Fracking With Food: How the Natural Gas Industry Poisons Cows and Crops
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Some have found it. According to one Penn State study, Pennsylvania made a $2.95 billion profit from drilling in 2008 alone; the state also gained 53,000 new jobs. And in the Windsor/Deposit area of New York, 300 property owners have signed a lease with XTO Energy that covers 37,000 acres and is worth $90 million (notably, the lease contains a provision that indemnifies drillers against damage to livestock). Though New York is still waiting on its Department of Environmental Conservation for the go-ahead to start horizontal drilling, much of the state’s topography has already been carved, cordoned and auctioned off to eager gas companies.
“The way things are now financially, it would be hard to turn [leasing] down,” said Richard Dirie, a dairy farmer near Youngsville, NY. “Farming is definitely a physical occupation. You definitely reach an age where -- I don’t care if you want to do it or not -- you just can’t do it anymore.”
Dirie has not yet leased his land. But at 59, he’s not sure he would reject an offer if it came his way. “I keep saying, ‘I hope they don’t come and talk to me.’ That way I don’t have to make a decision, you know?”
Gas drilling raises a lot of questions for farmers short on options. Is it worth the risk to retire comfortably? What are the implications for future use of the land? Perhaps most importantly: How does fracking affect crops, livestock and, by extension, the people who consume them? Answers are scarce.
“There’s a lot going on out there and we don’t know most of it,” Swartz said.
The Knowledge Vacuum
It’s with good reason that Jaffe describes fracking’s relationship to food as “a knowledge vacuum.” Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture can’t say for sure whether or not any cows in the state came into contact with fracking fluid before the Shippen Township incident in May. Nor can it guarantee similar things won’t happen in the future. “We hope that this is the exception rather than the rule,” said spokesman Justin Fleming. “We hope that this is an extraordinarily rare occurrence.”
A representative for the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service -- the organization in charge of testing milk and meat for chemicals – neglected to comment on whether or not heavy metals like the strontium found in Shippen Township were considered “adulterated” under the Federal Meat Inspection Act. He also did not immediately comment on whether naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORMS) -- known to surface after a well has been fractured – fall under the act’s clause banning meat from being “intentionally subjected to radiation.”
Scientists, too, are grappling for information. Though there exists an increasingly comprehensive catalog of knowledge about water problems related to fracking, little work has been done to determine how the practice affects animals and crops.
“I see very little research being done on cows,” said Theo Colborn, founder of the non-profit Endocrine Disruption Exchange. Because animal testing with many chemicals known to be involved in fracking has historically failed to deal with instances of a) limited exposure and b) prolonged exposure, no one really knows what the potential health effects are – for cows or humans.
“It’s very difficult to deal with this problem,” Colborn said. “Who has the money? Who can perform the tests?”
Certainly not the federal EPA. Earlier this year, it announced plans to launch a two-year study of hydraulic fracturing’s effects on water. According to an EPA spokesperson, no part of that study will deal with plants or animals.