scientists call for 10-year wait on fracking

September 29, 2014

cows in garrett

Cows graze along Old Morgantown Road outside of Friendsville in Garrett County, near land leased by Chevron for a compressor station and multiwell drilling pad. //photo by Crede Calhoun

A group of public health experts and other scientists meeting in Baltimore this month have called for a 10-year moratorium on fracking in Maryland.

And if surrounding states continue experimenting on their people, animals, land, air and water, then Western Maryland counties should serve as the control group, the experts suggested, with research scientists based in Garrett and Allegany.

That recommendation and much more emerged this month from the Symposium on Health and the Marcellus Shale in Maryland, held at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. Rebecca Ruggles, director at the Maryland Environmental Health Network (MEHN), organized the conference to help answer the question confounding state officials: Can fracking be done safely in our state? The idea was to get comments on the recently completed health study — by the University of Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health (MIAEH) — and send them on to policymakers. The conference was co-hosted by Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments.

From the conference report: “As public health professionals whose responsibility is protecting the health of all Marylanders, we should not pretend that we’ll know what to do in the next couple of years — we acknowledge that it may take 10 years or more to fully understand the health ramifications of hydro fracturing, and importantly, how to mitigate the health risks associated” with unconventional shale gas production.

Make no mistake: The recommendations from this conference are a gift to Marylanders. With this call for a moratorium in hand — along with the health study, with its code red and yellow warnings for seven of eight areas of concern — Marylanders can with confidence tell state regulators that we don’t want to be part of an experiment and we cannot safely allow fracking here anytime soon. (Comments on the health study are due by 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 3. Email them to dhmh.envhealth@maryland.gov. Citizen Shale offers guidance on making comments is here.)

health summary

The state’s fracking health study evaluated the likelihood of public health hazards in eight categories.

The conference started out routinely enough, with an overview of the health report and a panel of scientists praising Maryland for doing what no other state has done: conduct a health study, solicit comments from expert reviewers, and release it for public discussion before making decisions about fracking. The report, they said, captured well the state of the science thus far.

“We didn’t do this in Pennsylvania, and we’re still not doing this in Pennsylvania. We’re just rushing ahead and ‘drill, baby, drill,’ ” said Bernard Goldstein, M.D., former dean at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, who moderated the discussion

But then came the research gaps. And stories from surrounding states. Participants were promised anonymity regarding specific comments in the symposium report, but some agreed to be quoted here.

David Brown, Sc.D., a public health toxicologist, described his findings from case studies of people in southwestern Pennsylvania. There, he has measured emissions inside homes and found dangerous peaks, particularly in the middle of the night. And found people complaining of rashes, headaches, fatigue. “Are there health effects? I can lay that to rest,” Dr. Brown said. “There are. … There are exposures, and they are occurring today. There are things industry could do, but I don’t have a lot of confidence” in that happening. “Individuals will have to do their own protections,” he said.

Because local governments have failed to step in, his organization, the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project,  puts air monitors in homes and tells people how to minimize exposure and watch for warning signs — and when to get out. “We have people calling us at night trying to find a hotel room to get out of the house,” he said. Maryland officials would have to assess county health departments and “see if they can deal with people calling them in the night.”

Michael McCawley, Ph.D., of West Virginia University, whose expertise is in air quality, described his research on radioactive tailings from fracking operations in West Virginia. Companies truck these tailings — which have hitched a ride from deep underground with the gas and some of the frack fluid — to a hazardous waste incinerator in Ohio, where the top of the stack is the same height as a school on the adjacent hillside. So, when a state outsources its waste, as Maryland proposes to do, “you are putting radioactive waste from those tailings into that grammar school. That’s your moral responsibility,” he said. In addition, high ozone levels at midnight in a small West Virginia town are from weather fronts moving east from Ohio. “So what’s going up in Ohio is coming back to Oakland, Maryland. You are not allowed to exclude it from your impact.”

Pouné Saberi, M.D., M.P.H., a clinical assistant professor of occupational and environmental medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center of Excellence in Environmental Toxicology, pointed to a lack of research on food from fracked areas (such as on the meat of hunted deer), increase in traffic accidents, emergency rooms ill-equipped to handle hazardous materials used in fracking, and a shortage of mental health providers. She also has heard anecdotes about an increase in the use of psychiatric medication in fracked areas. Missing, she said, is a regional health assessment from the fracking and buildout of pipelines and compressor stations.

When the after-lunch small-group discussions started reporting back, a consensus quickly emerged: Don’t repeat the mistake of other states. Close the gap between science and policy by getting rid of secrecy. No secret toxic chemicals punched through aquifers and threatening soil and lungs. No more nondisclosure agreements, with industry buying silence from harmed families. Come up with a solution for frack wastewater. Sending it to other states with less stringent standards only outsources the problem to unprotected communities. Industry should fix the stubbornly high rates of casing failure — 6 percent right off the bat and 60 percent over a couple decades — that pose threats to aquifers and streams. Figure out the health costs in dollars. More research. More time. And if some people will be losers, that needs to be disclosed.

Dr. Goldstein pressed the group: How would Maryland determine when it has enough information?

And from that question came the recommendation for a 10-year moratorium. Research will continue piecemeal, and answers will not be available for many years. So, redo the health study in a decade, when much more will be known.

Ann Bristow, Ph.D., a member of the state’s Marcellus shale advisory commission, then suggested that Maryland be the “baseline state” for research, with scientists located in Western Maryland doing the testing, which would create another economic engine for the two counties. “We are the comparison for your experimental states,” she said.

Suddenly, Maryland’s path seemed so clear. Although, as Dr. Goldstein pointed out in a 2012 op-ed, Pennsylvanians and those in other states remain the guinea pigs.

Sacoby Wilson, PhD., on a conference call this month about the state’s health report, echoed the symposium’s conclusions. Dr. Wilson, who worked on the health report and whose research focuses on environmental justice, said, “We don’t know enough information to allow” the industry to start hydraulic fracturing in Maryland. In addition, he said, data collected for the report shows a shortage of physicians and emergency personnel in Garrett County already. He also said the study was unable to assess cumulative harms from drilling — not only in Western Maryland but in shale basins throughout the state — and from pipelines and compressors that would be needed. Nor did the study address climate change. Because research is insufficient, he said, Maryland should apply a precautionary approach rather than promulgate regulations.

Ten years from now, energy generation, conservation, and climate change could all force a very different hand. Maryland can wait to make this decision.

–elisabeth hoffman

gabe

A clown outside the Frostburg Lyric Theater offered “complimentary*” frack water lemonade before the state’s monthly shale advisory commission meeting. The fine print says: * will actually cost you your home, your water, your health, your mountains, and your land. Also might kill you : )

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3 Responses to “scientists call for 10-year wait on fracking”

  1. Thanks for this update, as I hadn’t heard of this before now.

  2. Jo McLaughlin said

    KUDOS!

    Another terrific column! Great picture of the water puveyor!

  3. V Appalachia said

    Thank you to the Maryland Environmental Health Network, Chesapeake Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments for organizing a public health symposium that the state of Maryland should have organized and sponsored.

    I am hopeful that the comments from public health professionals sent to Maryland’s DHMH will be enough to get the outcomes of this symposium on public record and that the O’Malley administration will give the comments the consideration they merit.

    And thank you, Elisabeth, for writing about this for those who could not attend. I found myself weeping while reading your paragraph about the consensus among the professionals. Though I don’t think fracking can ever be done safely, these recommendations seem so obvious and so needed. They make so much sense.

    Yet—without some responsible action from US EPA or our President—no US citizens in harms’ way of fracking will ever benefit from these common sense protections. Sad.

    Why would Maryland join the pathetic, greedy march to frack when wise people are telling us we should wait?

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