too high a price

January 13, 2014


The Youghiogheny River flows through Garrett County.//photo by Mike Bagdes-Canning

As I drove home from Garrett County on Thursday night, the West Virginia radio station interrupted its program every 20 minutes or so to warn listeners in five counties not to use their water. A chemical was leaking into the Elk River near Charleston, the state capital. Then the number of affected counties rose to nine. The governor ordered a state of emergency. Don’t drink the water, the announcer said. Don’t wash with the water, cook with the water, or brush teeth with the water. Toilet flushing was ok, as was putting out fires. Safe water supplies were coming. If you already drank the water, you were probably ok. If you felt sick, though, you should seek medical help. Schools would be closed the next day.


West Virginians line up for water.
//photo by Foo Conner/@iwasaround

Turns out 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, a chemical used to scrub impurities out of coal, had been leaking from a storage tank at Freedom Industries, about a mile upstream from West Virginia American Water’s intake facility. The company, aptly named, is exempt from state permitting and inspections because it stores but doesn’t produce the chemical. No one knew how long the chemical — which the local health department said causes “burning in throat, severe eye irritation, non-stop vomiting, trouble breathing or severe skin irritation such as skin blistering” — had been leaking into the river that supplies water to 300,000 people.

While warnings were going out about yet another sacrifice that West Virginians had made so industry could function unfettered and the rest of the country could burn cheap coal, some Garrett residents gathered at the county health department to hear about the sacrifice they might be asked to make so the rest of us, or even Asia, could have cheap fracked gas.

“We live in a country that … ostensibly ought to protect human health from a lot of environmental health hazards. But it does not do that very well,” particularly in the field of oil and gas extraction, said Dr. Jerome A. Paulson, director of the Mid-Atlantic Center for Children’s Health & the Environment, a professor of pediatrics at the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences and professor of environmental and occupational health at GWU’s School of Public Health and Health Services. For starters, the oil and gas industry is exempt from a number of federal regulations designed to protect public health and the environment. Another key concern is that this industrial activity is allowed near homes and schools (a 1,000-foot setback from borehole to occupied buildings is proposed in Maryland). Children “eat more, drink more, breathe more per unit of body weight than adults,” he said. They get a higher dose of contaminants than adults in the same environment, and they detoxify with more difficulty. And they live longer, he said. If an adverse outcome shows up 40 years from now, he said, the children we expose to harm today will be around to pay that price.

He described a number of hazards from the drilling, which lasts one or two months, and the fracturing of the well, which lasts a week or two, and the gas extraction, which happens intermittently for years or even decades. Each phase carries risks, from noise, lights and odors to air and water contamination, community disruption and climate change. Although no data exist on widespread effects, “there are plausible routes of human exposure,” he said, and industry should bear the responsibility to minimize the risks to humans and the ecosystem, to disclose the chemicals, and to pay for research.

  • Around-the-clock noise and bright lighting during some phases of the operation can cause stress that interferes with sleep and learning, for example. Research on noise from loud trucks and jet engines shows that “kids in those schools [nearby] don’t do as well,” he said. Lighting and noise disrupt sleep, which changes hormone levels, causes cardiac stress, and interferes with concentration — of schoolchildren as well as parents driving them around or at their jobs. “Noise is not something to be ignored,” he said.
  • Thousands of diesel-powered truck trips to carry millions of gallons of water, silica sand and equipment are needed for each well, sending particulate matter into the air. He examined one recent study that found that as Pennsylvania mothers’ proximity to fracked wells increased, their babies’ birth weights decreased. “It seems like a minor thing, but size at birth is a strong predictor for all sorts of things,” Dr. Paulson said.
  • During the production phase, noisy compressors run constantly. Burning off, or flaring, of gases produces nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds which, when mixed with sunlight, create ozone that is “very toxic to human lungs,” Dr. Paulson said. Ground-level ozone causes a chemical burn in the mucous membranes of the lungs and nose. It also causes coughing, exacerbates asthma and emphysema and, in children, leads to premature aging of the lungs.
  • The synthetic fracking chemicals, which industry is allowed to keep secret, pose another hazard. Many are toxic or carcinogenic or both. Although the fracturing happens a mile or so below aquifers, the drill passes through this water source. Leaks at the drill or underground could eventually reach aquifers, and spills from trucks or at the well site have ended up in surface water. Methane has been found in tap water in homes near wells in Dimock, Pa., and Parker County, Texas, he said, and a Duke University study found that well water in homes closer to fracking operations had higher levels of ancient methane consistent with the Marcellus and Utica shales. Methane isn’t toxic, “but it doesn’t travel by itself,” he said. Along with it come benzene, toluene and ethylbenzene, which are toxic, as well as salts, radon and heavy metals, chlorides and bromides previously locked up in the shale. Research on benzene exposure, such as from car exhaust, shows an association with an increased risk for brain or spinal defects in babies and for acute leukemia in children. And methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that is “vented and leaked … routinely and continuously at the well site,” Dr. Paulson said.


    Fracking wells are often near homes, like this one in Butler County, Pa.//photo from Marcellus Outreach Butler

Dr. Paulson gave credit to Maryland for conducting a health study before deciding whether to allow fracking. “But people ask: What can be measured in my body to show whether I’ve been impacted or my children have been impacted? … I don’t have a clue,” Dr. Paulson said. “We don’t know the chemicals or the concentrations getting into the body,” he said.  And we don’t have good biomarkers to indicate exposure. Or how much exposure makes someone sick.

Billy Bishoff, president of the Garrett County Farm Bureau, said a study of the steel industry or even highway pollution would yield many of the same health problems. Paulson agreed and said the decision about whether to go forward with fracking should rest with local communities, which will have to weigh the economic and health effects. “I do believe that we have a backwards and a broken system in this country as it relates to all sorts of environmental issues,” Paulson said. “We don’t require companies to prove the safety of what they want to market before they market.” And the public is often required to document “and clean up the mess afterward.”

“We have done that for 200 years,” he said, and the few “have made a tremendous amount of profit off the adverse health outcomes of a lot of people. I think we’ve got a system that doesn’t work.”

That broken system already has some Western Maryland residents trying to figure out how “innocent bystanders” might be compensated should fracking go forward. Last month, Paul Roberts, a farmer, winemaker and citizen representative on the state’s Marcellus Shale study commission, arranged two meetings with residents about creating a remediation fund. Who would pay into such as fund? How much should people be compensated to “take a hit” to blast out the last bit of fossil fuels? How much money would be needed in such a fund?

Although one person at the meeting expressed willingness to pay a tax for the fund, Roberts said that most thought that industry taxes and fees should cover all damage. “Maryland wants to do something that no other state has: create numerous 40-acre or more ‘fracking industrial parks,’ ” Roberts said in an email. “My intention with this fund is to offer those unfortunate enough to live near these areas, if development proceeds over the coming years, a way to be assured that should ‘things go bad’ for them personally, due to their proximity, there is a program to protect their interests when all other possible available options, short of litigation, have failed.”

“If you have a home and land that you love that has been in your family for many years, what compensation can there be if it is ruined or permanently damaged?” asked Bill Gumbert, who lives in Mountain Lake Park, a town that banned fracking, but owns a summer home north of Friendsville near land initially leased for fracking. He said in an email, though, that a remediation fund has value and should be pursued. “I am hoping that the sites would be limited to industrial and mining areas. I know that means that farmers and other private landowners like my neighbors would not be able to benefit and I am concerned about that, too.”

“Proving in court that such developments are a nuisance doesn’t sound like it would be difficult,” Roberts said. “But why should Mr. Gumbert [and others] have to? Yet, the gas industry will fight him with every available attorney, knowing that in most cases, it can prevail. Very likely, Mr. Gumbert’s family’s lives would be ruined by the experience.”

Crede Calhoun, who owns an ecotourism business, said in an email: “If the gas companies can’t afford to protect the citizens forever, through environmental insurance or other means and funding that they pay for — then maybe the cost of doing business is just too high for them to drill here. … Why the [elected] leaders can’t see the value of a stance of ‘We Saved It For You’ or the value of promoting a green economy and clean freshwater resources (that by the way have extreme value with almost no investment), and why they can’t see the immense growing value of protected lands as regions around us get drilled to pieces, is truly one of the great disconnects. … Let’s stand out and make a name for ourselves as a promised land instead of just another State drilled to death for the shareholder gains of Big Oil and Gas?”

Back in West Virginia, residents were learning that little is known about the 4-methylcyclohexane methanol running through the river that supplies their water. “There are so many aspects of this chemical that there is no information about, including its general toxicity,”  Sheldon Krimsky, a professor of environmental policy at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., told the Christian Science Monitor. Of the manufacturer, Eastman Chemical Co.: “They don’t have any information on human health effects.”

A Facebook page was set up for people offering water to take to West Virginia.

One resident, frustrated that he couldn’t make coffee, take a bath or wash dishes, told an NPR reporter: “I didn’t really notice how much water affects your life. It’s something I guess we all just take for granted because it’s always there.”

Which could just as easily be said about clean air and land and a climate safe for humans and all life on our planet. The question going forward is whether we will accelerate fracking — because we’ve always allowed industrial blowback in our midst. Or whether we will say no, because we know not enough and yet too much to allow this lopsided arrangement with industry to continue. We could say no, because this process, imposed on our farmland and neighborhoods, is too close to homes and schools. Or because we have seen one too many exploding gas lines and compressor stations, too many chemical spills into creeks, too many overturned tanker trucks and train cars, too many mysterious cancers linked to nothing in particular but everything in general, too many children storing asthma inhalers in the school nurse’s office, too much heart and lung disease — even in people who don’t smoke. And if this isn’t the time to draw the line, when the climate is deteriorating and the oceans acidifying and extinctions accelerating, when is?

–elisabeth hoffman


In West Virginia, clean water suddenly seemed more precious.
//photo by Foo Conner/@iwasaround


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