too close for comfort
July 12, 2013
Over the next few weeks, state officials would like us to imagine that we are ready to frack for natural gas in Western Maryland.
We are to pretend that officials have answered all the questions about fracking’s effects on the tourism economy and decided that on balance, dividing up Garrett and Allegany counties into 5-acre industrial sites is just fine.
We are to imagine that they have examined the health risks and been able to conclude — even before the Environmental Protection Agency and the Geisinger medical system’s Weis Center for Research — that fracking is just fine for children and other living things. Oh, and the climate. We are to imagine that the state is certain it can keep leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, to a minimum.
So, we are pretending that we are ready to frack. Now we can look at the best management practices (BMPs) the state has devised to keep everyone safe and industry on good behavior. The state has barely begun the other studies, but the BMPs are ready to go. The state’s 15-member Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, which Gov. Martin O’Malley appointed two years ago, has been reviewing these BMPs and making recommendations for several months. We have until Aug. 9 to let officials know what we think: Marcellus.Advisory@maryland.gov
This post is not an exhaustive list of concerns about the BMPs, but it’s a start. Please compose a comment before the deadline. While you’re at it, request more time for comments. Our health, water, air, soil and climate depend on it.
The state initially scheduled one public hearing on the BMPs, and that was this week in Garrett County. At the urging of NGOs and Delegate Heather Mizeur (who is also a commissioner on the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory panel), a second meeting has been scheduled at Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) offices for Tuesday, July 16, from 2-5 p.m., 1800 Washington Blvd., Baltimore. State officials will discuss the BMPs and take comments and questions. Please also request more public hearings at times convenient for the public so we can understand what’s at stake.
I am not a scientist, but I used as inspiration biologist Sandra Steingraber’s analysis of proposed fracking regulations in New York.
BMPs are supposed to keep us safe. One key way the state keeps residents safe is with setbacks – the minimum distance between us and something dangerous. Many comments could be written about setbacks.
Under the BMPs, for example, the edge of disturbance of the well pad can be a mere 300 feet from a stream, river, spring, wetland, pond, reservoir and 100-year floodplain. It also can be as little as 300 feet from cultural and historical sites, state and federal parks, trails, wildlife management areas, wild and scenic rivers, and scenic byways. (see page 16 in the BMPs)
In 2011, restaurateurs and volunteers in Texas made a 300-foot-long enchilada. So we will have fracking one big enchilada away from very valuable resources. A football field without the end zones is also 300 feet.
The edge of a drilling area can also be 600 feet from “irreplaceable natural areas” and “wildlands.” The industry will be able to set up a drill pad alongside these irreplaceable areas and then drill down and under them.
By definition, these are irreplaceable, so how do we know that 600 feet is a sufficient buffer? How will the departments consider the cumulative effects of several wells in the vicinity, all 600 feet from one spot on some scenic byway or river?
Toxic air pollutants from these industrial sites travel far more than 300 or 600 feet. One peer-reviewed study found high levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the air during the drilling phase. From the study: “Selected polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were at concentrations greater than those at which prenatally exposed children in urban studies had lower developmental and IQ scores.”
Officials could consult the state’s health study for guidance on this. But, wait. The health study hasn’t been done yet.
MDE and of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) based these setbacks on a report of BMPs prepared by Drs. Keith N. Eshleman and Andrew Elmore at the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory. That report says: “How much protection (if any) these setbacks can provide can clearly be debated; many setbacks do not seem to be based on solid scientific reasoning or empirical data.” One has to wonder, then, where these numbers come from and if they will be sufficient to ensure human and ecological health and safety. Eshleman and Elmore got the setbacks from regulations in other states. So, it’s possible that each state will keep making the same miscalculations.
Here are some more setbacks: The drill rig can be as close as 1,000 feet from an occupied building (house, school, medical office, store), 1,000 feet from a private well and 2,000 from public groundwater wells or surface water intakes and reservoirs. A new Duke study found methane contamination in water wells up to a kilometer away (about 3,280 feet). Proposed New York regulations call for a buffer of 4,000 feet from “unfiltered surface drinking water supply watersheds.”
Paul Roberts, a grape grower and member of the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission, has pointed out numerous times that federal regulators granted industry a 2,000-foot buffer from fracking activities to protect an underground gas storage field near Sabinsville, Pa. He says that, because 80 percent of Garrett residents drink from private water wells, those wells should have the same protection as municipal supplies.
“Given that the state produced not one bit of justification publicly for a 1,000-foot setback from private wells,” Roberts wrote in a dissenting statement to be included in the final BMP report, “if it chooses not to extend the setback to at least 2,000 feet, everyone should be aware that Maryland disregarded evidence offered by the industry itself about the risks of drilling too close to resources that demand protection.” In light of the Duke research, even the 2,000-foot buffer might fall short, he said.
So, which buffer will adequately protect human and wildlife, rivers and streams: 300 feet? 600 feet? 1,000 feet, 2,000 feet, 3,000 feet, 4,000 feet?
Commissioner Jeffrey Kupfer, a Chevron senior adviser, has said “lots of alternatives” exist for replacing a contaminated private water supply. He has not figured out, though, how to restore the value of the land once the water is gone. Nor has he figured out how to replace the water for the fish, frogs, birds, rabbits, turtles, deer, foxes, raccoons and bears living on that land. (Visitors to Garrett County can get a free booklet on Learning to Live with Black Bears.)
I’ve heard numerous radio ads this summer beckoning visitors to Garrett County’s mountains, rivers and lakes and inviting people to go hiking, kayaking and camping in the area’s natural beauty. (Drilling can be 2,000 feet from Deep Creek Lake.) Allegany County also promotes outdoor adventures in its mountains and along trails and streams. In a fracked future, perhaps Crede Calhoun, who runs an ecotourism business in Western Maryland, will be able to pause during kayak tours and light methane-filled streams on fire.
More than 30,000 people live in Garrett County year-round, and twice as many live in Allegany. For them, these rivers and streams, mountains and pathways are home.
One part of the BMPs goes to lengths to show that even with the setbacks, 100 percent of the shale under Garrett and Allegany counties is still accessible to industry if the drill, after heading down, goes horizontally for 8,000 feet. (See Appendix D) And if those drills go only 4,000 feet horizontally, 97.7 percent of the shale is still accessible. What we need to know is whether 100 percent of the residents and “irreplaceable” ecosystem will be safe.
— elisabeth hoffman