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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?

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And yet, there is significant anecdotal evidence that suggests fracking can seriously compromise food. In April 2009, 19 head of cattle dropped dead after ingesting an unknown substance near a gas drilling rig in northern Louisiana. Seven months before that, a tomato farmer in Avella, Penn. reported a series of problems with the water and soil on his property after drilling started: he found arsenic levels 2,600 times what is recommended, as well as dangerously high levels of benzene and naphthalene – all known fracking components. And in May 2009, one farmer in Clearview, Penn. told Reuters he thought that gas drilling operations had killed four of his cows.

Occurrences like these aren’t just limited to the eastern U.S. In Colorado, a veterinarian named Elizabeth Chandler has documented numerous fertility problems in livestock near active drill sites, including false pregnancy, smaller litters and stillbirths in goats; reduced birth rates in hogs; and delayed heat cycles in dogs.

In another case, Rick Roles, a resident of Rifle, Colorado, reported that his horses became sterile after three disposal pits were installed near his home. Like those in Chandler’s study, Roles’ goats began yielding fewer offspring and producing more stillbirths. Roles himself suffered from swelling of the hands, numbness and body pain – symptoms, he said, that subsided when he stopped eating vegetables from his garden and drinking his goats’ milk.

Actual scientific studies are few and far between, but what’s out there paints a pretty damning picture. One, titled “Livestock Poisoning from Oil Field Drilling Fluids, Muds and Additives,” appeared in the journal Veterinary & Human Toxicology in 1991. It examined seven instances where oil and gas wells had poisoned and/or killed livestock. In one such case, green liquid was found leaking from a tank near a gas well site. The study’s authors found 13 dead cows, whose “postmortem blood was chocolate-brown in color.” Poisoning cases involving carbon disulfide, turpentine, toluene, xylene, ethylene, and complex solvent mixtures “are frequently encountered,” the study concluded.

Another study, this one conducted in Alberta, Canada in 2001, investigated the effects of gas flaring on the reproductive systems of cattle near active gas and oil fields. Its conclusions: “One of the most consistent associations in the analysis was between exposure to sour gas flaring facilities [as opposed to “sweet” ones, which contain more aromatic hydrocarbons, aliphatic hydrocarbons and carbon particles] and an increased risk of stillbirth. In 3 of the 4 years studied, cumulative exposure to sour flares was associated with an increased risk of stillbirth.”

'Rare Cases'

When questioned about fracking and food, America’s Natural Gas Alliance, an organization composed of the nation’s leading gas production and exploration companies, neglected to get into any specifics. Instead, it offered this response:

“In rare cases where incidents have occurred, companies have worked with the appropriate regulatory authority to identify, contain and correct the issue, and to implement measures to ensure they don’t recur. ANGA member companies understand and respect people’s concerns about the safety of their water and air, and we are committed to engaging in dialogue with community members, policymakers and stakeholders to talk about the safety of natural gas production and the opportunities natural gas offers communities across our country.”

Environmental groups have a markedly different perspective on the issue. “There’s a lot of violations that happen out there that are never documented,” said Wes Gillingham, program director of Catskill Mountainkeeper.

When we talked, Gillingham took out an enormous aerial photo of a drill rig. One disposal pit was surrounded by gray blotches of moisture: leaked fracking fluid. “The stuff that’s coming up – this stuff is getting into the environment,” he said, pointing at the blotches. “You’ve got heavy metals and normally occurring radioactive materials, all of which bioaccumulate in a grazer. That stuff is coming up in the grass where the grass is growing.”