tidier sacrifice zones

July 20, 2013


Garrett County, with no fracking.//photo by Crede Calhoun.

Here are questions Western Marylanders might have to contemplate if fracking for natural gas is allowed: 

If a fracked well is near our home and a family member gets sick, how would a doctor quickly find out what chemicals are in the frack fluid? If an emergency at a well happens at 4 a.m., how would a doctor or EMT get information about the frack fluids? Would a doctor have to go through the state Department of the Environment (MDE) to get the list of chemicals, and how would this work at night and on weekends?  

Those sorts of questions have been raised at meetings of the state’s 15-member Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley to help state regulators determine whether and, if so, how to frack for natural gas without “unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources.” 

Here’s another concern: If a cement well casing is leaking, how would anyone know?  How long would drilling companies wait to report it? 

“How do we know if in fact something bad is happening?” Commissioner Clifford S. Mitchell, who is also director of the state’s Environmental Health Bureau, asked at one of the panel’s meetings this spring. He expressed concern about not knowing “the degree of small failure or large catastrophic failure.” 

Keep that in mind when considering comments about the draft Best Management Practices from MDE and the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Using these BMPs, the departments would develop regulations if fracking goes forward. Comments are due Aug. 9, unless the state grants an extension. Please ask for one. 

Email comments here: Marcellus.Advisory@maryland.gov  or snail mail here: Brigid E. Kenney, senior policy adviser, Maryland Department of the Environment, 1800 Washington Blvd., Baltimore  21230 

In the absence of results from the state’s health, economic and climate studies, determining whether these BMPs will protect our health and the environment is difficult. Perhaps they will just create tidier sacrifice zones. But we can’t remain silent. A previous ClimateHoward post was about setbacks. 

And sending comments is more important than ever, given the news from Food & Water Watch that Governor O’Malley has commissioned a report from natural-gas-as-bridge-fuel proponent John Quigley that says Maryland has the opportunity for for “win-wins” with “responsible” fracking. Quigley has acknowledged problems with fracking, but he nevertheless reaches the conclusion that it can be done well enough. The former Pennsylvania official who oversaw fracking in Pennsylvania is also affiliated with PennFuture, a partner in the 1984-ishly named Center for Sustainable Shale Development. Fossil fuels are not sustainable.   

Here are 10 more ideas for comments. 

1)  Drillers combine millions of gallons of water, silica sand (from Minnesota and Wyoming) and a secret formula of toxic chemicals, including biocides, to blast the gas bubbles out of the shale in each well. During accidents, these chemicals have reached surface waters. If (or when) the cement casing around the drill fails or the new fractures meet up with existing fractures, those chemicals could eventually reach aquifers.  

The industry has been secretive about the chemicals, although some companies post them online once drilling is complete. Companies claim some of the chemicals are protected as trade secrets. Dr. Mitchell proposed banning the use of trade secret chemicals in Maryland, but MDE and DNR didn’t take him up on that idea. Under the proposed BMPs, the state would require disclosure of chemicals used in fracking before drilling begins as well as posting on site and with emergency agencies. If a company claims its chemicals are protected as trade secrets, it would still have to disclose the information to MDE, which would determine if the claim is “legitimate.” MDE would divulge the identity of chemicals deemed to be trade secrets “only to exposed persons or health care professions.”  Again, how would this work, particularly on the weekends or in the middle of the night? At a meeting this week about the BMPs, MDE policy adviser Kenney said doctors would also have to sign forms indicating that they would not disclose the information. Why is this acceptable? A comment might be: Let’s not inject toxic chemicals into the ground. And if a chemical is making someone sick, let’s warn the rest of the community.   

2)    The BMPs would require an operator of a drill to have an emergency plan for each site, including identifying trained and equipped personnel who would respond to a well blowout, fire or other incident:  “These specially trained and equipped personnel must be capable of arriving at the site within 24 hours of the incident.”  In a Pennsylvania case, a specially trained crew from Texas couldn’t get to an out-of-control well for 13 hours, with disastrous consequences. The blowout sent 10,000 gallons of fracking fluid over nearby farm fields and into a creek and forced the evacuation of seven families. So, 24 hours seems like a very long time.  

3)    Under the proposed BMPs, the state would require a Comprehensive Gas Development Plan (CGDP).  Maryland would be the first state to mandate these plans (In Colorado, CGDPs are voluntary. They are required in Pennsylvania state forests).  The CGDP is a company’s five-year plan that includes locations for well pads, roads, pipelines and other equipment. (A driller would also have to submit more detailed plans for individual wells permits.)  Part of the CGDP process would be a public meeting with residents and NGOs. Kenney at MDE said at a spring meeting of the commission: “There would not have to be unanimous agreement of the stakeholders group of the plan.” So, one question has to be whether the public would truly have a say or merely learn what is about to happen to them.  

4)    The BMPs don’t, but should, set a cap on the amount of land disturbed in Garrett and Allegany counties and control the pace of development.

The state agencies based the BMPs on a report by Drs. Keith N. Eshleman and Andrew Elmore of the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg.  Eshleman and Elmore said, “With careful and thoughtful planning …, it may be possible to develop much of the gas resource in a way that converts less than 1-2% of the land surface, even when accounting for the need for ancillary infrastructure such as access roads, pipelines, and compressor facilities.” 

They also recommended that the state “ ‘go slow’ and allow a new regulatory structure and experience in inspection and enforcement to evolve over time and effectively ‘catch up’ to the new technology ” as fracking proceeds. They said “effective planning … that moderates the rate at which the gas resource is developed across the region would help mitigate some of the negative effects of ‘boom-bust’ cycles that have occurred elsewhere.” 

MDE and DNR, however, rejected that recommendation. The proposed BMPs indicate that land disturbance would be limited to 1 to 2 percent only in “high value watersheds” and “the Departments do not recommend using [the mandatory comprehensive gas development plans] to limit the pace of development.” 

Commissioner Paul Roberts, in his dissenting opinion that will be included with the final BMP report, says: “If there is not a limit set on the total amount of development, [the BMPs are] only asserting a methodical pace to industrialization. … If we don’t set limits on the industrialization, the county will cease to be rural.” 

5)    The state would forbid open containment ponds for fracking waste. In Pennsylvania, these open ponds – larger than a football field – can leak and contaminate fields, rivers and streams. They also overflow in heavy rains, and wildlife can’t read the No Trespassing signs. This is a good BMP.

All frack waste would have to be kept in containers on site until it is either reused or sent via truck for disposal, presumably to Ohio, which has put out the welcome mat for this toxic and briny fluid. Ohio injects it into the ground, a practice linked to small earthquakes. Whether the waste will remain safely “away” is another question. Some research is beginning to doubt that.  So, then we have the moral question of whether we ought to ship our poisons to the children of other states. Should we drill when we have no solution for the waste? According to the state’s draft BMPs, all waste would be tracked and the records kept for three years. I don’t know why the records can’t be kept for much longer – perhaps for a few decades after the land is reclaimed. Just in case someone needs that information.  By the way, documentation didn’t prevent this case of tampering with records and dumping of frack fluid into streams.  

6)    Under the proposed BMPs, the state would require the driller to collect at least two years of baseline data. This is a great BMP, and will prevent the shenanigans in Pennsylvania, where drillers on at least one occasion tossed out a pre-drilling water test and refused to accept responsibility for water contamination. In fact, one BMP might be to require that industry acknowledge that its fracking activities have contaminated water. And clean up Pennsylvania before heading elsewhere to create havoc.      

7)    All that fracturing of rock under the ground creates new fractures — for the chemicals and methane to migrate. Drs. Eshleman and Elmore recommend  “a sufficient number (at least tens) of tiltmeter or seismic surveys.” The state has decided that drillers would have to test the first well drilled. That’s all. Is that sufficient? 

8)    The well pad, according to the BMPs, must be surrounded by a berm designed to hold at least 2.7 inches of rainfall within a 24 hour period, so that spills of gasoline, oils and other hazardous chemicals won’t run off onto surrounding land.  But Ryan Saunders, a summer fellow at Chesapeake Climate Action Network, has studied rainfall in our area. He found that 2.7 or more inches of rain has fallen in 24 hours two to six times since 2010 at gauges near western Maryland that share similar rainfall patterns. These locations include Hagerstown, Morgantown, W.Va., Dulles International Airport, and Reagan National airport. Most of these totals came during September 2010, Hurricane Irene, the remnants of Lee, Superstorm Sandy, Andrea (a few weeks ago), and other drenching storms this summer. As climate change brings more or more erratic rain to the eastern United States, this BMP will fall increasingly short.  

9) The BMPs address flaring, or burning off of gases from the well (not more than 30 days for an exploratory well and some restrictions once drilling has begun). Flaring nearby sounds like a jet engine taking off. It also releases nitrogen dioxides, volatile organic compounds like benzene, and other substances that have been linked to asthma and chronic bronchitis. Are restrictions on flaring sufficient to protect our health and the environment? Well, we haven’t done that health study, so we don’t know. 

10)  The language of the BMPs is full of rules that “encourage” this or that, require something “if possible”  “as possible” “wherever possible ” and “as far as possible.” Drillers should keep skies “as dark as possible” and avoid truck traffic during festivals and when buses are transporting children to and from school. (What about after-school activities?) Reclamation should be done “as quickly as possible.” Land managers should “consider suspending” drilling during hunting and trout season and bad weather.  A company could find a lot of wiggle room in regulations based on these BMPs. As the undead movie pirate Captain Hector Barbossa said, “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”  

Have you written a comment yet? Start writing. 

–elisabeth hoffman


9 Responses to “tidier sacrifice zones”

  1. Laurel Peltier said

    Fantastic writing and research! I will copy you on my letter to my state’s morons that it appears I voted for. Though voting the other way wouldn’t have helped either. Thanks Obama. Ok, I’m done whining.

    I am on vacation and reading the BMP which I think still leave citizens stuck if something happens and they need restitution because their water is bad. My water is bad and call 800-equitable.

    Typed on iPhone-sorry for typos 🙂

    • Thank you, Mr. Quigley, for posting those links. (I wish I had been able to attend the shale meeting last week, but I was walking from Harpers Ferry to DC as part of the Walk for Our Grandchildren.) When I learned of the report the governor had asked you to prepare, my chief reaction was alarm. Those of us who are wary of fracking had to wait two years before seeing money available for economic and health studies in Maryland, and yet suddenly, and apparently in secret, the governor had commissioned you to do a report — when you are already convinced that fracking is safe and a win-win. Is the governor also to commission a report from someone who thinks fracking is a lose-lose for Maryland so we can compare? This report leads me to suspect that the governor’s mind is made up and that the ongoing studies are pro forma. I know, based on your report, that you recognize fracking’s many hazards, but you still come down on the side of regulations as the answer. Many of us find it hard to make a judgment when the studies have barely begun. Also, the governor’s executive order said the effect on climate would be examined, and yet no money is forthcoming for such an inquiry.

      • There was noting “secret” about my report, which speaks for itself. I prepared it at the request of DNR, not the Governor, and presented it at a public meeting, before which it was posted on the MDE website.

        I am NOT convinced that fracking is safe. I believe it CAN be, if it is properly regulated, monitored, and performed. They are 3 very big ifs. And only it it meets those criteria (and some others, like proper taxation and protection of public lands), it can be a win-win. Whether it goes forward in Maryland and under what conditions is up to the citizens of your state.

      • V Appalachia said

        The blog author’s comment brings up a critical point of inquiry: Do we have a right to expect objectivity and a non-biased approach from the Governor and the agencies administering the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission (MSAC)?

        If the Governor commissions a report in support of Maryland’s draft regulations (primarily the concept of CGDPs) from a nationally-known proponent of fracking, isn’t it reasonable to expect—if the state intends the MSAC to be a non-biased body—that the Governor also commission a report from a knowledgeable source critical of the regulations?

        I suppose one could justify not spending taxpayer dollars on a report of this nature because criticisms of the regulations— by citizens and advocacy organizations—are provided at no cost to the State. But when these are seen only as one of many public comments solicited by the State, will they receive the same consideration as a former head of PA’s DCNR? In this case I’d prefer Mr. Quigley’s seat at the table to E pluribus unum.

        Marylanders should know that Commissioners on the MSAC have never heard from a single citizen who has experienced negative impacts from industrial gas development. As part of the MSAC’s agenda, Commissioner Kupfer (Senior Advisor for Governmental Affairs at Chevron) provided Commissioners a reassuring and impressive tour of his company’s drill sites in neighboring Pennsylvania. However, when other Commissioners have offered to bring people with first-hand experiences of drilling in their communities to speak to the Commission, they were dismissed.

        In August 2012, Commissioner Paul Roberts did arrange an adjunct program featuring an attorney representing clients harmed by nearby drilling in southwest PA and a retired engineering professor who has been documenting problems associated with fracking in West Virginia. Shale Commissioners who wanted to hear from these people had to do so on their own time, before the MSAC’s official public comment meeting in Garrett County.

        Perhaps a separate comment to the agencies is in order, this one about fairness and equal consideration as the MSAC moves into the process of deciding whether fracking presents unacceptable risks.

  2. I don’t mean that your report is “secret” now, and I’m glad you presented it at a public meeting so that we all know about it now. I mean that the public didn’t know in advance that it had been requested, why it was requested or that it was in the works, so it seems like a stealth report and seems that state officials have an agenda in requesting it. The BMP report, in contrast, was prepared by Drs. Eshleman and Elmore from the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory, and the parameters were discussed in advance at a public meeting and updates given about midway (when more time was requested). Two public meetings were held about it, and the public has until Sept. 10 to comment on the state’s proposed BMPs that are based on the Eshleman/Elmore report. The economic study is being done by a group from Towson U and, again, the method has been discussed in public and, I presume, a public comment period will be set when it is complete. Those in the public health community are requesting a 30-day comment period about the scope of a health study and then public hearings and a 60-day comment period after it is completed. These are very public processes, in sharp contrast to your report, which was public only after the fact. We also know in advance how much these reports cost. We know nothing of your report, other than it was done–although perhaps that was discussed at the meeting in Garrett County. (Saying that DNR, rather than the governor, asked for the report seems a little disingenuous, as the former operates at the behest of the latter. )

  3. I would like to be very clear about my position, for what it is worth. I am not a “proponent of fracking”, as even a cursory perusal of my blog (and my testimony to the Maryland House and Senate) will attest. I am a proponent of responsible oil and gas development – of putting in place the toughest rules, regulations, and enforcement and the best practices IF fracking takes place. The fact that the CDP requirement being considered by Maryland would be the first and most protective regulation of its kind in the nation is somehow overlooked in this discussion.

    Still, I understand the concerns that you and others are raising. I am also a proponent of full public participation and engagement, and for that, I applaud you all and encourage you to stay active.

    • Your position on (and experience with) fracking is very important and noted, because you are now inextricably involved in the discussion of whether we will allow fracking in Maryland. So, thank you for clarifying that. I/we still don’t know why DNR asked anyone — and you in particular–to write this report or how it was funded or how it fits into the governor’s deliberations. That Maryland would be the first state to require CGDPs has been noted (see point 3, for example, in this blog post. Also Harry Weiss on the advisory panel has emphasized and even marveled at this.) Whether CGDPs are sufficient to protect the health of humans and other species, the air, water, soil, climate, the Western Maryland tourism economy and the character of the countryside is a huge unknown. We can hope that the health and economic studies will begin to shed light on all that.

  4. Eric Robison said

    I would ask Mr. Quigley to share the importance of pre-development Risk Analysis in regards to the CGDP (CDP). He began to explain during the July 22 meeting but time was short….

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