July 28, 2014
Between naps at a meeting last week about a Cove Point wetlands permit, Gov. Martin O’Malley apparently woke up long enough to decide that fracking could be done safely in Maryland. Even though his Marcellus Shale advisory commission is still wading through reports that raise plenty of alarms.
The big reveal came at a daylong session of the state Board of Public Works (BPW), of which the governor is one of three members. On the agenda was Dominion’s permit for a temporary pier, which the company needs to haul in equipment for its proposed facility on the Chesapeake Bay that would liquefy fracked gas and send it off to Asia on huge tankers.
Most of the permission slips for this $3.8 billion project come from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, but the state has had a couple opportunities to weigh in. Already the Public Service Commission (PSC) gave the go-ahead for Dominion to build the 130-megawatt power plant needed to liquefy the fracked gas. In its April ruling, the PSC listed numerous hazards and said the facility “will not provide net economic benefit to Maryland citizens,” but whatever. The PSC said Dominion would have to pay $8 million a year for five years into a fund for renewable energy, energy efficiency and greenhouse gas mitigation and another $8 million over 20 years to help low-income residents pay for their rising — thanks to the exports — heating bills.
Last week, Dominion needed permission from the BPW for a wetlands-disturbing pier. Cove Point residents seized that opportunity to tell O’Malley, who had so far been silent on Dominion’s plans, that this facility has them fearing for their lives. Lusby resident Tracey Eno, however, noticed that O’Malley kept nodding off and at one point walked out. “I’m sorry that the governor stepped out because this is really for him. Should I wait?” she asked. She was told to continue, although she backtracked when he returned.
In the end, Dominion got its permit. But not before O’Malley said he believes that natural gas can be a “bridge” fuel to the future of renewable energy, while “in the meantime” the environment is safeguarded at every stage with the “highest and best standards.”
How has the governor reached a conclusion that any standards — even “highest and best” — will be sufficient before having seen a report from his appointed advisory commission? His 2011 executive order instructed the 15-member panel to determine whether and how fracking could be done without unacceptable risks to health, safety and the environment. In fact, in April 2013, Secretary Robert Summers of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) assured Marylanders that a decision about fracking had not been made. In an open letter posted on the advisory commission’s website, Summers wrote that the department “recently received many emails from people who have been told that the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission assumes hydraulic fracturing is inevitable and is rushing to enact regulations to pave the way for gas development. This is not true. No decision has been made about whether hydraulic fracturing should be allowed in Maryland, and MDE is proceeding methodically and cautiously to develop stringent regulations that will protect Marylanders in the event hydraulic fracturing is allowed.”
Although the advisory commission is nearing the end of its work, numerous state studies remain unfinished, including on health effects, traffic and an assessment of risks. The commission has yet to evaluate the economic study that calculated job growth but failed to quantify a key downside: the effect on tourism and the environment. And the state, in its “interim final best practices report” says it’s only “considering whether it is feasible” to require frackers to estimate and purchase offsets for climate-disrupting methane emissions. (It would calculate those emissions based on methane’s carbon footprint over 100 years — about 30 times as powerful as CO2 — instead of over 20 years — about 85 times as powerful. Even though the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says “there is no scientific argument” for selecting the 100-year time frame. So, that’s already not the “highest and best” standard.)
Moreover, no study has emerged showing fracking can be done safely. To the contrary, evidence is mounting that fracking poses grave threats to public health and safety, water, air, farm animals and pets, industry workers, soil and agriculture, and climate. The Concerned Health Professionals of New York has compiled the research to date in a 70-page report. “The pace at which new studies and information are emerging has rapidly accelerated in the past year and a half: the first few months of 2014 saw more studies published on the health effects of fracking than all studies published in 2011 and 2012 combined,” the report says.
News reports last week from fracked Pennsylvania and Ohio have not been reassuring. Pennsylvania’s auditor general concluded in a 118-page report that the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) was “unprepared to meet the challenges of monitoring shale gas development effectively.” Eugene DePasquale, the auditor general, said in a news release: “There are very dedicated hard-working people at DEP but they are being hampered in doing their jobs by lack of resources — including staff and a modern information technology system — and inconsistent or failed implementation of department policies, among other things. … It is almost like firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose. There is no question that DEP needs help and soon to protect clean water.”
DePasquale also said DEP had failed to “consistently issue official orders to well operators who had been determined by DEP to have adversely impacted water supplies.”
Based on information from an open records request, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette also reported that “oil and gas operations have damaged Pennsylvania water supplies 209 times since the end of 2007.”
And in Ohio, news comes that Halliburton withheld complete information about its secret fracking brew for five days after a fire and explosions in June sent toxic chemicals into a tributary of the Ohio River, threatening the drinking water supply for millions of people and killing 700,000 fish.
Governor O’Malley, however, appears to be looking the other way. Perhaps at campaign checks from America’s Natural Gas Alliance. Without bothering to wait for his commissioners to issue a report, the governor has decided that fracking can be made safe for Marylanders. One might wonder whether his shale advisory commission has been a charade all along.
O’Malley — and the shale commission — could offer far better protection for Marylanders and our environment by heeding the warnings of Cape Breton University President David Wheeler. In Nova Scotia, Wheeler is head of a panel, not unlike Maryland’s advisory commission, that is considering whether to recommend lifting a two-year moratorium on fracking. Over the last couple months, the panel has issued 10 “discussion papers” described as rosy toward industry. And yet Wheeler concluded last week that the moratorium should be extended. “We need more research in a couple of particular areas before anyone could take a view on whether this is a good or a bad idea in any part of the province,” he said. Nor, he said, should seismic testing and exploratory drilling be allowed without community consent. “And we’re saying communities are not in a position to give permission to proceed because there’s not enough knowledge. We’re a long way from that.”
July 18, 2014
Among the 25 arrested for civil disobedience at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) in Washington this week was Ann Bristow, a member of Maryland’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission.
Also arrested was Gina Angiola of Olney, a retired doctor on the board of directors of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility.
Another was a retired teacher and borough officer from Pennsylvania, Mike Bagdes-Canning, who last month traveled to Garrett County for the unveiling of the final progress report on Maryland’s health study on fracking. There, he issued a warning to Marylanders not to do what his state has done.
The civil disobedience came a day after Sunday’s spirited rally and march to FERC. The actions also followed a week of lunchtime picketing in front of FERC’s offices at the end of June.
“It is no longer business as usual,” said Steve Norris of North Carolina, who proposed the arrest action as a “punctuation mark” to the rally. He also dreamed up and helped organize the weeklong, 100-mile Walk for Our Grandchildren climate march last summer. “Usual will kill us all. It is time to be unreasonable.” (Of the 25 arrested, 15 had participated in the Walk for Our Grandchildren or in the related arrest action at ERM, the State Department contractor tied to TransCanada that concluded the Keystone XL pipeline was just fine for the climate.)
The trigger for the protests was FERC’s full-of-holes preliminary approval of the plan by energy giant Dominion to liquefy and export fracked gas from its Cove Point terminal in Lusby. But the protests united groups fighting every stage of shale gas extraction and production: the fracking with secret toxic chemicals, the truck traffic and diesel-fired equipment, the radioactive waste that has no safe disposal, the flaring, the methane that leaks into water wells and disrupts the climate, the forests fractured and the land taken by eminent domain for pipelines, the noise and pollutants from compressor stations, the unthinkable hazards from the export factory. Those protesting came for their children and all children, for grandchildren and future generations, for rivers, mountains and farms, for people trapped by encroaching destruction, for clean water and air, for wolves, turtles and hawks.
wake up, FERC!
Monday morning, as he headed out to be arrested at FERC, Bagdes-Canning got 36 phone messages from people in the shale fields. “They are with us,” he told the others.
“In Cove Point, the people are also counting on you,” said Ted Glick, the national campaign coordinator for Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN), who helped organize the action. “And people around the world affected by climate change are counting on you.”
That morning, a few dozen people headed from Union Station to FERC’s offices, chanting “HERE WE COME, FERC” and “WAKE UP, FERC.” The pipelines and compressor stations FERC allows as a “public necessity and convenience” mean communities are gassed and fracked, they said. “As a public necessity and convenience, we are stopping FERC,” another protester from Pennsylvania shouted.
They sang, “No more frackers. We shall not be moved.” And “Stop the rubber-stamping. We shall not be moved.” And “Fighting for our future. We shall not be moved.”
As he sat in front of FERC’s doors, Alex Lotorto spread out large maps covered with color-coded rectangles signifying drilling companies and land leased for fracking over much of Bradford County in northeast Pennsylvania. Shell, Chesapeake Energy, Talisman Energy, EOG Resources, Chief Oil & Gas, Southwestern Energy.
After a couple hours of constant maneuvering to try to block both entrances as well as driveways adjacent to the building, 25 activists were arrested. They were handcuffed, escorted a few hundred feet to an office for processing, fined $50 and allowed to leave.
Ann Bristow, the commissioner, said she took part in the arrest action because she has become increasingly alarmed about the threats to public health and the environment from fracking and the infrastructure required to produce and transport the gas headed for Cove Point. “I am protesting [the project] because its impact is being assessed without consideration of the negative health effects from the infrastructure that will supply it,” she said. “I am protesting FERC’s rubber-stamping of Cove Point because all aspects of [unconventional gas development] are connected when you consider public health and the health of our environment. I am protesting because I do not have confidence that the [Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Department of the Environment (MDE)] will strongly advocate for public health monitoring for toxic air emissions.”
Bristow joined the shale commission late, replacing a resigning member. As a volunteer with the state Department of Natural Resource (DNR) Marcellus Monitoring Coalition, Bristow arrived with a background in monitoring water quality. During the past two years, though, research in states that have allowed fracking is showing that air contamination — from compressor stations and condensate tanks and particularly from “wet gas” — could pose an even greater hazard, she said. Already, she said, the compressor station in Accident in Garrett County is processing and storing Marcellus gas from Pennsylvania; another is being built in Myersville, with a portion of the gas eventually headed for Cove Point. The state should “measure toxic air emissions at existing facilities … and measure air quality at Myersville before and after completion of the compressor station,” she said.
In a few months, based on recommendations from the 15-member advisory commission, MDE and DNR will send a report to the governor with conclusions about whether or how fracking could be done safely in Garrett and Allegany counties. Only four commissioners, including Bristow, have expressed abundant concerns and pressed for caution.
Gina Angiola, the retired physician arrested at FERC, is on the steering committee of Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility. If built, Cove Point would endanger thousands who live near the facility and increase fracking across the region, “further feeding our unsustainable fossil fuel addiction,” she said. “A few people will get wealthy, many more will be harmed.
“It’s becoming ever more obvious that traditional channels of democratic participation simply aren’t working,” she said, “and we are running out of time. Although policymakers pretend that these issues are very complicated, they really are not. It’s all very simple at this stage. Climate change is happening NOW, people are dying or being displaced by the millions around the globe, regional conflicts are escalating, and the U.S. is failing to act rationally. Our scientists are telling us loudly and clearly that we must leave 75 to 80 percent of the remaining fossil fuel reserves in the ground if we hope to avoid the most catastrophic climate alterations. Why on earth are we allowing massive new fossil fuel infrastructure projects to move forward? This is insanity.”
“If we would redirect our investments toward efficiency improvements and distributed renewable energy, we could lead a global transformation to an economy that serves everyone. I’m sick and tired of government agencies rubber-stamping bad ideas just to advance corporate profits. Those agencies are there to serve us, the people. If we can remind them of that mission, the Cove Point project will be stopped.”
fighting for existence
The day before the arrest action, nearly 2,000 people rallied at the U.S. Capitol and marched to FERC’s offices with the same message. They carried signs that said: “Don’t frack up our watershed,” “Don’t frack our towns for export profits.” On the stage, a group holding a giant cardboard yellow submarine with a giant rubber stamp sang, “We all know FERC’s a rubber-stamp machine” to the tune of “Yellow Submarine.”
The Rev. Lennox Yearwood looked to the future. We are on the way to stopping coal and the Keystone pipeline, he said, but if we export fracked gas, “then we are defeating our purpose.” He called the climate change battle this generation’s Birmingham and Montgomery. “Sometimes, you don’t see the transition,” he said. But in 2114, he said, “they will look back on this time. They will say, ‘Those are the ones who fought for us to exist.’ ”
Biologist, author and fractivist Sandra Steingraber drew inspiration from past victories. Dryden, she said, was one of the first towns in New York to use zoning laws to ban fracking within its borders. “Lots of people warned the citizens of Dryden not to do it, pointing out that a local ban on fracking would only invite ruinous lawsuits by armies of industry lawyers,” she said. “All the citizens of Dryden had was sheer determination, a sense of their own righteousness and a willingness to do whatever it took,” Steingraber said. And on June 30, New York’s highest court ruled in the town’s favor. “Dryden beat Goliath with a slingshot made out of a zoning ordinance and so set a precedent that is now reverberating around the world.”
She said she spent the Fourth of July weekend with members of the Dryden Resource Awareness Council. There, they talked of tomatoes, grandchildren, recipes and arthritic knees and hips, she said. “Did you catch that? The people of Dryden, who brought the world’s largest industry to its knees, have arthritic knees. But they are motivated by love. Love for the place where they live and love for the people who will come after them. They feel a responsibility to protect what they love. Because that’s what love means,” she said.
More inspiration from the past: Forty years ago, residents in Rossville, NY, fought another seemingly long and impossible battle against storing liquefied natural gas (LNG) in tanks in their town. For 13 years, united as Bring Legal Action to Stop the Tanks (BLAST), Rossville residents “ignored the counsel of those who said that it couldn’t be done. That the tanks were already built. That of course they would be filled with LNG. That it was all inevitable. That you couldn’t fight the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. But in the end, BLAST won,” Steingraber said. In part, it won because of an LNG explosion in 1973 that killed 40 people and led New York to ban LNG facilities. All the LNG hazards present in 1973 remain, Steingraber said, including that it will flash-freeze human skin and, if spilled, will disperse as a highly combustible vapor cloud and that an LNG fire is not extinguishable. Plus now we know about fracking and about climate change.
“We New Yorkers Against Fracking pledge our support, assistance and solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Maryland who are fighting the LNG terminal in Cove Point. Our destinies are intertwined. Our success depends on yours,” she said.
The present consumes Rachel Heinhorst, whose family’s front lawn faces Dominion’s front lawn in Lusby. “We do not deserve to live in fear of an explosion, of the water we drink, of the air we breathe,” she told the crowd. “FERC and President Obama, please hear my family and all the others living so close to this. Feel our worry, know that it is real, know that we are coming to you, not looking for a fight. We are coming to you looking for compassion.” Her family, though, is preparing to move. If they can sell the house.
Fred Tutman, Patuxent Riverkeeper, said the gas industry tries to divide people into those fighting climate change, compressor stations, fracking, export facilities. “We stand together,” he called out. “They have to fight all of us.”
Tim DeChristopher of Peaceful Uprising called FERC a lapdog to the president and the Democratic Party. “Being slightly better than Republicans on climate change is not enough,” he said. “We will not have that energy plan of ‘Frack here’ and ‘Frack there.’ ”
One prop for the rally and march was a large slingshot. “This has been a David and Goliath fight from the start,” said Mike Tidwell, director of Chesapeake Climate Action Network. “We have been throwing stone after stone. We have more stones to throw.”
–by elisabeth hoffman
July 16, 2014
Mike Bagdes-Canning is a husband, father, grandfather, retired teacher and vice president of Cherry Valley Borough in Butler County, PA. He was one of 25 people arrested Monday morning for blocking entrances at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or rather the Fracking Expansion Rubber-stamp Commission. He also attended the Stop Cove Point rally and march to FERC on Sunday. In this guest blog post, Mike explains that we are all living in frontline communities and that our struggles are the same. — elisabeth hoffman
BY MICHAEL BAGDES-CANNING
As a frontline resident in the shalefields of Pennsylvania, the rally on Sunday and the action on Monday were as much about us in Pennsylvania as about the people at Cove Point.
Cove Point and the other export facilities are critically important to those of us in extraction communities because once the gas is available on a global scale, it will command a “global price.” Shale gas is very expensive to produce, and it is not profitable to extract at the moment. That will change if it hits the global market. The dire circumstances we find ourselves in now will be viewed as the good old days.
In addition, though, we are all from frontline communities. Creating a world market for LNG would be devastating to humanity and much other life as we know it. That point was made at the rally. It wasn’t an accident that my friend Cherri Foytlin from the Gulf region was a speaker — we, all of us, need to be in this fight. Your fight is my fight, my fight is your fight.
This all became very personal for me today. I spent the entire morning with some of the folks I’ve been working with — trying to keep drilling away from a school campus that serves 3,200 kids. They had a hearing with our Department of Environmental Protection (DEP — we call it Don’t Expect Protection). I was there as a member of the media: I document shale stories for the movement. I was kicked out of the meeting because our law does not serve the people. It serves the corporations. Then I had to deliver my friend, photographer Tom Jefferson, back home to Pittsburgh. Tom wasn’t allowed into the meeting either. Finally, after spending most of the day on the road, I was grateful to be heading home to my piece of heaven — Cherry Valley. At a little after 7 p.m., after being away from home for 11 hours, I turned onto my road, and about a half-mile south of my driveway, I came upon a crew doing seismic testing, one of the initial steps in the drilling process. There was a sign in the road that said, “Lane closed.” I got out of my car and stormed past the flag-man, pulled out my camera and started to document. They told me that I had to leave; I told them I wasn’t going anywhere. THIS IS MY HOME! They told me to back away, it wasn’t safe. I told them that I wasn’t going anywhere, they weren’t welcome here. They had to think I was a raving lunatic — and I was. Even now, hours later, I’m angry and already contemplating my next steps. The arrest in D.C. will not be my last.
Gabriel Echeverri, a young man I met at Shalefield Justice Spring Break, spoke to my heart when he told Maryland shale advisory commissioners, “I have an issue with you all debating for hours about the most publicly acceptable way of coming and destroying our homes and poisoning our waters while we have to sit here and listen to all of it.”
Karen’s and my home is surrounded by properties that have been leased. Some of our immediate neighbors have not leased, but the folks that adjoin them have. We are a small island in a vast sea of leased properties.
Both major political parties have betrayed us. Our government serves those who would destroy us. It’s up to us to draw a line in the sand.
Day in and day out, I deal with folks who have been harmed, folks who no longer feel at home in their homes. Today, I find myself joining their ranks. My peace has been yanked from me.
There is, however, a difference between me and those people I work with, the folks I’ve come to call friend, neighbor. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard: “What can we do? They’re so big, and we’re so small.” I know what I can do. I can fight within the broken system we’ve been given. I can put my body in front of machines. I can turn to my network of frack-fighters. I can gain inspiration from my heroes on the frontlines — people like Janet, who despite being without water for over three years and in ill health, has single-handedly carried a water bank serving others without water. I can gain inspiration from folks willing to put themselves in harm’s way.
This fight is not mine any more than Cove Point is a fight for Marylanders. I don’t care where you’re from, your home is in danger. Extreme energy threatens us all.
I’m not asking you to come to fight fracking in Pennsylvania. I don’t care where you are, you’ve got a battle to fight where you are. If they aren’t extracting, they’re transporting, or processing, or burning, or disposing of the waste. I want you to fight your fight because you will then be supporting me in my fight. Your victories will be my victories. We’ve got to fight the extreme energy industry at every step of its death cycle. We’ve got to be prepared to meet them wherever they are. My thoughts turn to our friends on the Great March for Climate Action. I’ve followed their progress and know that they, more than I, are seeing just how our struggles are one. At the foot of West Virginia’s Blair Mountain, filmmaker Josh Fox (“Gasland”) said that mountaintop removal and fracking were just two heads of the same monster. I’ve come to realize that the monster has many heads.
And now I find, jarringly, that what I always knew but never really acknowledged has come to pass: My home is in danger. I’ve been there to support others, but now I feel very vulnerable, unsafe, fearful. It’s not a pleasant place to be and it’s uncomfortable to admit that I’m not ready for it. In my dealings with others, I’ve always assumed that I’d be ready, and now I find that working with others has not prepared me for what I’m facing.
My involvement in this movement has made me a better person (though I’m betting that seismic crew didn’t think so). I am inspired by all my friends in this fight. Send me your energy, fight your fight.
July 12, 2014
A Frostburg resident’s anger and frustration burst through the typically methodical proceedings of the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission meeting Friday.
Gabriel Echeverri refused to wait six hours until the designated half hour at the end of the meeting when the public gets to speak. “I have an issue with you all debating for hours about the most publicly acceptable way of coming and destroying our homes and poisoning our waters while we have to sit here and listen to all of it,” he told the commission.
Chairman David Vanko tried several times to quiet him, noting that Echeverri didn’t have to “listen to all of it” — although Vanko added that he hoped he would.
“We do have to listen to all of it,” Echeverri said, “to wait ‘til the end, where you so magnanimously offer us the scraps of time left to say our little pittance.” Then he raised up a jug of murky brown water. “This is poison. This is mercury, this is uranium, radioactive,” said Echeverri, who in February was arrested in Cumberland with three others for civil disobedience while protesting Dominion’s plans to liquefy and export fracked gas from Cove Point. “You are talking about poisoning our waters, and poisoning our families, and poisoning our land. And I refuse to accept that. I refuse to just sit here and listen while you do that.” At some point, a security guard slipped inside the lecture hall at Frostburg University’s Dunkle Hall.
Echeverri said he would leave, taking the jug with him “because I don’t trust you to deal with it properly.” Under the state’s proposed best practices, drillers would have to ship frack waste to other, more accommodating states, a plan Echeverri called “completely unacceptable.” Before heading out, he said, “I don’t know about you, but I say ‘No fracking, no compromise.’ ”
As the commission rushes to complete its mission, area activists have taken note. On July 3, Savage Mountain Earth First! set up a Facebook community. “We declare ourselves as a contingent of residents of western maryland who will not stand for the degradation of this land. No compromise,” the group’s page says. So far, 129 people have Liked the page. Over the July 4 holiday, two banners were hoisted on the overpass at Sideling Hill on I-68: “Welcome to Western Maryland” and “No Fracking Allowed!”
As Echeverri left and in the brief lull created while state agency computers were being hooked up, others also asked to speak, forcing a reversal of the usual agenda at the 30th meeting of the commission.
“I do not want fracking here,” said Susan Snow of Frostburg. Industry takes advantage of people who aren’t fully knowledgeable about fracking and then “destroys their land,” she said, leaving them unable to move. And if the gas is shipped overseas from the proposed export facility at Cove Point, Marylanders won’t even benefit. Only a few will get rich while the others suffer, she said. “I am very passionate about it because this is my home. … I say ‘No fracking, no way.’ “
“I want you to take in the whole human costs,” said Amy Fabbri of Allegany County. Extractive industries have long made the few rich while sickening residents and leaving behind ruined land. “I’m a mother, and I think long term,” she said.
Jim Guy of Oldtown in Allegany asked how the commission would determine what was an “unacceptable risk” and how it would decide if fracking would pose such a risk. The charge of the commission, according to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s 2011 executive order is to determine “whether and how” fracking can be accomplished without “unacceptable risks of adverse impacts” to public health and safety and the environment.
That’s a question the commission and state officials have for the most part dodged. Only because Commissioner Nick Weber pressed the issue of determining and analyzing risk at every opportunity did the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) decide to conduct an in-house risk assessment. Once that report is complete, Weber said, the community will have to decide if it can tolerate the risks and if regulations will mitigate the risks sufficiently. If the community gets to decide.
Commissioner Ann Bristow said some studies have documented birth defects and low birth weights in fracking areas. The commission and then politicians will have to “weigh the lifetime of costs to the community against what would be gained” by a few people. “I’m not a politician,” she said. “I’m someone who is trying to work through a mountain of data that’s emerging.” And in the absence of science, best practices for fracking should not be accepted, she said.
As if on cue, though, the state’s “interim final” report of the how best to frack in Maryland was posted online yesterday. Interim, because the commission, MDE and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have yet to see, much less evaluate, the risk assessment, the final health study and a traffic study. The report identifies “practices that we believe will be as protective, or more protective, than those in place currently in other states,” according to a letter submitted with the report from the heads of DNR and MDE.
The whole discussion brought the commission full circle to reflect for an illuminating moment on what, precisely, had been its mission for the past three years. Commissioner Harry Weiss, a Pennsylvania attorney, said he thought the commission was to assume fracking would happen and make recommendations. Over the years, others have expressed similar sentiment. The confusion perhaps arises from the full title of the commission, Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission — even though no one has determined that “safe drilling” is possible and many studies have suggested the opposite.
But Vanko said the commission was “not asked to assume drilling” would happen and was charged with advising MDE and DNR.
“You need to say this is unacceptable,” Susan Snow said.
“We might do that,” Vanko said.
“That would be awesome,” Snow said.
“We could say that we don’t believe it’s an unacceptable risk,” Weiss said.
Or the commission might not be able to reach a consensus, Vanko said.
Bristow said she wasn’t convinced that fracking would be permitted. During the years that the commission has been working, research has begun to emerge — in spite of industry’s attempts to stop it through gag orders and nondisclosure agreements. “We just know the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “I don’t’ buy that [fracking in Maryland] is a foregone conclusion.”
MDE and DNR are a couple months from issuing a final report based on the commission’s work. The last scheduled meeting is in September, and MDE senior policy adviser Brigid Kenney said a final report would probably be the topic of the October meeting.
Revealing how much is at stake, the meeting included a slide show from a field trip last month to fracked communities in West Virginia. Some commissioners and MDE and DNR staff had previously been on a Chevron-choreographed tour of a Pennsylvania frack site. “A very nice tour,” Vanko said. This time the host was West Virginia Host Farms, a group of concerned landowners living with fracking. This tour was not so nice. Water buffaloes (wrapped for heating) were visible at homes in several areas. Residents didn’t know what had happened to the water; the company had just provided replacement water. It was all a big secret. Commissioners said they had counted many, many trucks on the roads. They saw a couple frack pads as well as large tanks called shark tanks, for holding wastewater. They saw staging areas with many tanks and pipes. Vented tanks had a strong odor. Potholes. Buckled asphalt that scraped the bottom of the commissioners’ vehicle. Vanko reported a high level of suspicion between the drillers and the tour hosts and commissioners. Lots of erosion. Loud compressor stations that run round-the-clock. Several commissioners noted that Maryland would not allow some of those practices, including all that erosion.
“In a state without regulations, industry is doing exactly what it wants,” said Bristow, who went on the field trip. “I see no data on the ground of industry doing any more than they are forced to do,” she said, “because the name of the game is to get as much out of the ground as fast as they can.” Maryland might claim superiority, she said, but consider the comparison.
Being somewhat better than West Virginia and other states is still abysmal.
July 6, 2014
About all that’s left between us and fracking is a state-commissioned health study that’s big on dangers and disruptions, gaps and shortcomings, but nevertheless seems willing to list some recommendations and hope for the best.
That’s not enough.
Public health scientists at the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health (MIAEH) recently unveiled their final progress report during a meeting at Garrett College. They explained some of the health burdens Garrett and Allegany county residents would have to bear if the state permits fracking in the Marcellus Shale that lies deep under their land.
The infant mortality rate, for example, in those counties is already higher than in the rest of the state. “With additional industrial activity … you could see an impact on infant mortalities,” Dr. Sacoby Wilson said. Translation: More babies could die. Garrett and Allegany also have a higher percentage than the rest of the state of elderly, who would be particularly vulnerable to increased air pollution. Children, pound for pound, breathe more air than adults, putting them at greater risk as well. Rates of some cancers are already higher in these counties than the rest of the state. “We could see an increase in cancer from exposure to pollutants,” Dr. Wilson said.
Much, however, remains unknowable, the public health researchers said. Dr. Donald Milton said that research on the effects of fracking is new, less than 10 years old, and extremely limited. And much was beyond the scope of the report and data available, including a cumulative risk assessment. If Maryland allows fracking, it “will be in a unique position to collect some of these things,” he said.
The question, then, is whether Western Marylanders have consented to be test cases for this data collection.
Unless changes are made in the final report, the state seems ready to continue the experiment on people and communities witnessed in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Texas and Colorado, with predicable results.
Deciding whether Maryland should allow drilling is not part of the health report. Once completed in the next week or so, the health report will be used by the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission and state Departments of the Environment (MDE) and Natural Resources (DNR) to help determine whether fracking can be done “without unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources,” according to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s executive order.
So, instead of saying yes, no or wait for more research, the Maryland scientists created a scorecard of sorts for public health hazards. The higher the score, the greater the harm.First, they collected baseline public health information for the two western counties and reviewed scientific literature and other reports on fracking and health. They also monitored noise near compressor stations and in homes in one county in West Virginia. With that science as the backdrop, Dr. Amir Sapkota explained, each selected impact “earned” points, based on whether the hazard affected vulnerable populations, how long the exposure was likely to last, the frequency of exposure, the likelihood of health effects, the severity of the health effects, whether the hazard was communitywide or localized, and whether setbacks would lessen the harm. Impacts with the highest score, 15 to 17 points, would have the most ill effects on public health. They were color-coded red. Stop. Other items were in the medium hazard range (yellow) and some, with scores of 6 to 9 points, would carry no or a low health hazard (green).
For example, one hazard the group evaluated was the potential for poor air quality and exposure to volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. The researchers found elevated levels of VOCs near frack operations in West Virginia; and they had looked at studies that show harms from exposure to such VOCs as benzene, butadiene, formaldehyde, and one showing an association between proximity to frack wells and congenital heart defects and neural tube defects in babies. (That Colorado study is here. In addition, a 2013 working paper by a Cornell researcher in Pennsylvania found low birth weights and APGAR scores in babies born to mothers within 2.5 kilometers of frack sites, and Princeton and Columbia University researchers, in a study presented in January at the American Economic Association, again found that proximity to a fracking site increased the risk for low birth weights and APGAR scores. )
Based on the resulting score, the group concluded there was “high likelihood” that changes in air quality from fracking would be a hazard to public health. Red. Stop.
For several hazards, such as soil contamination or effects on food, the study group lacked enough information to devise a score. (Although research published in the journal of Environmental Science & Technology is ominous). In addition, studies that link exposure to illness require three to five years for a study and another couple years to publish the results, Dr. Sapkota said. He also noted the “gap in time — between when exposure happens and when you get sick — of months, years, even decades.” Therefore, “absence of investigation [or] absence of data is not equal to absence of harm,” Dr. Sapkota said. At that, applause went up from the audience of about 50 in the college auditorium.
On the scorecard, the risk of earthquakes was low, because Maryland is not going to allow injection wells. Instead, the state would be content to send its toxic and radioactive waste to other states that haven’t caught on yet (although West Virginia seems about to catch on).
Also ranking high, or red, on the hazard scorecard were public safety and worker safety. With fracking, Dr. Sapkota said, come: truck traffic (1,000 roundtrips per well fracked; 6,000 roundtrips for a well pad with 6 wells); more accidents; delayed 911 response time; deteriorating road conditions; unsafe roads for pedestrians, drivers and children; more crime (for example, the report says, arrests rose 17 percent in heavily fracked areas of Pennsylvania and 32 percent in Battlement Mesa, Colo.), more cases of sexually transmitted diseases (up 32 percent in Pennsylvania and 217 percent in Battlement Mesa). Workers are at higher risk of developing lung cancer and silicosis from exposure to silica dust in frac sand. And increased use of medical services, by insured or uninsured workers, “would strain the existing healthcare infrastructure, likely leading to decreased quality, availability, and access to services,” the report said.
Oddly, the researchers ranked as medium the potential harm to water quality, even though a large percentage of the population relies on well water. Contributing to the score were one point each for “likelihood of health effects” and “magnitude/severity of effects.” A ‘1’ means “unlikely” and “little/no evidence that exposure is related to adverse health outcomes.” And yet an Associated Press report found hundreds of complaints about water contamination in at least four states. Pennsylvania has failed to inform residents when fracking polluted private wells. And risk analysts found that disposal of contaminated wastewater (from truck accidents, leaking casings, surface spills, fracturing fluids traveling through underground fractures; and disposal at treatment plants) poses a substantial potential risk of river and other water pollution. And a University of Missouri researcher found higher levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals (linked to infertility, cancer and birth defects and other health problems) in surface and groundwater in Colorado.
Even a point more in those categories would have us in the red zone.
The scientists also cited Avner Vengosh’s Duke University study that found methane concentrations much higher in water wells within a kilometer of fracking operations and dismissed an industry-funded study that found otherwise. “We felt like that conclusion was not supported,” Dr. Sapkota said, “particularly given the large conflict of interest involved.” Dr. Milton noted at one point that methane — aside from its explosive qualities — wasn’t much of a health threat, but it often traveled with things that are, such as benzene and hydrogen sulfide. “We can’t write prescriptions of what should be monitored,” he said. “The community needs to develop it.”
Each harm builds on the others, creating a sum that scientists don’t yet understand. “It’s an emerging field, and we are still trying to figure it out … how to quantify cumulative risks,” Dr. Sapkota said. Because some people might benefit while others are harmed, disruption of social fabric, of community peace, is also a factor and adds to stress, he said. And yet, inexplicably, the cumulative effects ranked in the medium range. Presumably, how the points were assigned will be part of the full report.
the doctors’ prescriptions
The study group included a number of recommendations to lessen the harms, such as soil and air monitoring; 100 percent recycling of frack fluids; prohibition on using flowback water for road deicing or dust suppression; community panels to address noise and odor complaints; and an increase in state and local patrols to monitor truck traffic and to keep trucks off the road when school buses are transporting children. The researchers said proppants and engineered nanomaterials should be disclosed and trade secret chemicals “acknowledged.” They recommended that local governments train emergency and medical personnel and “consider health infrastructure as a high level priority when appropriating local government revenues derived from [shale gas development] and engage in long-term planning.” (The counties collect production taxes only after the gas is flowing through a pipeline, though, so the source of money for training in advance is a big question.) They also suggest engaging local communities “in monitoring and ensuring that setback distances are properly implemented.”
Dr. Sapkota said after the presentation that the recommendations can’t eliminate the hazards. Public safety will take a hit.
from the audience
Every speaker from the audience voiced grave concerns about gaps in the panel’s scope and in available research. Jim Guy from Oldtown in Allegany County criticized the “cavalier conversation” about “a lot of people getting sick. … My question is this: Who is going to be accountable for all this?”
Asked about the public health threat of climate change from leaking methane, Dr. Sapkota said that was a concern but outside the scope of the group’s review. (Two new reports have highlighted that risk, one by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the other by Anthony Ingraffea at Cornell University.
The health care system faces huge burdens, said Rebecca Ruggles, director of the Maryland Environmental Health Network. “Nobody seems to be putting a price tag on that. … It’s the cost of doing business in this community, and then who is going to bear it?”
Dr. Clifford S. Mitchell, a commissioner on the state’s advisory panel and director of Maryland’s Environmental Health Bureau, said the study team lacked the time and resources to do an economic study. (The state’s economic study, done by Towson University’s Regional Economic Studies Institute, didn’t include health costs either.) Dr. Mitchell said he would work up some “back-of-the-envelope calculations” for the full report.
Robyn Gilden, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, wanted to know what the medical community should be tracking in patients before and after fracking. Dr. Sapkota said low birth weight and “adverse” birth outcomes are easy to track, because the information is public and the time span — 9 months — is short. Dr. Milton and Dr. Mitchell said nosebleeds and skin rashes are frequent complaints that bear watching.
The presentation has many gaps, and major research is just emerging, said Gina Angiola, a retired physician and steering committee member of the Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility. “What about asking for another three to five years?” she asked. More applause from the audience.
Mike Bagdes-Canning, who lives near fracking operations north of Pittsburgh, said he spends a good deal of time with people on the front lines of fracking. Wherever the gas industry goes, health problems follow, he says. Complaints that he commonly sees are flu-like symptoms, rashes, breathing problems, arsenic poisoning, headaches, shortness of breath, sleep disturbance, and mental health issues such as depression. “I come as your ambassador from Pennsylvania,” he said. “Don’t do what we’ve done.”
In introducing the scientists involved in the public health study, Dr. Mitchell boasted that Maryland is the only state studying the health effects of fracking before proceeding. Pennsylvania might prevent its health employees from discussing nosebleeds, rashes, cancer and other concerns from fracking with frantic residents calling for assistance. But that’s not Maryland, he suggested. “Part of the reason we have gone through this process is because Maryland is trying to distinguish itself … so we can learn from evidence about how not to do things.”
Far more protective would be a warning like Dr. Jerome Paulson’s to the Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. Citing data on birth defects and low birth weights, water contamination and stress from noise, and the vulnerability of children, Dr. Paulson concluded, “Neither the industry, nor government agencies, nor other researchers have ever documented that [unconventional gas extraction] can be performed in a manner that minimizes risks to human health.” Or the stance of hundreds of doctors and other health experts in New York who have asked for a three- to five-year fracking moratorium.
–by elisabeth hoffman