days of fracking rage

September 24, 2012

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At the front of the protest march are Iris Marie Bloom of Protecting our Waters and
Doug Shields, the former Pittsburgh councilman who helped enact an ordinance
banning fracking in his city. //photo by Protecting Our Waters

“An uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale”

Those words are not the fired-up, angry rhetoric of a fracking activist but rather the measured, data-based assessment of a Cornell University professor of molecular medicine who has long studied the effects of toxins on the central nervous system. During a presentation Friday morning in a wood-paneled, vaulted-ceilinged hall at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, Robert E. Oswald Ph.D. mentioned the spread of fracking around the world and said everyone should be concerned. “Without rigorous scientific studies, the gas drilling boom will remain an uncontrolled health experiment on an enormous scale,” Dr. Oswald said. Exactly.

The scientific symposium was held during two days of fighting fracking in Philadelphia, including the Shale Gas Outrage protest on Thursday and an organizing conference Friday afternoon. The protest, outside the industry’s Shale Gas Insight conference at the Philadelphia Convention Center, ended in a march past the offices of PNC Financial Services Group, a major investor in fracking and mountaintop removal for coal, and the offices of Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett, one of the fracking industry’s biggest boosters.

Through the massive glass windows of the climate-controlled convention center, industry’s suited soldiers smirked and stared upon the fracking protesters below, who at one point raised middle fingers upward. Stephen Cleghorn, a Pennsylvania organic cheese farmer, who spread his wife’s ashes on his land in the spring and declared it sacred and off limits to drillers, urged protesters to shut down next year’s industry conference. “The people in this convention center are on the march to destroy my farm, and I’m not going to let it happen,” he said. Industry’s strategy is to contaminate, deny, litigate, settle and gag. “We should not let them plan the destruction of this Earth,” he said.

Gauging the extent of that destruction is the work of Dr. Oswald and Dr. Michelle Bamberger, a veterinarian in private practice in Ithaca, N.Y. At the symposium, they discussed their peer-reviewed research, published in January in Scientific Solutions, about farm animals, deer, fish and birds, cats and dogs and their owners near drilling sites in six states, with most cases in Pennsylvania. They said the study of animals provides clues to the effects on humans and is particularly valuable because animals’ breeding and exposure rates are higher. Using veterinary records, the scientists had a baseline that covered the five years before drilling as a basis for comparison. In one Louisiana case in the study, 17 previously healthy cattle died within an hour of exposure to fracking fluid, Dr. Bamberger said. In another case, cows were exposed when wastewater spilled in a pasture and then seeped into a pond. The following spring, the researchers documented stillbirths and failure to breed. Their study includes a catalog of stillbirths, failure to breed, drops in milk production, skin ailments, lameness, sudden death and other effects in animals. People reported headaches, burning eyes and intestinal, skin and other ailments.

Dr. Oswald said, “Decisions need to be based on science, and we don’t have good scientific data on health impacts of high volume hydraulic fracturing.” So far, the burden of proving the practice dangerous has been on the public and medical community — the same scenario that played out over the years as the tobacco industry denied that nicotine was dangerous. In another comparison, he said that when patients died from taking the pain-reliever Vioxx, the manufacturer, Merck, could not simply go to the victims’ families, offer them compensation and then forbid them to talk. But that is what happens when the fracking industry uses payoffs and nondisclosure agreements to silence people who have been harmed, he said. “When issues of public health are at hand, this should not be something that is legal,” Dr. Oswald said.

In Pennsylvania, he said, spreading fracking wastewater on roads to melt ice is legal. In fact, it’s labeled a “beneficial use.” It can’t be used to suppress dust, although he showed a photo of the fluid being used for that purpose. “What’s not seen in the photo is how bad the smell is,” he said. “Or that a duck pond received the runoff.”

Also at the symposium were Dr. David J. Carey, associate chief research officer of the Weis Center for Research at the Geisinger Clinic, and Raina Rippel, director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project. Rippel is in the trenches, working with families affected by drilling in Washington County, south of Pittsburgh. Hers is not a scientific study, she said, because “there is no control group in southwest Pennsylvania.” Everyone is exposed. People harmed by drilling often feel they are not believed, she said. “It appears to be unbelievable. My message to you is: Believe it.”

She has compiled a list of health problems of 56 people so far, including skin rashes, abdominal pain, vomiting, breathing difficulties, eye and throat irritations, nosebleeds and anxiety. At times in tears, she said, “I’m a new mom, and it’s heartbreaking” to see children affected and families bewildered. “These people are suffering right now serious quality-of-life issues.” She said diesel fumes and stress are major problems. She said she also sees “heroic efforts on a daily basis to provide water to people who no longer have water. … An industry has come and taken away people’s water with no punitive enforcement.” She also faces a “wall of silence” created by nondisclosure policies. People don’t feel free to talk, she said. She mentioned several effects on farms. Some people avoid eating food grown on local farms because they fear the water is contaminated. On the other hand, farms are disappearing; with large checks from the gas leases, some people give up farming.

Dr. Carey said Geisinger has been collecting health information on patients in northeast Pennsylvania, in particular Bradford County, since the 1990s. So, last fall, the health system decided to start studying the health effects of drilling. The patients live in some of the poorest counties in the state and also in areas with the most intense drilling. “These are vulnerable communities,” he said. Geisinger is working with 20 organizations, including another regional health-care system. Most of the funding is from private foundations. The project uses GIS mapping technology to determine how close patients live to drilling and tracks asthma, perinatal outcomes (from 4,000 births per year in the area), trauma (such as from vehicle accidents), cardiovascular disease, cancer and community impacts. The goal is to have a searchable database and solid science that can be used eventually for policy, mitigation and prevention, he said.

Meanwhile, though, the fracking experiment on people, wildlife, land, air and water continues. But not without fierce resistance. Protesters at the Shale Gas Outrage event came from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, New York, Delaware, Maryland, Ohio and other states. The morning of the protest, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration announced that it would delay lifting a moratorium on fracking until the state conducts a study of the public health effects. In Maryland, where coalitions of environmentalists, farmers, public health professionals, faith groups and others are pressing for either a legislative moratorium or ban, the Daily Record reported the day of the protest that up to half the drillers are walking away from leases, some signed as early as 2006, in Garrett and Allegany counties. The article said that if Maryland allows fracking, industry expects “some of the toughest regulations and perhaps the highest severance tax in the country.”

Maryland’s efforts were not unnoticed at the rally. Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, said we as protesters need to expand our political power and force out politicians who do industry’s bidding. Gov. Martin O’Malley wants to be president, she said. “Is he going to be president if he allows fracking in Maryland?” she asked the crowd, to calls of “No!”

During the protest, Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, said the most significant event this summer was that the “Arctic melted like it’s never melted before.” The long Arctic night has begun, he said, but with 75 percent less sea ice than 40 years ago. Although James Hansen called the melt “a planetary emergency,” the industry continues to search for more fossil fuels to burn, whether from the Arctic or tar sands or deep underground in shale rock. “At a certain point, we need to remember the first law of holes, which is: When you are in one, at the very least stop digging,” McKibben proclaimed.

The industry, as McKibben outlined in his August Rolling Stone article, already has in reserves five times more carbon than would be safe to burn, and even if the economy converted to natural gas, the global temperatures would still rise 6 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, and carbon dioxide would reach 660 parts per million in the atmosphere. “That’s what these guys are planning for us, and we have to stop them,” McKibben said. He said churches and colleges should divest from fossil fuel companies, and we should resist fracking, even it means civil disobedience and going to jail.

Pointing to the industry executives in the convention center, Wes Gillingham of Catskill Mountainkeeper, said, “They are the extremists inside. … We are the sensible ones in the room.”

Several families harmed by fracking spoke, including Nancy Bevins of West Virginia, whose 23-year-old son died, crushed between a forklift and a building, when muddy ground shifted in central New York as he was setting up a drilling rig. The workers had asked for more mats to place on top of the mud but were told they were too costly. Her son was earning $13.25 an hour. Carol French said nine wells surround her organic farm in Bradford County. In March 2011, the water changed color. It contained sand and green moss and “gels like Jello if it sits for three hours.” To the industry folks, she said: “You do not have a right to choose who will be sacrificed.”

Josh Fox, the “Gasland” filmmaker, focused on the eventual failure of cement casings that surround the steel drills and isolate the fracking fluid from the aquifers. Five percent of these casings fail immediately, others fail over time. “If 5 percent of planes crashed, we wouldn’t have airports,” he said. “We are condemning Pennsylvania to a permanent condition of life support.”

Biologist, ecologist and author Sandra Steingraber, who lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York, said she carried with her “ferocious opposition to fracking” from her state – as well as a two small jars of silica sand from her childhood home in LaSalle County, Ill. Water is the delivery system, she said, but sand from Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota props open the fissures so the gas, benzene, radon, toluene can rise to the surface. That sand is readied for fracking in a facility a half-hour from her New York home. “Thus, the beloved landscape of my childhood home is being dismantled and carted off for storage in my children’s childhood home en route to destroy the bedrock and the landscape of Pennsylvania’s children,” she said.  And silica dust causes lung cancer. Steingraber, who was diagnosed at age 20 with bladder cancer, said she is part of a cancer cluster of those who drank the carcinogen-laced tap water in her Illinois town. “It is my job to make sure that my two children don’t become cancer data points in their hometown,” she said.

Governor Corbett, according to local newspaper and radio reports, said, “Our opponents agree that we can land a rover on Mars, but they can’t bring themselves to think we can safely drill a mile into our own soil.” At the rally, in fact, one speaker mentioned landing a rover on Mars—noting that if we could accomplish that, we should be able to figure out how to power the economy on wind, solar and other renewable energy. And as my generous hostess in Swarthmore noted, if NASA were doing the fracking, perhaps we would be less concerned.

–elisabeth hoffman

time out for fracking

September 14, 2012

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Urging a moratorium on fracking in Maryland are, from left, Garrett County
farmer Paul Roberts, landowner Craig Stevens from Montrose, PA,
Delegate Heather Mizeur, CCAN Director Mike Tidwell, and Megan Jenny,
Maryland field coordinator for CCAN.

We can’t say we haven’t been warned.

The latest alarms about fracking come from Pennsylvania residents who joined Delegate Heather Mizeur and others at a press conference in Federal Hill this week as she announced legislation calling for a moratorium on the practice in Maryland until it is shown to be safe.  

Other states have “drilled first and asked questions second,” Mizeur said. “That has led to a lot of mistakes, that has led to a lot of cleanup, that has led to a lot of regrets.”

Craig L. Stevens, an emissary from what he called “ground zero for Marcellus Shale drilling” in Pennsylvania, carried a jug of brown tap water from Dimock. The sixth-generation landowner and self-described right-wing tea partier from Montrose, not far from Dimock, encouraged Marylanders to “come to our neck of the woods; you’re not going to like what you see.”

He said the industry persuaded his ailing grandmother in a nursing home to sign a lease on the family’s land. “I was ‘drill, baby, drill,’ but now I say, ‘Drink, baby, drink.”  

“Governor O’Malley, if you think this is going to be good for the state of Maryland, come and drink our water,” Stevens said. “It has things in it that will probably last our lifetime or 10,000 years. … Come see what it’s like to live in ‘Gasland.’ You will want to ban.”

Veronica Coptis, a community organizer with Mountain Watershed Association in southwest Pennsylvania, had similar warnings: “Many families have lost their access to clean water, are breathing in harmful air … and dealing with health problems. The people with the courage to speak up are harassed [by the industry]. One family, including young children, have five wells and a pipeline on their property and are experiencing health impacts such as nosebleeds, muscle aches and cramps, fatigue, and are under constant stress.”

She said, “Fracking destroys the quiet and peaceful nature of our rural communities. I have seen firsthand small-town main streets become major highways full of large industrial trucks traveling 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Neighbors who would help each other out are now not speaking anymore because of a difference of opinion.”

Mizeur, whose op-ed about her moratorium legislation was published in the Baltimore Sun, said, “Our default position will be no drilling” until Maryland has science-based studies to evaluate the effects on public health, the climate, the environment and tourism.

Gov. Martin O’Malley’s appointed safe-drilling commission, of which Mizeur is a member, has been studying fracking for nine months but has no funding. The commission’s final recommendation is due in August 2014.

Mizeur said the governor’s executive order, which set up the commission and called for the study, is insufficient to protect Marylanders and “at best a de facto moratorium.” O’Malley’s term expires in 2014, and even now, she said, the state has no legal protection if industry were to sue to force a decision on drilling under the executive order. She accused industry of trying to wait out the commission. Without funding for a study, “we will be in a place of having to make an ill-informed decision,” she said.

Mike Tidwell, executive director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), said a bill introduced during the last General Assembly session would have funded the commission’s research with a fee imposed on drillers based on acres leased. Although the levy passed the House of Delegates by nearly a 2-to-1 margin and votes were lined up in the Senate, industry’s “discreet lobbying” and phone calls blocked the bill in committee, he said.

 “We have a democracy problem in this state,” he said, with industry on the phones and behind closed doors in Annapolis preventing open discussion. He framed the problem as democracy and debate vs. secrecy, lobbying and money from industry. “Let’s have a moratorium on fracking. Let’s get this right, if it can be done right.”

Also speaking at the press conference were Katie Huffling, a nurse-midwife from the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments; Paul Roberts, a farmer and winery owner in Garrett County and member of the study commission; and Dave O’Leary from the Maryland Sierra Club.

“All of Maryland has a huge stake because we collect water for two great watersheds,” Roberts said, noting that some Garrett water flows to the Potomac River and on to the Chesapeake Bay, and the rest flows to the Ohio River and on to the Mississippi and to New Orleans. He said the industry boasts two benefits from drilling: high-paying jobs and energy independence. “The facts are that this is a fiction,” he said. The number of jobs is insignificant and, in Western Maryland, where the economy is dependent on tourism, jobs could even be lost. “Are you going to want  to come to Western Maryland and go on vacation or spend a million dollars on a vacation home if you are going wake up beside a gas plant some day or a compressor station or a gas drill?”

Also, companies are preparing to export the gas to Asia and Europe, Roberts said. “This is not about energy independence. This is about the largest, richest companies in the world trying to make more money.”

Huffling described the dangers to gas-field workers and the nurses who treat them, including a 2008 case in Colorado of an emergency room nurse whose liver failed and who nearly died after treating a worker exposed to the chemicals used in fracking. The company that made the fracking fluid would not, and was not required to, disclose information about the fluid that doctors had requested to aid their treatment of the woman. For communities, she said, fracking leads to diseases from air and water pollution and stress from noise pollution.

O’Leary of the Maryland Sierra Club said he was motivated to work on the moratorium after he saw damage from pipelines and roads in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, which has beautiful areas for camping, hiking and skiing. 

Mizeur said she is counting on grassroots support to overcome the influence of industry in the General Assembly. ”Everyone who enjoys fresh water has a stake in this.”

The groups backing the moratorium are CCAN, Maryland Sierra Club, Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, Climate Change Initiative of Howard County, Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility, Environment Maryland, the League of Women Voters of Maryland, the Maryland League of Conservation Voters, Maryland Student Climate Coalition,  the NAACP Maryland State Conference, Earthworks, Interfaith Power & Light (MD.DC.NoVA) and Labor Network for Sustainability.

–elisabeth hoffman