nearly a dozen years later Duncan, et al revisit the issue in the Sept. 2011 issue of Dev Psychol (vol. 47, no. 5). After reviewing the literature and data they suggest that “…a $1,000 increase in annual income increases young children's achievement by 5%–6% of a standard deviation. As such, our results suggest that family income has a policy-relevant, positive impact on the eventual school achievement of preschool children.” Their study, “Does Money Matter?”  – along with loads of links to other similar studies – is posted here in the US National Library of Medicine at the National Institutes of Health.

So do we really need one more study about the effect of income on children’s wellbeing? Dr. Martin she sees this as a “rare opportunity for a natural experiment,” as she told the PSU reporter. “Some families will receive a significant number of royalty checks while others will not,” she said, “because of two factors – one determined by a geological formation created over 300 million years ago (Marcellus Shale) and the other by government policies decided in Harrisburg, PA and Albany, NY.

A more interesting question might be whether the wealth created for a few through gas royalties creates income inequality that affects the well-being of children in those communities.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

PA admits Oil & gas operations damaged water supplies

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection admits that oil and gas operations damaged water supplies 209 times since end of 2007. This picture is worth a thousand words, but you can read the entire  article in Post Gazette.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

PA Regulators Unprepared for Rapid Shale Gas Development

Bradford County, PA
Today Pennsylvania auditor general Eugene DePasquale told the press that the state’s rapid shale gas development outpaced the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s ability to oversee industry and protect water quality. The department, he said, was hampered in doing their jobs by understaffing, lack of modern technological resources, and inconsistent policies.

“It is almost like firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose,” said DePasquale.

The audit, covering 2009 – 2012, revealed that DEP failed to consistently issue official orders to well operators who had been determined by DEP to have adversely impacted water supplies. After reviewing a selection of 15 complaint files for confirmed water supply impact, auditors discovered that DEP issued just one order to a well operator to restore or replace the adversely impacted water supply.

“When DEP does not take a formal, documented action against a well operator who has contaminated a water supply, the agency loses credibility as a regulator and is not fully accountable to the public,” DePasquale said. “When DEP has enforcement authority under the law it must exercise that authority routinely, consistently, and transparently. Those gas well operators whose actions cause harm to water supplies should not get an enforcement ‘pass’ just because they have convinced DEP that they will come into compliance with the law or that they negotiated a settlement with the property owner.”

Other issues outlined in the audit:

DEP did a poor job in communicating its investigation results to citizens who registered complaints with the department. The agency was not always timely in meeting statutory timeframes for response to complaints it did receive.

DEP’s complaint tracking system, used to monitor all environmental complaints including those that are oil and gas related, was ineffective as it did not provide management with reliable information to effectively manage the program.

Auditors were unable to measure how quickly DEP conducted initial inspection of shale gas wells, a basic regulatory responsibility, because of a lack of reliable data. They discovered DEP uses a 25-year-old policy on the frequency of inspections, which has a “loop hole,” that only requires DEP to conduct inspections as it has the financial and human resources to do so.

DEP does not post to its website all statutorily required inspection information. When the data was tested for accuracy, the auditors found errors of more than 25 percent in key data fields, and that as many as 76 percent of inspectors’ comments were omitted from the online inspection reporting.

DEP does not use a manifest system for tracking shale gas well waste from the well site to disposal. Instead DEP relies upon a disjointed process that includes self-reporting by well operators with no assurances that waste is disposed of properly.

Auditors found accessing DEP data to be a challenge, as it is a myriad of confusing web links and jargon. The information that was presented on its decades-old eFACTS database was often incomplete—requiring a physical review of hard-copy files at distant offices to verify the actual information.

Hard-copy files were no better. “Through our audit we found that even conducting a review of hard-copy files is not a fool-proof guarantee, as we found some supporting paper files were missing and DEP was not able to produce them,” DePasquale said.

Overall, the audit lists eight findings and 29 recommendations. Among the recommendations, auditors encouraged DEP to:

  •     always issue an administrative order to a well operator who DEP has determined adversely impacted a water supply—even if DEP used the cooperative approach in bringing the operator into compliance or if the operator and the complainant have reached a private agreement;
  •     develop better controls over how complaints are received, tracked, investigated, and resolved;
  •     hire additional inspectors to meet the demands placed upon the agency;
  •     implement an inspection policy that outlines explicitly the requirements for timely and frequent inspections;
  •     create a true manifest system to track shale gas waste and be more aggressive in ensuring that the waste data it collects is verified and reliable;
  •     reconfigure the agency website and provide complete and pertinent information in a clear and easily understandable manner.

“Shale gas development offers significant benefits to our commonwealth and our nation, but these benefits cannot come at the expense of the public’s trust, health, and well-being,” DePasquale said.

A full copy of the audit report is available here.