Environment

8 Dangerous Side Effects of Fracking That the Industry Doesn't Want You to Hear About

Radon gas, anyone?

Photo Credit: Bureau of Land Management

With the recent confirmation by the U.S. government that the fracking process causes earthquakes, the list of fracking's deadly byproducts is growing longer and more worrisome. And while the process produces jobs and natural gas, the host of environmental, health and safety hazards continues to make fracking a hot-button issue that evenly divides Americans.

To help keep track of all the bad stuff, here's a roundup of the various nasty things that could happen when you drill a hole in the surface of the earth, inject toxic chemicals into the hole at a high pressure and then inject the wastewater deep underground.

But first, let's take a look at some of the numbers:

  • 40,000: gallons of chemicals used for each fracturing site
  • 8 million: number of gallons of water used per fracking
  • 600: number of chemicals used in the fracking fluid, including known carcinogens and toxins such as lead, benzene, uranium, radium, methanol, mercury, hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol and formaldehyde
  • 10,000: number of feet into the ground that the fracking fluid is injected through a drilled pipeline
  • 1.1 million: number of active gas wells in the United States
  • 72 trillion: gallons of water needed to run current gas wells
  • 360 billion: gallons of chemicals needed to run current gas wells
  • 300,000: number of barrel of natural gas produced a day from fracking

And here are eight of the worst side effects of fracking you don't hear about from those slick TV commercials paid for by the industry.

1. Burning the furniture to heat the house. 

During the fracking process, methane gas and toxic chemicals leach out from the well and contaminate nearby groundwater. The contaminated water is used for drinking water in local communities. There have been over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination near fracking areas as well as cases of sensory, respiratory and neurological damage due to ingested contaminated water.

In 2011, the New York Times reported that it obtained thousands of internal documents from the EPA, state regulators and fracking companies, which reveal that "the wastewater, which is sometimes hauled to sewage plants not designed to treat it and then discharged into rivers that supply drinking water, contains radioactivity at levels higher than previously known, and far higher than the level that federal regulators say is safe for these treatment plants to handle."

A single well can produce more than a million gallons of wastewater, which contains radioactive elements like radium and carcinogenic hydrocarbons like benzene. In addition, methane concentrations are 17 times higher in drinking-water wells near fracking sites than in normal wells. Only 30-50 percent of the fracturing fluid is recovered; the rest is left in the ground and is not biodegradable.

“We’re burning the furniture to heat the house,” said John H. Quigley, former secretary of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. “In shifting away from coal and toward natural gas, we’re trying for cleaner air, but we’re producing massive amounts of toxic wastewater with salts and naturally occurring radioactive materials, and it’s not clear we have a plan for properly handling this waste."

2. Squeezed out. 

More than 90 percent of the water used in fracking well never returns to the surface. Since that water is permanently removed from the natural water cycle, this is bad news for drought-afflicted or water-stressed states, such as Arkansas, California, Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Utah, Texas and Wyoming.

"We don't want to look up 20 years from now and say, Oops, we used up all our water," said Jason Banes of the Boulder, Colorado-based Western Resource Advocates.

The redirection of water supplies to the fracking industry not only causes water price spikes, but also reduces water availability for crop irrigation. 

"There is a new player for water, which is oil and gas," said Kent Peppler, president of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union. "And certainly they are in a position to pay a whole lot more than we are."

3. Bad for babies. 

The waste fluid left over from the fracking process is left in open-air pits to evaporate, which releases dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the atmosphere, creating contaminated air, acid rain and ground-level ozone.

Exposure to diesel particulate matter, hydrogen sulfide and volatile hydrocarbons can lead to a host of health problems, including asthma, headaches, high blood pressure, anemia, heart attacks and cancer.

It can also have a damaging effect on immune and reproductive systems, as well as fetal and child development. A 2014 study conducted by the Colorado Department of Environmental and Occupational Health found that mothers who live near fracking sites are 30 percent more likely to have babies with congenital heart defects.

Research from Cornell University indicates an increased prevalence of low birth weight and reduced APGAR scores in infants born to mothers living near fracking sites in Pennsylvania. And in Wyoming's Sublette County, the fracking boom has been linked to dangerous spikes in ozone concentrations. A study led by the state's Department of Health found that these ozone spikes are associated with increased outpatient clinic visits for respiratory problems

4. Killer gas. 

A recent study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that homes located in suburban and rural areas near fracking sites have an overall radon concentration 39 percent higher than those located in non-fracking urban areas. The study included almost 2 million radon readings taken between 1987 and 2013 done in over 860,000 buildings from every county, mostly homes.

A naturally occurring radioactive gas formed by the decay of uranium in rock, soil and water, radon—odorless, tasteless and invisible—moves through the ground and into the air, while some remains dissolved in groundwater where it can appear in water wells. It is the second leading cause of lung cancer worldwide, after smoking. The EPA estimates approximately 21,000 lung cancer deaths in the U.S. are radon-related.

"Between 2005-2013, 7,469 unconventional wells were drilled in Pennsylvania. Basement radon concentrations fluctuated between 1987-2003, but began an upward trend from 2004-2012 in all county categories," the researchers wrote.

That trending period just happens to start when Pennsylvania's fracking boom began: Between Jan. 1, 2005, and March 2, 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued 10,232 drilling permits; only 36 requests were denied.

5. Shifting sands. 

In addition to all the water and toxic chemicals, fracking requires the use of fine sand, or frac sand, which has driven a silica sand mining boom in Minnesota and Wisconsin, which together have 164 active frac sand facilities with 20 more proposed. Both states are where most of the stuff is produced and where regulations are lax for air and water pollution monitoring. Northeastern Iowa has also become a primary source.

"Silica can impede breathing and cause respiratory irritation, cough, airway obstruction and poor lung function," according to Environmental Working Group. "Chronic or long-term exposure can lead to lung inflammation, bronchitis and emphysema and produce a severe lung disease known as silicosis, a form of pulmonary fibrosis. Silica-related lung disease is incurable and can be fatal, killing hundreds of workers in the U.S. each year."

"I could feel dust clinging to my face and gritty particles on my teeth,” said Victoria Trinko, a resident of Bloomer, Wisconsin. Within nine months of the construction of frac sand mine, about a half-mile from her home, she developed a sore throat and raspy voice and was eventually diagnosed with environment-caused asthma. She hasn't opened her windows since 2012.

Across the 33-county frac sand mining area that spans Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, nearly 60,000 people live less than half a mile from existing or proposed mines. And new danger zones will likely pop up around the nation: Due to the fracking boom, environmentalists and public health advocates warn that frac sand mines could spread to several states with untapped silica deposits, including Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Vermont and Virginia.

Bryan Shinn, the chief executive of sand mining company U.S. Silica Holdings said in September that due to the fracking boom, they "see a clear pathway to the volume of sand demand that's out there doubling or tripling in the next four to five years."

6. Shake, rattle and roll. 

On April 20, the U.S. Geological Survey released a long-awaited report that confirmed what many scientists have long speculated: the fracking process causes earthquakes. Specifically, over the last seven years, geologically stable regions of the U.S., including parts of Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, New Mexico, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, have experienced movements in faults that have not moved in millions of years. Plus, it's difficult or impossible to predict where future fracking-caused earthquakes will occur.

"They're ancient faults," said USGS geophysicist William Ellsworth. "We don’t always know where they are."

Ellsworth led the USGS team that analyzed changes in earthquake occurrence rates in the central and eastern United States since 1970. They found that between 1973–2008, there was an average of 21 earthquakes of at least magnitude three. From 2009-2013, the region experienced 99 M3+ earthquakes per year. And the rate is still rising. In Oklahoma, there were 585 earthquakes in 2014—more than in the last 35 years combined.

"The increase in seismicity has been found to coincide with the injection of wastewater in deep disposal wells in several locations, including Colorado, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Ohio," the report states. "Much of this wastewater is a byproduct of oil and gas production and is routinely disposed of by injection into wells specifically designed and approved for this purpose."

For many years, Oklahoma's government has been reluctant to concede the connection between fracking and earthquakes. In October of last year, during a gubernatorial election debate with state Rep. Joe Dorman, a Democrat, Governor Mary Fallin, a Republican, declined to say whether or not she believed earthquakes were caused by fracking. Fallin was re-elected.

But the government has finally come around. The day after the USGS report was released, on April 21, the Oklahoma Geological Survey, a state agency, released a statement saying that is it "very likely that the majority of recent earthquakes, particularly those is central and north-central Oklahoma, are triggered by the injection of produced water in disposal wells."

The same day, the state's energy and environment department launched a website that explains the finding along with an earthquake map and what the government is doing about it all. According to the site, "Oklahoma state agencies are not waiting to take action." 

Now there is a split between the state's governmental branches: Two days after the executive branch admitted that fracking causes earthquakes, the state's lawmakers, evidently unmoved by the trembling ground, passed two bills, backed by the oil and gas industry, that limit the ability of local communities to decide if they want fracking in their backyards.

7. The heat is on. 

Natural gas is mostly methane, a highly potent greenhouse gas that traps 86 times as much heat as carbon dioxide. And because methane leaks during the fracking process, fracking may be worse than burning coal, mooting the claim that natural gas burns more cleanly than coal.

"When you frack, some of that gas leaks out into the atmosphere," writes 350.org co-founder Bill McKibben. "If enough of it leaks out before you can get it to a power plant and burn it, then it's no better, in climate terms, than burning coal. If enough of it leaks, America's substitution of gas for coal is in fact not slowing global warming."

A recent international satellite study on North American fracking production led by the Institute of Environmental Physics at the University of Bremen in Germany found that "fugitive methane emissions" caused by the fracking process "may counter the benefit over coal with respect to climate change" and that "net climate benefit…is unlikely." 

"Even small leaks in the natural gas production and delivery system can have a large climate impact—enough to gut the entire benefit of switching from coal-fired power to gas," writes Joe Romm, the founding editor of the blog Climate Progress. "The climate will likely be ruined already well past most of our lifespans by the time natural gas has a net climate benefit."

8. Quid pro quo?

Finally, one of the more insidious side effects of fracking is less about the amount of chemicals flowing into the ground and more about the amount of money flowing into politicians' campaign coffers from the fracking industry.

According to a 2013 report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), contributions from fracking trade groups and companies operating fracking wells to congressional candidates representing states and districts where fracking occurs rose by more than 230 percent between the 2004 and 2012 election cycles, from $2.1 million to $6.9 million.

That is nearly twice as much as the increase in contributions from the fracking industry to candidates from non-fracking districts during the same period, outpacing contributions from the entire oil and gas industry to all congressional candidates. Republican congressional candidates have received nearly 80 percent of fracking industry contributions.

"The fracking boom isn’t just good for the industry, but also for congressional candidates in fracking districts," said CREW executive director Melanie Sloan.

The candidate who has received the most in contributions from the fracking industry is Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX). Barton received more than $500,000 between the 2004 and 2012 election cycles—over $100,000 more than any other candidate in the nation. It should come as no surprise that Barton sponsored the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which exempted fracking from federal oversight under the Safe Drinking Water Act.

On April 21, Colorado and Wyoming filed a lawsuit challenging the new federal fracking regulations issued last month by the Bureau of Land Management for onshore drilling on tribal and public lands, claiming that the rule, which regulates underground injections in the fracking process, "exceeds the agency's statutory jurisdiction."

"The debate over hydraulic fracturing is complicated enough without the federal government encroaching on states’ rights," said Colorado Attorney General Cynthia H. Coffman, in a statement. "This lawsuit will demonstrate that BLM exceeds its powers when it invades the states’ regulatory authority in this area."

Coffman, a Republican, is married to Colorado Rep. Mike Coffman (CO-8), also a Republican. Coffman and two other GOP representatives from the state, Scott Tipton (CO-3) and Doug Lamborn (CO-5), have sponsored a trio of bills—H.R. 4321, 4382 and 4383 (called the “3 Stooges” bills by environmentalists)—that would fast-track leasing and permitting for drilling and fracking on public lands. These three congressmen, each of whom have received more than $100,000 in contributions from the oil and gas industry, sit on the Natural Resources Committee and naturally oppose federal regulations on fracking. 

Short-Term Thinking

Fracking proponents point to the fact that it produces natural gas and jobs; indeed takes credit for boosting the economy during the recession. But at what cost to public health and the environment? And can the true cost be known when there is a lack of transparency in the fracking industry?

With little federal oversight, states have created a non-uniform patchwork of regulation: Illinois requires fracking companies to disclose information about the chemicals they use before they drill and monitor groundwater through the process, while Virginia doesn't require any disclosure.

"So far, the industry has successfully fended off almost all federal regulation of fracking, in part through key exemptions from federal laws such as the Safe Drinking Water Act, which otherwise would allow the EPA to directly regulate fracking and other aspects of oil and gas production," says CREW.

The FRAC Act (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act) would require the energy industry to disclose all chemicals used in fracturing fluid and also repeal fracking's exemption from the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Of course, everyone wants reliable domestically produced energy that creates jobs and energy independence. But nothing comes for free. And in the case of fracking, still with so many unknowns, the price in the long run may be too great.

That's part of the message that Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) hope the American public gets. On April 22, Earth Day, the two lawmakers introduced the Protect Our Public Lands Act, H.R. 1902. The strongest anti-fracking bill ever introduced into Congress, it seeks to ban fracking on public lands. Today, 90 percent of federally managed lands are open for potential oil and gas leasing; the remaining 10 percent are reserved for conservation, recreation, wildlife and cultural heritage.

"Our national parks, forests and public lands are some of our most treasured places and need to be protected for future generations,” said Pocan. "It is clear fracking has a detrimental impact on the environment and there are serious safety concerns associated with these type of wells. Until we fully understand the effects, the only way to avoid these risks is to halt fracking entirely. We should not allow short-term economic gain to harm our public lands, damage our communities or endanger workers."

Sounds logical enough. But with oil and gas money steering the Republican-controlled Congress, the bill is dead in the radioactive wastewater.

Reynard Loki is AlterNet's environment, food and animal rights editor. Follow him on Twitter @reynardloki. Email him at [email protected].

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