Environment

Why Fracking Is the Cause of a Growing Number of Road Fatalities

Increased traffic from industrial vehicles has had a deadly impact on auto safety in areas near drilling sites.

Photo Credit: TFoxPhoto / Shutterstock

Lighting your tap water on fire might be the most highly publicized effect of living near fracking operations, but methane migration that causes such explosive problems is sadly just one small issue. Last summer I visited fracking-impacted communities across the country, including California, Colorado, Wyoming, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. One of the most pervasive problems people shared was the dangers posed by increased truck traffic—just getting to the grocery store, for some, was becoming a terrifying experience.

This should come as no surprise: when you industrialize a rural or suburban area, you get lots of trucks. This usually means more traffic, more wear and tear on roads and bridges, and increased accidents.

Fracking a single well (which can be fracked multiple times) can involve thousands of tons of sand, thousands of gallons of chemicals, and millions of gallons of water — all which arrive by truck. And that doesn’t include the trucks needed for equipment, drilling and the oil/gas itself, not to mention the workers coming and going, the building of pipelines, compressor stations, mining for frack sand, and other related infrastructure. Multiple these by hundreds or thousands of wells across a region and you end up with some big problems, especially when this involves windy, country or mountainous roads.

The Associated Press recently did an investigation into just how big a problem this is becoming in areas where oil and gas drilling has dramatically increased in the last few years. The AP found that overall even as our population has grown in the U.S. traffic deaths are on the decline—except in some of the drilling states they examined, where fatalities have increased by more than four times since 2004.

Kevin Begos and Jonathan Fahey write for the AP that the “frenzy of drilling activity contributes” to traffic that has “overwhelmed many communities” and that it’s a well-known risk for the oil and gas industry that doesn’t show any signs of abatement in the near future. Here’s some key data they uncovered:

In North Dakota drilling counties, the population has soared 43 percent over the last decade, while traffic fatalities increased 350 percent. Roads in those counties were nearly twice as deadly per mile driven than the rest of the state. In one Texas drilling district, drivers were 2.5 times more likely to die in a fatal crash per mile driven compared with the statewide average. …

The average rate of deaths per 100,000 people — a key mortality measurement that accounts for population growth — in North Dakota drilling areas climbed 148 percent on average from 2009 to 2013, compared with the average of the previous five years, the AP found. In the rest of the state, deaths per 100,000 people fell 1 percent over the same period.

In 21 Texas counties where drilling has recently expanded, deaths per 100,000 people are up an average of 18 percent. In the rest of Texas, they are down by 20 percent.

In New Mexico they found traffic deaths down 29 percent overall, but only 5 percent in drilling areas. West Virginia saw traffic fatalities decline statewide by 8 percent, except in the areas with the most drilling activity, where fatalities increase 42 percent. Among the deaths last year were two little boys, seven- and eight-year-old brothers who were killed when a water truck rolled on top of the car they were traveling in with their mother.

Elsewhere in the Marcellus shale, a report on the social costs of fracking from Food and Water Watch found that “the rural Pennsylvania counties with the highest density of fracking had the largest increase in heavy-truck crashes after fracking began in 2005 … Heavy-truck crashes increased 7 percent in heavily fracked rural Pennsylvania counties but declined 12 percent in unfracked rural counties once fracking began.”

This means dangerous business for residents and industry workers. Occupational Safety and Health Administration reported that the leading cause of death in the oil and gas industry is actually highway crashes accounting for 4 in 10 of all on-the-job fatalities for the industry. The energy blog FuelFix, which has reported on industry crashes, said possible contributing factors include, “lengthy drives on rural roads, long work hours and driver fatigue.”

But there’s also another reason. “There are oil field exemptions from highway safety rules created in the 1960s that allow truckers in the oil and gas industry to work longer hours than drivers in other industries,” reported Lucija Muehlenbachs and Alan J. Krupnick for the nonpartisan research organization Resources for the Future.

In a New York Times story, Ian Urbina wrote, “Many oil field truckers say that while these exemptions help them earn more money, they are routinely used to pressure workers into driving after shifts that are 20 hours or longer.” The results have proved deadly for workers like Timothy Roth, who was killed in West Virginia when the company truck he was traveling in crashed after the driver fell asleep at the wheel. They had just completed a 17-hour shift and then had to make the drive from Ohio back to West Virginia. This was the second time Roth had been in a truck when his coworker fell asleep at the wheel, Urbina reported, and his company had previously been cited for “‘requiring or permitting’ its oil field truckers to drive after working for 14 hours, the legal limit.”

Muehlenbachs and Krupnick writing for Resources for the Future surmised that, “A better understanding of the extreme costs (such as accidents and fatalities) associated with shale gas development activity could promote attention and resources to preventing such accidents in the future.”

That’s a good start. Or we could just stop fracking everything up and save some lives.

Tara Lohan is a freelance writer and former senior editor at AlterNet. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis, including Water Matters: Why We Need to Act Now to Save Our Most Critical Resource. Follow her on Twitter @TaraLohan.

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