|photo by Frank Finan
Farmers from Colorado to Louisiana to Pennsylvania have seen their livestock sickened or killed from exposure to drilling fluids, muds and additives. Emissions from well sites, processing facilities and flaring also contribute to health impacts. Animals that don’t die outright may lose weight, show decreased fertility, or experience an increased number of stillbirths, abortions, and birth defects.
Industrialized gas drilling has turned rural communities into “de facto laboratories for the study of environmental toxicology,” say veterinarian/researchers Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald. Farmers – and their animals – are not just exposed to drilling substances; they’re also exposed to the naturally occurring metals, volatile organics and radioactive compounds that are brought back to the surface during the drilling process.
Last year the team documented 24 cases of animal and human health problems with potential links to gas drilling. They visited farms, interviewed farmers and veterinarians, obtained water, soil and air testing results and results from human and animal lab tests.
Only two cases of the cases resulted from direct exposure to hydraulic fracturing fluid; most of the exposures were due to consumption of contaminated water from wells, springs, ponds or creeks. While some cases were due to accidents or negligence, for the most part exposures were a consequence of “normal” drilling operations.
The most common symptoms Bamberger and Oswald found were associated with reproduction: cows had trouble breeding and experienced a higher incidence of stillbirths. Of the seven cattle farms studied closely, 50 percent of the herd, on average, either died or failed to breed.
They lucked out when two beef farms provided natural “controls” – an opportunity to compare exposed cattle with their cohorts who were not exposed. In one case 140 cattle were exposed to wastewater that leaked from an impoundment; 70 died and the survivors suffered a high incidence of stillborn and stunted calves. The remainder of the herd – 60 head pastured with no access to the wastewater – experienced no health problems.
In addition to livestock, Bamberger and Oswald documented health impacts for farm dogs, cats, horses, poultry and llamas. In some cases, dogs and cats drank from puddles left when drilling waste fluid was sprayed to reduce dust on roads. Those companion animals experienced reproductive problems. They also suffered from seizures and other neurological problems, gastrointestinal symptoms, and developed skin rashes or lost feathers and hair.
It’s not just the animals that pay the price. Carol and Don Johnson, who raise beef cattle on their Tioga County (PA) farm, have a well drilled on their property. Two years ago, flowback fluid leaked from an impoundment pit leaked onto a pasture where the Johnson grazed their cattle. In response, the PA Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 head, including 16 cows, four heifers and eight calves. Adult animals were held from the food chain for 6 months and calves exposed in utero were held from the food chain for 8 months. But the exposed calves were quarantined for two years – a real loss of income for the Johnsons. Then, last spring they suffered additional losses: eight of 11 calves born to previously quarantined cows died at birth. At $500 to $600 a head this represents a significant financial loss, and the Johnsons have yet to collect any royalties from the well.
Here's a video from Bamberger and Oswald's recent talk in Endicott, NY (filmed by Vera Scroggins)