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We have until Feb. 9 to tell the state’s Department of the Environment (MDE) what we think of proposed regulations for fracking in Maryland. And we have only to look at the “assumptions” listed in the regulations to know they are little more than snake oil, offering no protections from this industry.

Here are three key assumption used for these regulations:

E(1).  “There will be positive economic impacts to environmental consultants and laboratories for the additional work that will be required by the regulations.”

Of course, we will also see “positive economic impacts” for physicians who treat people complaining of rashes, headaches, shortness of breath or hair loss. As some of the chemicals used in fracking and the emissions from well pads and compressors are known endocrine disrupters and carcinogens, we might years hence also see “positive economic impacts” for oncologists or hospitals treating babies with birth defects. These regulations are positive only in the sense that hurricanes are positive for builders and car crashes are positive for lawyers.

E(3). “There will be positive economic impacts to real estate professionals and tourism related businesses in Garrett and Allegany Counties as a result of replacing the existing regulations with these more stringent regulations.” 

The state’s approach becomes clear here. MDE is comparing the proposed regulations to existing regulations for conventional gas drilling. It is not comparing the regulations to the safety we have now, the safety of not fracking. With these regulations, the state is willing to gamble with the Western Maryland tourism industry, whose growth, according to the state Office of Tourism, is outpacing all other regions of the state.

state-commissioned economic study said it didn’t have enough evidence to calculate the harm to Western Maryland’s tourism business. But it said Garrett, in particular, “is considered one of the most diverse and fastest growing counties in the Appalachian region,” with tourism and demand for second homes a key part of that growth (p. 77-78). It also concluded that: “nonresidents may have more flexibility to avoid Western Maryland if they perceive the local trails, streams, and woodlands to be of lesser quality near drilling activity, ultimately impacting the popular second‐home market of Garrett County” (p. 91).

In other words, tourists would likely go elsewhere if they spot replacement water supplies — water buffaloes — on the front yards, or have to hike within a few hundred feet of frack towers, or kayak down a river while compressors drown out the birds, or sit on the deck listening to 24-7 flaring (allowed for up to 30 days under these regulations), or drive while stuck behind a caravan of water trucks. Vacationers won’t like that much. Residents would have to put up with all that, too. Where would they go during an out-of-control frack fire? Or even, as the Southwest PA Environmental Health Project reports, during the middle of the night if indoor pollution monitors spike?

frack towers

Some Garrett business owners are not reassured. Lisa Jan and Elliott Perfetti of Moon Shadow Café and Blue Moon Rising have posted on the company’s website a call to push back against fracking:

“While industry experts and local legislators continue to perpetuate false informational campaigns about the economic benefits and supposed safety of the practice, real science has prevailed in New York and should do so here in Maryland. While we have been publicly silent to this point, that time has ended. Our business, the livelihoods of our employees and their families, and the sanctity of our precious fresh air and clean water require a fight. … [W]e will not be silent any longer.”

They ask others to join them:

“All those who want to live in a clean fresh environment with opportunities for an active outdoor lifestyle and some of the best schools in the country, move here, join our fight and create the future of western Maryland based on an ethos that values health and happiness more than money!!”

In August, the Garrett County Board of Realtors called for a ban on fracking in the Deep Creek watershed. The Realtors group cited research showing that property values near drilling activity fall as much as 27 percent. The Deep Creek Lake watershed provides about 60 percent of the real property tax base to the county, the Realtors group said, generating more than $24 million in tax revenue. “The placement of even a few gas well pads could have a negative effect on that revenue and make it more difficult for many property owners near gas wells to sell their property,” the group said in a news release.

“My family chose to invest in Mountain Maryland — by relocating here, planting a vineyard and building a business — because it is clean, green, and safe,” said Nadine Grabania, who owns Deep Creek Cellars with her husband, Paul Roberts, a member of the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission. “We thought our supposedly progressive governor would make protecting the health, safety and livelihoods of all Marylanders a priority, yet the regulations he put forward do not even reflect the recommendations of his own environmental agencies. Neither are they based upon any evidence that fracking can be done safely. Had we known our state and local leadership would do so little to protect its people and its economic drivers, we would have invested elsewhere. Clearly, we would be safer if we had gone to New York.”

Linda and Mike Herdering, who recently sold their Husky Power Dogsledding business, said the new owners haven’t decided whether to stay in Garrett County, in part because of the possibility of fracking. In a letter to a local newspaper, the Herderings said, “In their stated opinion, the negative environmental impact of the fracking process and the massive industrialization that it requires would not be conducive to the dogsledding experience they wish to continue to provide.”

“This fracking proposition flies in the face of the entire Deep Creek brand,” advertising executive and illustrator Mark Stutzman of Mountain Lake Park told the state’s shale advisory commission in December, when the public had a last chance to comment on the final report on fracking by MDE and the Department of Natural Resources. “We are being steamrolled,” he said.

F(1). “The regulations will minimize the impacts from drilling to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources in these two Counties. By minimizing these impacts, the general citizenry of the two Counties will benefit from enhanced public health protection and safety, including better protections for air quality and sources of drinking water. Additionally, the natural environment of the two Counties will be better protected, including forests, rivers, streams and other water bodies, wildlife, flora and fauna.”

This is the most cynical and dangerous of the assumptions. These regulations don’t minimize harm from drilling; these regulations would permit harm from drilling.

In a report for the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission, the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health (MIAEH), part of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Health, found high or moderately high likelihood of harms to public health in seven of eight areas. Regulations have not been shown to alleviate these harms.

health summary

Local health departments could be on guard for “clusters of symptoms,” suggested Clifford Mitchell, M.D., a member of the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission and director of the state’s Environmental Health Bureau. The western counties will also need a health surveillance system, starting now, lest we “squander this opportunity,” according to Donald Milton, M.D., Dr.P.H., a member of the MIAEH team. So, the plan clearly is to set this experiment in motion in yet another state and document the damage.

The emerging science on fracking shows harm to public health, water quality and air quality. A recent analysis of peer-reviewed studies, found this:

  • 96 percent of all papers published on health effects indicate potential risks or adverse health outcomes.
  • 87 percent of original research studies published on health outcomes indicate potential risks or adverse health outcomes.
  • 95 percent of all original research studies on air quality indicate elevated concentrations of air pollutants.
  • 72 percent of original research studies on water quality indicate potential, positive association, or actual incidence of water contamination.
  • And the science is just beginning: About 73 percent of all available scientific peer-reviewed papers have been published in the past 24 months, with a current average of one paper published each day.

That analysis was one of two key documents handed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo a week before he decided, at the advice of his acting health commissioner, that fracking would not be safe for New Yorkers. The other document was the Concerned Health Professionals of New York’s updated summary of the evidence of fracking’s risks and harms. In New York, public health experts were allowed to make the call.

In Maryland this month, a coalition of 61 health, environment, faith and advocacy groups citing the same analyses, called on the state Legislature to approve a long-term moratorium on fracking in Maryland. A group of public health experts and other scientists also called for a lengthy moratorium in Maryland following a daylong conference at Baltimore’s University of Maryland School of Nursing in September.

The responsibility for the proposed regulations falls not to MDE, but to its boss, Gov. Martin O’Malley, who — on his way out the door  — decided that Maryland could “balance” the risks and rewards of fracking. Even though that is what other states have said, to disastrous results. “Based on the available evidence, there is no reason to believe Maryland would be an exception,” Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Health Energy wrote to O’Malley after he decided fracking was ok.

Unfortunately, industry’s thumb has always been on that balance scale, outweighing (except in New York) the accumulating evidence and warnings from the public health community. Including two reports last week: The fracking industry is dumping and spilling ammonium and iodide — toxic to fish, ecosystems, and by extension, human health — into Pennsylvania and West Virginia waterways; and West Virginia is studying a threefold increase in gas-industry worker fatalities from 2009 to 2013, during the fracking boom.

O’Malley chose to ignore that his advisory commission was sharply divided on whether fracking was safe for Marylanders. That commission was to decide “whether and how” fracking could be done safely. The commissioners never decided the whether. And now O’Malley’s self-described “gold standard” regulations are likely to be pared back by Governor Hogan, who sees Western Maryland as a fracking “gold mine.”

In recommending that New York not allow fracking, acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker found too many gaps in research, likely harms to public health, and too little evidence that regulations would prevent harm to public health and the environment.

“Would I live in a community with [fracking] based on the facts that I have now? Would I let my child play in a school field nearby? After looking at the plethora of reports behind me … my answer is no,” Zucker said. And Cuomo concurred: I would agree with your conclusion that if your children should not live [near fracking], then no one’s child should live there.”

Fracking is not safe for New Yorkers. It’s not safe for Marylanders. Or Pennsylvanians, or West Virginians, or Coloradans, or Texans, or Ohioans. Or anyone. Regulations are merely a way to make those with power appear to be safeguarding the public while doing no such thing.

Comments about the regulations may be sent to Brigid Kenney, senior policy adviser, Maryland Department of the Environment, 1800 Washington Blvd., Baltimore, MD, 212340-1720, or call (410) 537-3084 or email brigid.kenney@maryland.gov or fax to 410-537-3888.

— elisabeth hoffman