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Fracking With Food: How the Natural Gas Industry Poisons Cows and Crops

Natural gas drilling operations have mucked up food from Colorado to Pennsylvania. So why is no one paying attention?

On the morning of May 5, 2010, nobody could say for sure how much fluid had leaked from the 650,000-gallon disposal pit near a natural gas drill pad in Shippen Township, Penn. -- not the employees on site; not the farmers who own the property; not the DEP rep who came to investigate.

But there were signs of trouble: Vegetation had died in a 30’ by 40’ patch of pasture nearby. A “wet area” of indeterminate toxicity had crept out about 200 feet, its puddles shimmering with an oily iridescence. And the cattle: 16 cows, four heifers and eight calves were all found near water containing the heavy metal strontium. Strontium is preferentially deposited in cows’ bones at varying levels depending on things like age and growth rates. Since slaughtering 28 cattle on mere suspicion can devastate a farmer financially, nobody knows what, if anything, the cows ingested. They're now sitting in quarantine.

The Shippen Township incident isn’t the first time hydraulic fracturing, a controversial gas extraction technique that involves shooting water, sand and a mix of chemicals into the ground to release gas, has been blamed for livestock damage. But for farmers in the northeast whose land sits atop the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation, it is a wake-up call – an event that raises questions about fracking’s compatibility with food production.

“I’ve already heard from a couple of customers that they’re concerned about the location of a drill site near my farm – in terms of the quality and safety of my food,” said Greg Swartz, a farmer in Pennsylvania’s Upper Delaware River Valley. Swartz, who sells all his products locally, fears that leaked fracking fluid could seep into his soil, bioaccumulate in his plants and cost him his organic certification. “There very well may be a point where I am not comfortable selling vegetables from the farm anymore because I’m concerned about water and air contamination issues,” he said.

Air contamination – specifically the production of ozone – is what worries Ken Jaffe, another farmer in Meredith, NY. When excess methane gas, coupled with volatile compounds like benzene, toluene and xylene, are released into the air in a process the gas industry calls “venting,” it can inhibit lung function and wreak havoc on plant life. In Sublette County, WY, fracking has been blamed for ozone levels that are comparable to those in Los Angeles.

Without healthy pasture, Jaffe said, his cows won’t grow. Which means his beef won’t sell. “The economics of my operation are in part based on how many animals I can graze per acre and get them to grow fat,” he told me. “And if I have less grass and less protein and less clover, then I have a problem.”

Over the past two years, horizontal hydraulic fracturing has garnered a lot of attention. Advocates of the practice believe the staggeringly high amounts of gas it makes accessible could serve as a “cleaner-burning” bridge between fossil fuels and renewable energy sources. But critics blame fracking for a whole range of problems -- house explosions, flammable drinking water, chronic sickness, crop failure and air contamination, to name a few. In 2005, the Bush administration introduced the Energy Policy Act, which exempted hydraulic fracturing from several key environmental regulations, including parts of the Clean Water Act and CERCLA (Superfund). Since then, drilling operations (along with corresponding environmental problems) have begun to extend like spiderwebs across states like Colorado, Wyoming, Texas, and Pennsylvania.

For all their concerns, farmers like Swartz and Jaffe comprise only one side of a larger debate over drilling. Leasing one’s land, after all, carries the promise of a comfortable retirement -- sometimes even millions of dollars. And with milk prices making small-scale dairy operations harder and harder to maintain, many farmers are looking for the light at the end of the pipeline.