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.’ ”

savage mountain earth first

Savage Mountain Earth First! logo.

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.

–elisabeth hoffman


Dr. Donald Milton

Dr. Donald Milton says Maryland will be in a unique position to collect data on human health effects if fracking is permitted.//photos by Mike Bagdes-Canning

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.

Dr. Sacoby Wilson

Dr. Sacoby Wilson said cancer and infant deaths could increase if fracking were permitted.

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.

Dr. Amir Sapkota

“So, absence of investigation [or] absence of data is not equal to absence of harm,” Dr. Amir Sapkota said.

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).

the scorecard

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.

public safety and occupational health

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.

water graphic

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.”

cumulative graphicNoise also was ranked medium; it leads to stress and disturbs sleep. The group singled out noise from compressor stations, because they remain in a community much longer than fracking operations.

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.”

Dr. Clifford Mitchell

“Maryland is trying to distinguish itself … so we can learn from evidence about how not to do things,” said Dr. Clifford Mitchell.

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

no fracking in western maryland sign

On July 4, signs greet travelers at Sideling Hill, the gateway to Western Maryland. //photo by Savage Mountain Earth First!


living with fracking

June 18, 2014

garrett county by crede calhoun

Unfractured Garrett County. //photo by Crede Calhoun

Despite frequent strong objections last week from three of its members, the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commissioners signed off on — or voted that they could “live with” — a set of best practices for fracking in Maryland.

Here are a few practices the majority accepted or said it could live with:

  • cultural and historic sites, state and federal parks and trails, wildlife management areas, scenic and wild rivers and scenic byways 300 feet (the length of a football field) from the edge of a frack pad;
  • aquatic habitat (such as streams, rivers, ponds, lakes, seeps and wetlands) 450 feet from the edge of frack pads;
  • irreplaceable natural areas and wild lands 600 feet from the edge of drill pads and permanent infrastructure;
  • homes, schools and other occupied buildings 1,000 feet from the edge of a frack site;
  • private and public water sources 2,000 feet from the drill hole (with exceptions that could allow drilling within 1,000 feet of a gas well).

The centerpiece of the best practices is the mandatory Comprehensive Gas Development Plan (CGDP), an overarching timeline and siting of “clustered drilling pads” and infrastructure. A public meeting is also part of this CGDP, giving property owners, local officials and organizations up to 60 days to comment. If your property is within 2,500 feet of a proposed drill site, you’ll be notified. No drilling would be allowed on state lands or within the watersheds of the Broadford Lake, Piney and Savage reservoirs.

The three frequently dissenting commissioners — Ann Bristow of the Savage River Watershed Association, citizen representative and farmer Paul Roberts, and Nick Weber of Trout Unlimited — had wanted to delay the best practices vote until the risk assessment and health study were complete. They asked how the best practices would be updated to reflect those reports, along with evolving science.

Roberts also asked whether a fundraising event for Gov. Martin O’Malley at the D.C. headquarters of America’s Natural Gas Alliance had any bearing on the rush to finish the best practices. Robert M. Summers, secretary of the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), who occasionally attends these monthly meetings, called out from the back of the small and crowded classroom at Allegany College that “the campaign is completely separate” from government offices. “So, there is no connection whatsoever.”

Weber said repeatedly that too many of the best practices, from flaring to cementing to casing, seemed to be mere suggestions urging drillers to “Do the right thing” and pointing to American Petroleum Institute guidelines. Drillers need to avoid this or minimize that, he said, and are granted altogether too much leeway. Weber, a scientist formerly with the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, has long argued that the state should develop best practices only after analyzing the risks fracking poses to human and animal health and the environment.

But that’s not how the state is proceeding.

Brigid Kenney, a senior policy adviser at MDE, said the in-house risk assessment will analyze potential harms in light of this snapshot of best practices. Based on that analysis, if a risk were still deemed too high, she said, MDE would consider additional practices. The votes, she said, will appear in an appendix to the final best practices report. “I should point out: It’s two years late already,” Kenney said of the best practices report.

The governor’s June 2011 executive order setting up the three-year study commission said the best practices were due in August 2012, but progress was slowed by lack of funding. Drs. Keith Eshleman and Andrew Elmore delivered their best practices recommendations to the commission in February 2013, and the commission, MDE and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have been working on them on and off since then.

Worth noting here is that the best practices will be the basis for updating the state’s regulations, which until now have dealt only with conventional drilling and mining. In fact, the state had been months away from granting permits for fracking in the Marcellus Shale under Garrett and Allegany counties under existing regulations when concerned residents raised alarms, setting in motion the advisory commission and what amounts to the state’s three-year moratorium. The 15-member commission, working (without pay) with MDE and DNR, is charged with determining whether fracking “can be accomplished without unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources.” That determination has not yet been made.

Jeffrey Kupfer, a fellow at the Asia Society and former senior adviser at Chevron, urged fellow commissioners to press on with the best practices votes. “This is MDE’s and DNR’s report. We play a role in this, but at the end of the day, it’s their words on the paper. It’s their report,” he said on a conference phone line. “We don’t need to push the envelope for the sake of pushing the envelope. A ‘best practice’ is something we’ve seen somewhere else and that works.”

Given the practices and accidents in other states and threats emerging in health studies, Kupfer’s definition of a best practice could fall well short of the “gold standard” to which state officials say they aspire.

But the vote commenced, with each commissioner indicating by a show of hands whether the proposed standard was 1) “appropriate,” 2) might not be appropriate “but I can live with it” or 3) “not appropriate because_______.”


First up for a vote was the CGDP, which, Kenney said, “is the most important thing we can do to minimize impacts.” The state would require a company or group of companies to seek approval for a drilling plan covering a large area and including the location of well pads, roads, pipelines and other infrastructure.

Although the state’s goal has been to have the best practices grounded in science, Roberts said, no research demonstrates that CGDPs reduce harms. In fact, John Quigley, who oversaw similar development plans for fracking in Pennsylvania’s state forests and who produced a report for Maryland saying the CGDPs would be a win-win for the business and the environment, testified in a lawsuit last month that the impact on forests in his state had been “underestimated.”

“There are going to be impacts,” said Commissioner Stephen M. Bunker of the Nature Conservancy. He said his organization is developing a tool to determine where best to locate roads and gas lines to “minimize impact on the landscape.”

To which Roberts replied: “But as someone who lives out here, what I’m concerned about here is a 40-acre industrial fracking compound 1,000 feet from my house.”

“There is nothing showing [the CGDP] is consistently superior to other techniques,” Bristow said. The CGDP might lessen forest fragmentation, she said, but it doesn’t address threats to public health. In fact, she said, “intense aggregation [of wells] may be worse for public health.” Workers and nearby residents will be exposed to more air emissions, for example. The risk of explosion and well casing failure might also increase. “The point is that [the CGDP] is a land-use decision. It is not a public health model.” she said.

Commissioners who voted that the CGDP was an appropriate practice were: David Vanko, chairman and Towson University dean; state Sen. George C. Edwards; Pennsylvania attorney Harry Weiss; Bunker from Nature Conservancy; Oakland Mayor Peggy Jamison; Garrett Commissioner James M. Raley; and Clifford S. Mitchell M.D., director of the Environmental Health Bureau of the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Kupfer said he was a 2 — he could “live with” the CGDPs — or was between a 2 and a 3. He said he supported the idea “in principle, but my concern is the way it’s laid out here it’s not workable in practice” for industry.

Voting that the CGDP was “not appropriate” were Bristow, Roberts and Weber.

(Allegany Commissioner William R. Valentine couldn’t attend because he was assessing flood damage from several days of heavy rain in his county. Commissioners Heather Mizeur, Shawn Bender and Dominick E. Murray didn’t attend.)


Voting on setbacks yielded similar split votes. The separation between the well pad’s edge of disturbance and streams, rivers, lakes, ponds, seeps, wetlands, reservoirs and 100-year floodplains would be 450 feet. Again, Bristow, Roberts and Weber dissented. “I don’t see 450 feet as protective” of agricultural uses, or for humans and other animals, Bristow said.

Of the distance protecting wildlands and other special conservation areas, Bristow and Roberts dissented. “It’s shocking to me that Maryland is going to [allow a drill pad] 600 feet from an irreplaceable natural area,” Roberts said.

Mitchell joined Bristow, Roberts and Weber in opposing the 300-foot setback from cultural and historical sites, state and federal parks, trails, wildlife. He said “aesthetic issues” and noise were at stake and he wanted to see the health study results before deciding if that buffer would be sufficient.

The buffer of 1,000 feet from occupied buildings fails to protect farm animals, Bristow said. “We don’t have data on goats and cows … [and] we’re going to be eating their byproducts. It’s not protective enough.” That setback also ignores undeveloped property, Roberts said. But Kenney as well as Commissioner Bunker said that was a local property rights matter beyond the scope of the commission.

Kupfer, the Chevron representative, joined Bristow, Roberts and Weber in opposing the 2,000-foot setback from private drinking wells. Kupfer dissented because the setback seemed too large: “This one seems over the top and unsubstantiated.” Roberts, however, has long urged 1-kilometer (3,280-feet) setbacks, based in part on Duke University research that was presented to the commission in April. At the suggestion of Chairman Vanko, the state will run the risk assessment using the 1-kilometer setback as well as the proposed 2,000 feet.


The best practice on chemical disclosure satisfied no one, although, again, many could “live with it.” Kenney said Maryland would have the “most stringent regulation” in the nation, requiring disclosure of toxic chemicals and their concentration used at a frack site. Companies claiming a trade secret, however, could withhold the brand name and concentration. Should someone fall ill or be injured by one of these trade secret chemicals, a doctor would contact the company for information. (Medical organizations have complained, for starters, that doctors won’t necessarily know which company to call. Knowing the concentration of chemicals is also key. ) Doctors would be allowed to share the information with the patient and, if the patient is a minor or unconscious, the patient’s family, as well as public health officials — although the information would still be deemed confidential. A company could ask physicians to sign a nondisclosure form, although signing such a form could not be a condition of receiving the information. Health professionals, toxicologists and epidemiologists could also request information about the secret chemicals for research, but that could be conditioned on confidentiality agreements.

Vanko, Kupfer, Raley, Weiss, Mitchell, Edwards, Bunker and Jamison said they could “live with” the proposal. Bristow, Roberts and Weber dissented. “One very strong standard we can set is to start opening this up so research can be done,” said Bristow, who called the proposal “grossly inappropriate” and suggested that “trade secret” chemicals not be permitted.


What to do with the waste also split the commissioners. Maryland’s geology is unsuited for disposal in deep injection wells, and the state won’t allow sewage treatment plants to accept the toxic and radioactive waste. So, although companies would be encouraged to reuse as much as possible, eventually millions of gallons of Maryland’s fracking waste would be loaded on trucks and shipped out of state. Kenney said the state would require record-keeping on the waste hauler, volume and shipment dates.

Bristow, Roberts and Weber asked about the integrity of tanks and how long waste could be stored on site. They feared a “shell game,” with tanks of toxic and radioactive waste being moved from one temporary spot to another.

“Our shipping our crap to other states that don’t have our regulations” is a “social justice issue,” Bristow said. “Wastewater is going to be the Achilles’ heel of this industry,” she said. “For Maryland to say, ‘We don’t want it here, ship to Ohio,’ seems to me very inappropriate.”

“What will we do in 2021 when Ohio can’t take more?” Roberts asked. Scientists have linked injection wells and fracking in Ohio to earthquakes.

“There’s a problem here,” said Commissioner Weiss, the attorney. “Somebody’s going to make a lot of money off it. But we don’t have [a solution] yet.”

Voting that the practice is appropriate: Edwards, Vanko, Weiss and Kupfer. Willing to “live with” it: Raley, Bunker, Mitchell, Jamison. And dissenting: Bristow, Roberts and Weber. “It’s inappropriate to dump the problem somewhere else,” Bristow said.


After listening to six hours of voting on these and other best practices, those who would have to live near future drilling sites were sharply critical.

“It’s frustrating that people who do not live on the shale are asked to say if they can ‘live with’ a regulation that can fail to protect those who ‘live on’ the land about to be industrialized,” said Nadine Grabania, who owns a farm and winery in Garrett County with her husband, Commissioner Roberts, and who serves on that county’s Shale Gas Advisory Committee. Calling in between customers at her Friendsville winery, she asked the state officials “to consider weighting the dissenting contributions to this consensus process because these commissioners represent actual residents who will experience the impacts that regulations are intended to mitigate. The state should place a higher value on protections than on the perception that our priority is to facilitate industrial development in rural and residential communities.”

“You ‘number 2s’ can ‘live with’ your decisions, but we will be the ones actually living with your decisions,” said Gabriel Echeverri of Frostburg, who was arrested in February in an act of civil disobedience to stop the facility in Cove Point that would liquefy and export fracked gas. “We are going to have to be living with the eventualities — not the possibilities — of degradation of water, land and air that give us sustenance in this place we call home.”

“Conservation areas get setbacks while farms do not,” said Paul Durham of the Garrett County Board of Realtors. “A limestone cave gets a setback while a field of corn does not. If you are a forest-dwelling bird, you get a setback, but if you are cattle you do not. And if you are fortunate enough to have a well or occupied building on your property, you get a setback, but if your property is unimproved the setback from compressor stations and gas infrastructure is zero feet from your property line and the setback to the well bore is cut in half.” Three studies, he said, have confirmed that proximity to drilling activity lowers property values. He questioned whether the state was trying to set a gold standard when it was ignoring best practices that would protect property values.

The day after the meeting, West Virginia Host Farms gave several commissioners a tour of fracking sites in that state. Members of the public were not permitted to go along.

–elisabeth hoffman

line on the land

April 6, 2014

anadarko protest tom jefferson

Student activists form a line in the road, blocking trucks headed for a frack site in a Pennsylvania state forest. So far, Western Marylanders are trying to negotiate a different line on fracking. //photo by Tom Jefferson

In Pennsylvania, activists draw the line by dragging tree branches into the road and then sitting, slipping their arms inside a massive concrete pipe, holding tight and waiting for the police. For nearly six hours last month, no trucks could pass. Far up the road was a fracking well pad in the Tiadaghton State Forest.

In Maryland, a much more modest line is being negotiated. If fracking were allowed, a large enough setback might help make the difference between relative safety and danger. It’s a circle on a map around a water well or house, school, park or other place within which fracking is not allowed. For skeptics, agnostics or nonbelievers on whether fracking’s risks can be made low enough, the setback is their line on the land.

Based on a draft set of Best Management Practices (BMPs) and existing regulations on conventional gas drilling, recommendations from the Maryland Departments of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Environment (MDE) include 1,000-foot setbacks from private water wells and occupied buildings and 2,000 feet from water intakes for municipal water sources. Of the more than 4,000 public comments on the BMPs, hundreds were critical of these and other setbacks.

Concerned Garrett and Allegany residents who formed Citizen Shale have been pressing for greater protection. At first, all they asked was to protect private wells as much as public wells — with 2,000-foot setbacks.

But when a Duke University study made a case for 1 kilometer (3,280 feet) based on research in active drilling areas in Pennsylvania, Citizen Shale and Paul Roberts, a co-founder of the group and the citizen representative on the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission, started insisting on that as the minimum setback. So far, the state departments have not budged. In fact, MDE told the House Environmental Matters Committee in a letter that “available scientific data” doesn’t support a 1-kilometer setback.

That rebuff came despite revelations about a long-forgotten Poolesville incident and a number of new health studies, leaving patience wearing thin for the agnostics, skeptics and nonbelievers alike.

“I don’t see the evidence that this industry can be effectively regulated. But, since we must try, the most important step is to move human activity a protective distance away from the drilling,” Roberts said. “There are public health and safety concerns, and worries about water contamination. It has turned into another full-time job for me — trying to get the state to adopt regulations based on real experiences from other states since, so far, our regulators dispute the available science.”

Here’s what’s on the table:

the case of the communicating wells

From Poolesville came a cautionary tale about the fragility of water sources. The Montgomery County town supplied water to about 5,000 residents with eight municipal water wells. As development started to outpace the water supply, town officials asked state regulators for permission to drill two more wells. Caroline Taylor, who lives in Sugarland Forest outside Poolesville’s border, was concerned enough about the effect on her private well, particularly during droughts, to demand a public hearing. She insisted on baseline testing and wrangled out of the state an agreement: Private wells would be monitored and, if necessary, replaced. Taylor had no interest in being hooked up to the municipal wells in Poolesville. She did not want to buy water by the gallon; she wanted a water well on her land. And the state’s project hydrogeologist, Patrick Hammond — who had studied water sources in the fractured-rock geological region that underlies Maryland west of about Interstate 95 — thought a “zone of interference” could extend even a mile from the town’s well and would need long-term monitoring. In other words, what happened in one well could affect what happened in another a mile away.

And so the municipal wells were drilled in Poolesville. They weren’t pumped at full capacity, however, until the middle of 2007. And two months later, one hot summer day, Taylor’s children turned on the outside faucet and heard a sputtering sound. Air came out but no water. Taylor called Hammond, who analyzed the monitoring data and determined that the town’s pumping activity, as well as that of a nearby golf course, had sucked dry her private well (and interfered with others) 5,000 feet to the south. In the rock formations under Poolesville, the water sources were connected. Poolesville and the golf course paid to drill new wells for the residents who had lost water.

At 300 feet, Taylor’s new well is deeper than her original one, which she described wistfully as “a great well.” The new one has more sediment, she said. “I preferred my 90-foot well. But I prefer water to no water.”

At a February shale advisory commission meeting, Hammond, now retired from MDE but a former consultant for the state’s study of water resources in the fractured-rock regions, stepped forward during the public comment period. The Poolesville case was on his mind, along with his research showing large-capacity water wells (and dewatering for coal mining) could affect private wells 5,000 feet away. He also pointed to a December 2013 report — not peer-reviewed but appearing in the industry trade journal American Oil and Gas Reporter — showing that contamination of water wells was probable within 1,000 feet, possible within 5,000 feet and possible as far as 10,000 feet, once a contaminant is in the aquifer and given certain geological conditions.

What was the rationale for the proposed smaller setbacks, he asked the commissioners. “They seem to be somewhat arbitrary,” he said.

At the March advisory commission meeting, Hammond returned. He said his research, presented at the 2012 Maryland Ground Water Symposium, backs up the findings from the Duke methane study and finds errors in the industry-funded Molofsky study that dismisses fracking’s role in water wells contaminated in Dimock, Pa. Leaky well casings are the most likely culprit for methane contamination in Dimock, he said. Based on his knowledge of the water and rock formations in Western Maryland, he said, 1,000-foot setbacks are insufficient. He has seen water wells affecting each other as far as 5,000 feet and contaminant plumes described in scientific journals extending to about that distance. And whether gas, water or chemicals: “If you can show a hydrological connection, it doesn’t matter what the fluid is.”

no help in annapolis

So far, state officials who work with the advisory commission haven’t commented on the Poolesville case. In a letter to the House Environmental Matters Committee, MDE opposed the bill that would have increased setbacks to 3,280 feet (1 kilometer), saying the larger setback “cannot be supported by the available scientific data and because codifying the setback distance now would preempt and undermine the work of the Departments and the Advisory Commission.”

The letter cited a study published in the bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists that was noncommittal about fracking’s link to methane contamination, which could be from “preexisting, and previously undiagnosed, methane,” or gas well operations, or “other anthropogenic activity.” Worth nothing is that AAPG is also noncommittal on human contribution to global warming. In 1999, it maintained that “[h]uman-induced global temperature influence is a supposition that can be neither proved nor disproved.” In 2007, it updated its position, acknowledging the rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere but saying the “membership is divided on the degree of influence that anthropogenic CO2 has on recent and potential global temperature increases.” In 2010, AAPG disbanded its Global Climate Change Committee because it wasn’t advancing the organization’s goals, namely: helping to find oil and gas, creating and saving jobs in petroleum geology, and because “neither side [has] a politically winnable argument.”

Taylor, in the minute allotted for testimony in support of the 1-kilometer setback bill, quickly explained the case of the Poolesville wells. “Our water resources are irreplaceable, so we ask that you do due diligence and get it right.”

Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, though, emphasized that fracking had nothing to do with the Poolesville case. “My point is this: The problems you had occurred naturally, right? It didn’t occur from hydraulic fracturing. It was a natural occurrence.”

Taylor replied: “Well, unless one would term the pump-down on wells that were drilled in proximity a natural occurrence, it was a man-made occurrence.”

O’Donnell: “But it wasn’t caused by hydraulic fracturing. … These things occur in nature is my point, not necessarily caused by hydraulic fracturing.”

Roberts, also testifying for the bill, persisted: “The only purpose of her testimony is to show that these wells are connected. … The aquifer is connected.”

But O’Donnell was having none of it: “We may blame hydraulic fracturing for some things that occur naturally in nature or are caused by other things. That’s the whole point.”

The bill didn’t even get out of committee.

a point of agreement

Those on the shale advisory commission found something to agree on at their most recent meeting in March: the placement of monitoring wells, which would detect contamination before it reached drinking wells. The closer, the better, several suggested. Otherwise, the drinking water supply becomes the test well.

No word, though, on larger setbacks. “Groundwater flow is much more complicated than any one setback,” John Grace, an MDE groundwater expert, told the shale commissioners. And that’s a huge understatement. After much talk of zones of influence, zones of transport and zones of contribution, Grace explained that the departments have been looking almost exclusively at how to contain surface spills. A sufficient setback, he said, could buy time and keep a surface spill from reaching public water intakes. In Garrett County, though, nearly 75 percent of residents have private water wells. Regarding methane contamination, Richard Ortt Jr., director of the Maryland Geological Survey, told the commission that he has not seen conclusive evidence of methane contamination from fracking, and 3-D mapping of faults and fractures would be very expensive. Grace said, “I don’t know how you can establish a setback for [methane].”

That assessment fits more closely with Cornell University Professor Anthony Ingraffea’s presentation to the commission in February about leaky wells. The question for Ingraffea — who has a PhD in rock fracture mechanics and was previously a consultant to and researcher for the oil and gas industry — is not so much if but when methane (and other substances) will leak and contaminate wells and surface water. It also fits with Zacariah Hildenbrand’s presentation to the commission about his findings of high levels of arsenic and selenium in wells within 3 kilometers (9,842 feet) of natural gas wells in the Barnett Shale in Texas.

“We’re still evaluating this whole issue of methane contamination and the causes of that,” said Christine Conn, director of strategic land planning at DNR.

And these setbacks don’t begin to address health problems showing up in studies near fracking sites, including a “sudden rise in the number of fetal anomalies detected among pregnant women.” (A state epidemiologist in Colorado is investigating that). Or endocrine-disrupting chemicals appearing in surface and groundwater in fracking areas in Colorado. Or a safe distance from gas well explosions, such as the Chevron accident in February in Greene County, Pa., that burned for days, killed an employee and required police to set up a half-mile perimeter (2,640 feet).  “Basically it was like a sonic boom. You could feel a little bit of vibration in the ground, and the loud hissing sound. I knew exactly what it was,” one witness told a Pittsburgh television reporter. “We were probably anywhere from 600-800 yards away down over the hill. You could just literally, it felt like warm air, spring air, coming down over the hillside. It’s very, very hot.”

So far, the only protection in place in Maryland is a liability law passed last year that says the driller is presumed responsible if water is contaminated within 2,500 feet of a frack well — during the first year.

–elisabeth hoffman

sounds of science

February 19, 2014


My neighbor said he slept in for the first time in ages. That morning, our 15 inches of snow muffled the highway 500 feet behind his house, just beyond the stream and leafless stretch of woods. No cars drove in or out of our neighborhood. Venturing outside, we heard our shovels scraping, children sledding, birds chirping. That evening, with many side streets yet to be plowed, silence still reigned, broken only by footsteps, low voices of neighbors discussing inches fallen and inches to come.

If only we could muffle the industry spin to hear the voices of scientists on fracking. Science is quiet, methodical, cautious. So far, it has been no match for loud, overbearing, rash industry. Scientists collect water samples in drilling areas and find chemicals that disrupt hormone levels; they count birth defects in babies born in fracking areas; they note a decline in black-throated blue warblers and ovenbirds near drill pads; they tabulate the loss of core forests from well pad incursions. They are scrambling to measure and document the great unraveling around us and sound the alarm with PowerPoint presentations, laser pointers and conferences. It’s a tough slog.

Two scientists — Anthony Ingraffea from Cornell University and Zacariah Hildenbrand from the University of Texas at Arlington — explained their research, via webinar presentations, to Maryland’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission last week. Ingraffea’s message: Gas wells are leaky. Fracked gas wells leak more than the old-fashioned wells. And as gas wells age, the likelihood increases that they will leak. In fact, he says, 13 percent of fracked wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale will leak in about two years. Hildenbrand found elevated levels of arsenic and other disturbing surprises in drinking-water wells near drilling areas.

Ingraffea has a PhD in rock fracture mechanics and was previously a consultant to and researcher for the oil and gas industry. Now he spends much of his time (when he’s not teaching classes) aggravating his former clients by talking about his research on “loss of structural integrity” in wells or “loss of zonal isolation” or “sustained casing pressure” or “bubbling in the cellar” or any of the other euphemisms the industry uses to hide one of its big problems: leaking wells.

He’s also president of Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, but the folks at industry’s Marcellus Drilling News call him a “fictional report writer” and “Tony the Entertainer.”

These wells, Ingraffea says, are leaking methane, a greenhouse gas 86 times more powerful over 20 years than CO2. This leaking methane also can contaminate water wells, sometimes leaving homeowners with flammable tap water. Or contaminate rivers and streams far from the well site.

His recommendation for Garrett and western Allegany counties, which overlie the Marcellus Shale: “If you are really concerned about well-water contamination, impose the largest setback that industry will tolerate.” Also, limit the number of wells — by keeping drilling far from residential and commercial areas and parks. Also require frequent inspections and more thorough inspection techniques: “You will have to enforce and inspect for the life of the well — forever,” Ingraffea said. Regulations are like the Ten Commandments, he said. They are “suggestions that don’t preclude things from going wrong.” Also, keep in mind that the ability to inspect a structure that bores underground for two or three miles “is very limited” and expensive — and the “ability to repair is limited.”

If Garrett and Allegany counties allowed drilling on 90 percent of land (with the rest off-limits because of restrictions, such as setbacks), they could see as many as 7,800 wells (assuming eight wells per acre on 977 acres) — and in five years, at least 780 could be expected to be leaking, he told the commission.

Ingraffea’s latest research was an effort to predict how often wells would leak. Industry research, webinars and conferences indicate a constant struggle with leaks. As he said on a TEDx talk similar to his presentation to the commission: “Industry continuously sponsors conferences and workshops on leaking wells while proclaiming to the public and especially to regulators that very few wells leak.” Ingraffea and his team read through 75,505 inspection reports on 27,455 gas wells in Pennsylvania since 2000. Those before 2009 are mostly conventional wells, drilled vertically; those after 2009 are mostly unconventional or “deviated” wells, which drill down and then horizontally for fracking. Marcellus wells are exclusively those unconventional wells. Ingraffea used a Cox proportional hazard model, for those who understand statistics, to make predictions about well leakiness. Some of his conclusions:

  • 13 percent of all Marcellus wells drilled in Pennsylvania since 2009 will leak after only two years.
  • 45 percent of Marcellus wells drilled in northeast Pennsylvania since 2009 can be expected to fail after about six years.
  • Unconventional (Marcellus) wells are 58 percent more likely to leak than conventional wells.

Implicit in fracking is that industry will put multiple wells on each frack pad in order to drill in many directions — as many as 19 at one site in Pennsylvania, he said. But “having many wells drilled close together on a pad … puts additional stress on a well that’s been cased and cemented,” he said. And more drilling means more demand placed on crews and equipment. And much of the drilling, he said, is being done by people who come from areas where snow and hills are rare. “If I were in charge, I’d be very careful who I give a permit to,” he said. (Although, he said, he found no correlation between size of the operator and number of leaks.)

Marylanders will have to decide “what leak rate you are willing to tolerate. Multiply [that] by the number of wells you want. … And figure how many people you’ll allow to lose water,” he said.

He said he didn’t know yet whether wells drilled after 2011, when Pennsylvania increased some requirements, were faring better. But he said strengthening well casings, which separate the drill from the aquifer, “is not the first place I would have gone” — because a casing is also supposed to be pliable and not shrink or crack.

“My opinion is that most of the contamination in Pennsylvania is a direct result of drilling through the aquifer.” While puncturing that aquifer, “there is no casing.” That would explain the quick contamination, he said.

Next up, Hildenbrand presented his study of arsenic levels in well water in 100 homes in the Barnett Shale in Texas. He and two other researchers chipped in $5,000 each to do the peer-reviewed study, which was published in 2013 in the journal Environmental Science and Technology. They went door-to-door asking for water samples, getting doors slammed in their face and even a gun pointed at them, Hildenbrand said. Of the 91 water samples from wells in active drilling area (within 5 kilometers of a drill site), 29 had levels of arsenic above the level deemed safe by federal regulators; none of the samples beyond 3 kilometers had elevated levels. They also found elevated levels of barium, selenium and strontium in active drilling areas.

Critics dismiss these cases as “outliers,” Hildenbrand said. “But every single data point matters … because people drink that water. It’s our … moral obligation to tell them they have high levels of arsenic.”

The larger the setback, the greater the protection for people and groundwater, he said. In the area of his research, the setback was 250 feet and people were fighting for 1,000 feet. “I could throw a golf ball into a drilling site from people’s back porch.”

This project was the researchers’ “weekend job,” he said, explaining the decision to use their own money. “Taking funding from environmentalists or industry wouldn’t change our science but would change the perception of our science.”

Hoping to drown out these scientists at the meeting was the merchant of doubt, namely Mike Parker of the American Petroleum Institute and retired from ExxonMobil’s fracturing group. Setbacks are “a touchy subject,” he said. The concern — for industry, that is — is that setbacks “unreasonably limit development.” He said, “2,000 [feet] with a lousy company is no better than 500 with a stellar one.”

The Hildenbrand study? “Not quite the slam dunk” and “this needs to be looked at with a skeptical eye. They seem to pose more questions than conclusions.”

Of Ingraffea’s study of failing wells? “Not all ‘failures’ are necessarily failures.” They are “merely operators reporting something they have to report.” Some reports of “integrity issues” he termed “quite misleading.”

Reports of groundwater contamination? “To a scenario, most of these seem very unlikely.” He also repeated the industry claim that reports of methane in water are not industry’s fault because “methane in groundwater occurs naturally.”

He clearly hadn’t gotten the word about the research David Bolton presented to the commission last month showing that methane levels in Garrett and Allegany counties are very low — for now.

The unwilling bystanders, should fracking be permitted in Maryland, are hearing the scientists, as well as the warnings from residents in fracked states. Paul Roberts, the citizen representative on the state’s shale advisory panel, met with some of those bystanders in December. He told his fellow commissioners, “What I heard unequivocally is that right now, we all feel we ‘could lose the lottery’ and end up near one of these things. Farm families who have owned properties and mineral rights for generations might end up one mailbox down from a 40-acre fracking compound run by a Colorado-based contractor working for Chinese leaseholders drilling for gas to be shipped to Asia via Cove Point. Far-fetched? Well, it’s happening 50 miles away, in Greene County, Pennsylvania, and if Cove Point gets built, that’s the closest exit point.” He said he will push for a state “superfund” law that would cover fracking and “require the industry responsible to fully fund” a remediation program.

Scientists count and measure to show the changes, large and small, that industry dismisses as anecdotal and unimportant. Study by painstaking study, they outline the harm and the risks that industry would silence, even as every few days of late another pipeline ruptures or explodes, or a frack pad fire rages. And Chevron makes amends with pizza coupons. Or Halliburton pays a fine that will not undo the damage of, say, hydrochloric acid in the river. And then the Pennsylvania State Police labels as terrorists those who would protect our life-support system. The words of Pete Seeger are coming to mind: When will we ever learn? When will we ever learn?”

Too risky:  CitizenShale and Chesapeake Climate Action Network released results from an independent risk analysis they commissioned by Ricardo-AEA. The European firm, which also led a fracking risk review for the European Commission, found a “high risk” of groundwater and surface water contamination; damage to water resources from excessive withdrawals; air pollution from gas flaring, pipeline leaks, compressors; noise; loss of biodiversity; damage to tourism from the industrial landscape; road hazards from traffic, accidents and spills. It also found a “very high risk” of loss of land to development.

–elisabeth hoffman

saving mountain maryland

February 15, 2014


A section of vineyards in fall at Deep Creek Cellars in Garrett County.

Nadine Grabania owns a farm and winery in Friendsville in Garrett County with her husband, Paul Roberts, the citizen representative on the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission. Nadine is a member of a county shale study panel and a founding member of CitizenShale. Nadine gave the following remarks Tuesday at the 20th annual Environmental Legislative Summit sponsored by the Citizens’ Campaign for the Environment. — elisabeth hoffman


Hi, my name is Nadine Grabania. I live in Garrett County where I own a small farm and winery. Tonight I want to tell you why I care about the environment and how — let’s get the F-word out of the way — Fracking — will change communities across our state.  I ask you to join me — and our state’s environmental leaders — to pass the Shale Gas Drilling Safety Review Act of 2014 — it’s our only way to ensure that Maryland’s lawmakers and citizens can make an informed choice on whether to frack Maryland.

Since I was old enough to explore the forest behind my childhood home in the suburbs of southwestern Pennsylvania, I’ve cared for the natural world.  So it’s an honor to be a guest of Maryland’s environmental community tonight. To all of you who give your time to protect our shared resources: Thank you!

Shortly after my husband and I became parents, we left established careers: his in journalism; mine, as an art museum curator. We wanted to simplify our lives and start our own business, in a safe, quiet place far from polluted air that aggravates my asthma.

Our tiny plot of land has all we need for this simple life: a good water well, room to grow fruit trees, an organic garden, and grapes. The area is not merely picturesque; there is a fresh-ness about the place because it has pretty much escaped development. These qualities draw a lot of people to visit, to invest in, to retire in, to escape to my county. If you’ve ever been to Mountain Maryland, you know. It’s a charmed place.

But three years ago, life stopped being simple. Chevron was seeking to drill one of Maryland’s first fracking wells just over the hill. From that moment, we started asking questions and have never stopped.

Questions like:

“How many trucks will go by our home at all hours to get to this well site? What will they be carrying?  How will this affect livestock? And children? This is how close to the Youghiogheny River?”

Economic questions like:

“How will new local jobs be created, when crews are working for the same companies over the state line in West Virginia and Pennsylvania? Who will visit if our farms and forests become industrial sites?”

“What will my property be worth if a compressor station is built in my neighbor’s field?”

And elemental questions:

“What will be emitted into the air? Will I be trapped here and unable to breathe?”  And of course: “What happens if my water is contaminated?”


This photo looks west into the Glade Run valley. The drilling lease for the land under the barn has expired, for now. Deep Creek Cellars’ land is in the foreground.

Our questions led us to others in our county’s agri-tourism, construction, and real estate sectors who were concerned about fracking. Our economy relies heavily upon tourism dollars and property taxes on vacation homes. Yet, local and state officials dismissed our concerns outright.

When people started coming to us for answers, we formed CitizenShale to educate about the full impacts of industrial gas development, and to work for adequate protections should fracking occur.  Rowing in the opposite direction from our local elected officials gave CitizenShale’s founders free lessons in democracy school: If no one stands up to ask tough questions, citizens must do it. If no one “in charge” seems willing to address a problem, citizens must confront it.

Thankfully, a legislator from across the state — our dear friend Del. Heather Mizeur — agreed to introduce a moratorium bill in the 2011 session. Delegate Mizeur understood early that fracking is not just a western Maryland issue.

Now it’s 2014, and gas companies from Texas are leasing land across the Potomac in Virginia, to frack the Taylorsville Basin. It’s beneath our feet. Suddenly fracking could happen near many more of us.

Last month, three different DC metro water authorities told the [U.S.] Forest Service that fracking in Virginia’s George Washington National Forest could threaten the Potomac — and the water supply for the nation’s capital. Mountain Maryland sends water into the Potomac’s North Branch. For Marylanders who get their water from the Potomac, fracking “elsewhere” in Maryland could harm your water. And we do not want to send anything bad to the Bay.

And, as Mike Tidwell told us, if Dominion receives permission to export LNG from Cove Point, communities across our state could face development of pipelines and compressor stations to move fracked gas to Asia. When someone wants to build a pipeline in your neighborhood, a federal regulator rubber stamps the location. Currently no program exists to inspect the miles of pipeline that would result from transmission of fracked gas in our state.

When Governor O’Malley issued his 2011 Executive Order establishing the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Commission and current study period, he gave us a chance that is unique in the nation. No other state has been able to so thoroughly study this issue before taking action, and we must get this right.

And in some ways, we are. One of the studies mandated by the Safe Drilling Initiative was an analysis of Dissolved Methane Concentrations in well water. My family — and the State of Maryland — now has proof that, today, our well water contains no methane. The “vast majority” of local wells sampled did not exhibit significant methane concentrations. Not only do we have beginning baseline data, but also the public record is clear: Our water is worth protecting!

Other important information has been produced in three years of Commission work. The study of Public Health is moving forward. And, due in part to pressure from the coalition of organizations working on this issue, the state is conducting a risk assessment of fracking’s potential impacts, while a second, parallel assessment has been commissioned by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and CitizenShale.

The study period has given us time to learn more from research and experiences elsewhere. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2013 report found methane to be an even more potent greenhouse gas than previously understood: 84 times more potent than CO2 over 20 years, and 28 times more potent over 100 years.

We now have data from the Pennsylvania Department of the Environment confirming, in its own violation reports, casing failure rates of up to 7.2% within the first year a well is drilled. 14,394 households in my county rely on water wells for drinking water.  So if we drill for gas in Maryland, 1 of the first 14 wells will experience methane migration — or worse — due to casing failure.

Also from Pennsylvania today: You may have heard that today a Chevron gas well exploded in Greene County. This is one hour from Garrett County. Twenty workers were on-site; unfortunately one did not survive.

Watching Pennsylvania’s experience has also shown us how the opinions of the courts have evolved in a state with active drilling. Last December in an opinion issued by a bipartisan majority, the PA Supreme Court wrote some stunning words. They said: “By any responsible account, the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale Formation will produce a detrimental effect on the environment, on the people, their children, and future generations, and potentially the public purse, perhaps rivaling the environmental effects of coal extraction.”

Governor O’Malley’s Executive Order expires in August 2014, which is the deadline for state agencies to complete their studies.

When that deadline arrives, the studies will wrap up and the commission will have 60 days to consider the information and draw final conclusions. Will we know all we need to know? Do we have adequate time to understand the issues? Are we comfortable with essentially leaving this decision up to the governor — either our current governor or the next one — with no input from the public or the General Assembly?

Shouldn’t the legislature be given the opportunity to delve into the information collected by the state — especially since it’s certainly not clear that fracking can proceed in Maryland without posing unacceptable risk?

If legislators do not intervene now, Maryland communities like mine will lack any legal protections come August — regardless of the commission’s findings. And the state could feasibly issue drilling permits by the time the General Assembly reconvenes in 2015. The Shale Gas Drilling and Safety Review act will ensure we get all the facts on the table so that public and legislators alike have a chance to respond.  Whether or not fracking poses unacceptable risks to Marylanders is a question that should be answered by all Marylanders. The process should be transparent.

This is our last chance to put our figurative stake in the ground, before the gas industry drives real ones into Maryland soil, staking its claim to Maryland’s resources.

These are life-changing questions: Will we choose to value shale gas over the health of our communities? Should we gamble the safety of our air and water on a get-rich-quick scheme?

The people who live atop Maryland’s gas basins must set our hopes on making wise choices. We need to do this. My mountain neighbors want to invite you to visit with this slogan, courtesy of my friend Crede Calhoun: “Come to mountain Maryland. We saved it for you.”


Glade Run valley is in the corner of the state. Glade Run’s headwaters are in a watershed that straddles the state line between Pennsylvania and Maryland. Nadine says of this spot at the bottom of their hill: “The healthy ecosystem supports all sorts of critters. We’ve seen blue heron, hawks, native brook trout, deer, an amazing population of snails crossing the road in spring, mink, fishers and a muskrat pair. The peeper chorus in the spring enlivens our evenings and tells us winter is over. … It’s a remote place that is in the center of the symbolic universe of places that merit protection from fracking.”


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


Fly fishing in unfractured Garrett County.//photo by Crede Calhoun

Sacrifice zone.

The words shot out into the room like a fracked well flaring, leaving onlookers startled and wary but signifying not much out of the ordinary to the drillers.

A compensation fund “is important if we want [fracking] to move ahead … allowing people to have a level of comfort if they find themselves in a sacrifice zone,” said Shawn Bender, member of the state’s Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Advisory Commission and Garrett County Farm Bureau president. For those who are “scared to death” and hearing “horror stories,” such a fund might assuage fears sufficiently to raise support for fracking in the county, Bender said at the commission’s November meeting. Bender is also a division manager of Beitzel Corp., which operates heavy equipment and prepares sites for fracking in neighboring Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

Earlier during the meeting, Bender and Commissioner William Valentine had offered some benefits from fracking and pipelines: People get more access to the forest. The access roads to the old, conventional gas wells in Accident created open areas for hunters, hikers and bikers, they said. “Lots of animals are drawn to the grass around the wells,” Bender said, and once the fracking is completed, “it opens things back up. We would love to have some nice wells to have nice access.”

Paul Roberts, the citizen representative on the commission, asked incredulously: “So, more wells, more turkey, more deer, more money?”

And never mind that forests serve a purpose beyond providing a backdrop for hunters and hikers. Or that clean rivers hold more than a good fishing spot. Or that clear air is more than a grand view. Or that this extreme energy extraction requires extraordinary measures to compensate those who fall along the way. The fossil fuel industry has made its billions on a bull-in-the-china-shop romp over this Earth, trampling ecosystems and leaving sacrificed communities in its path. In fact, we now know that just 90 companies (with Chevron topping the list) caused two-thirds of the world’s industrial CO2 and methane emissions that have us in this climate-change fix. So the entire planet, turns out, is a giant sacrifice zone. (One legal scholar even says: “A clear formula now exists for allocating at least a significant percentage of the costs of climate change to those companies that benefited most … .”)

fracking rig by mike bagdes-canning

A fracking operation in Butler County, PA.
//photo by Mike Bagdes-Canning

Brigid Kenney, senior policy adviser at the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE), broached discussion of a compensation fund at the meeting, asking commissioners for guidance on how the community as well as individuals could be compensated for the “disadvantages” or “burdens” of fracking. In a 2011 report from MDE and the Department of Natural Resources, the commission had endorsed several mechanisms, including a severance tax, to compensate individuals who sustained a loss that didn’t qualify as a legal claim, Kenney said. But the severance tax didn’t pass in the last General Assembly session, and commissioners had, in the meantime, signaled they wanted to direct such a pool of money for environmental damage that couldn’t be traced to a particular company.

A compensation fund might cover someone who claims harm from drilling on nearby property, such as the “noise kept me awake,” Kenney said. These would be harms that didn’t “rise to the level of a lawsuit,” she said. “I’m not sure you want to take Chevron into small claims court.” Several comments submitted on the best management practices suggested such a fund, along the lines of the fund created after the 2010 BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico or the fund after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when people waived their rights to sue the airlines, she said.

But where would the money come from, Kenney asked, and who would distribute it?

“I think this is a really important conversation to have,” Roberts said. But he asked to table the topic until the next meeting, because he had had no warning and wasn’t prepared with ideas. Roberts has said that the state’s proposal to cluster fracking wells under Comprehensive Gas Development Plans (CGDPs) to try to reduce the land affected has paradoxically increased concern about sacrifice zones. In his recently released comments about the state’s proposed best management practices, he called the CGDPs “an experimental strategy” for an “experimental technology.” Citing an Environmental Protection Agency admission that fracking creates pathways for gas to migrate to the shallow aquifers, he said, “If water resources in the immediate vicinity of these industrial parks are contaminated — highly likely, due to the intensive volume of activity, and given that communication between horizontal ‘legs’ at fractured wells has been documented — we must logically assume that such contamination would not respect planned borders, creating ‘sacrifice zones,’ ” Roberts wrote. A key part of making this risk acceptable, he also said, would be a fund to adequately “compensate innocent bystanders.”

“My initial reaction is it is not a workable idea,” said Commissioner Jeff Kupfer of Chevron. “If people have legitimate legal claims, there is a process to deal with it.” Being inconvenienced, though, is another matter. If a developer closes a road for a year to build an apartment complex, “am I going to the developer to claim an inconvenience? There are certain things people should be compensated for … but the idea that people [who] are bothered should be compensated” is not workable, he said.

Several commissioners noted the expense and near impossibility of challenging a multinational corporation in court, what Pennsylvania attorney and Commissioner Harry Weiss labeled “a resource imbalance.”

“I had to wait five minutes and was late to the dentist,” Oakland Mayor Peggy Jamison said. “What should I get? … I don’t know how you would ever do that. It may be worth $100 to you but $1,000 to me.” How would that compensation be determined, she asked.

“I don’t think people are concerned about being inconvenienced,” said Roberts, who grows grapes and owns a winery and has grave concerns about damage to his business from fracking. “You are not facing the prospect of losing the value of your property.” He suggested that those who favor fracking ought to endorse such a fund. Without it, fracking “won’t have broad public support because [there is] no confidence in it.”

“I think this [compensation fund] would be totally unworkable,” said Valentine, who is also an Allegany County commissioner. People would take advantage of the fund, he said, whether they had a blocked view or were stuck behind a truck. “If someone is injured in some way, there is a legal method,” he said.

People who haven’t leased their land are more likely “to be injured and have a tough time,” said Weiss, the attorney. Nevertheless he cautioned the commission about “ad hoc” solutions when “there are still protections on the table to fill gaps that we haven’t fully fleshed out.” Later, however, he noted that Alaskan residents get an annual check for oil drilled in their state: “You could have a sacrifice zone fee for every permit,” shared by everyone in the area, rather than try to make judgments on each “level of frustration.”

“What I hear all of us confirming … is that there are going to be claims as a result of this activity …  which all of the other programs that we are trying to set up don’t address, “ Roberts said.

Kenney mentioned declines in property values. “There is currently no mechanism” she said, to compensate owners if, for example, a crematorium is built next door. But, she asked, “Are we going to single out one industry and make them pay for diminution of property value if what they are doing is legal and they aren’t causing pollution?”

“We’re not worrying about a runaway development of crematoriums,” Roberts said. “We’re talking about [gas wells]. Your analogy doesn’t stand up.”

During the time allotted for public comment, landowner Ruth Yoder of Grantsville told the commissioners: “I’m scared. …This is not going to be a level playing field if something happens to my property. I love where I live. … I hope and pray my view shed and water aren’t harmed. I’m scared.”

A brief silence ensued, followed by a bit of barely audible joking from Commissioner and state Sen. George Edwards about the county’s best fishing holes and other small talk. No one responded to Yoder.

Earlier in the meeting, Commissioner Nick Weber had said he disclosed some key fishing holes for mapping to be incorporated in the state’s proposed “tool box” for drillers. The idea is to keep drill sites from recreational sites. But Weber, a former chairman of Mid-Atlantic Trout Unlimited, also emphasized that the number of people fishing along a stream is not the only measure of its value. A stream is a resource beyond “how many cars drive up and is there a parking lot,” he said.

Roberts is holding two meetings next week with residents in Garrett County about a compensation fund. “It is paramount that county residents, as innocent bystanders to the industrialization that gas-drilling causes, not be pitted in court against the most powerful corporations in the world,” Roberts said in an announcement on CitizenShale. “This [compensation] program would level the playing field. Though I question whether this industry can ever be effectively regulated, those who want drilling should recognize a common interest we all share: People I’ve talked to who fear or oppose drilling would tolerate some, if it is controlled and properly regulated — and that’s also what proponents say they want.”

Risky business: Because the state has been unwilling to pay for an independent risk assessment of fracking, CitizenShale, Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Garrett County’s largest municipality, Mountain Lake Park, are paying for a study. “Nick Weber and Paul Roberts, for over a year, have asked for a risk assessment through this process,” said Eric Robinson of CitizenShale at the commission meeting. The state decided instead to do its own study, so the organizations hired Ricardo/AEA, the British firm that conducted a risk analysis in 2012 for fracking for the European Union. “It is imperative that our state’s decisions about whether to allow gas-drilling be examined by experts qualified to make impartial determinations about the risks,” Robison said in a press release about Mountain Lake Park’s assistance. “A study like this, before such an important decision, ought to have been automatic.”

–elisabeth hoffman

testing the waters

January 11, 2013


Megan Jenny of CCAN offers a taste of well water from near a fracking site
in Butler County, PA. //photo by Ruth Alice White

No legislators tasted the murky brown well water from a fracked community north of Pittsburgh.

In fact, most state senators and delegates averted their eyes. They hurried on to the opening of the General Assembly session nearby, steering clear of the water “taste test” Chesapeake Climate Action Network had set up outside the State House in Annapolis.

Well, let’s hope no one drinks the kool-aid the natural gas industry is serving up about fracking either.

The “taste test” Wednesday was CCAN’s latest in its “No studies, No fracking” campaign, designed to draw attention to the need to study fracking before deciding whether to permit it in Maryland. “We need to chart a pragmatic course in our state,”  Delegate Heather Mizeur (D-Montgomery)  said at the event. “Second chances are really expensive.”

Mizeur is sponsoring a House bill that would establish a moratorium on fracking unless studies can show it’s safe. CCAN Director Mike Tidwell said state Sens. Robert Zirkin (D-Baltimore Co.) and Jamin B. “Jamie” Raskin (D-Montgomery) plan to co-sponsor the companion Senate bill. A determined Tidwell said, “We are not going to let the oil and gas industry run this chamber anymore.” Industry has money; we have the grassroots power, he said.

“If we go ahead with fracking without studies, people are going to ask what we’ve been drinking in Annapolis,” Raskin told some reporters and activists at the event.

CCIHC at taste test event in annapolis IMG_3083

CCIHC members at the water “taste test.”

Nearly 50 environmental, public health, civic,  labor and other groups are backing the legislative moratorium because Gov. Martin O’Malley’s executive order setting up a study commission and moratorium on fracking permits is temporary. Food & Water Watch is pressing for a ban on fracking. The governor’s study has had no funding for the complete health, environmental and economic review Mizeur’s bill would require. Just last week, a medical doctor — Dr. Clifford Mitchell, director of the state health department’s Environmental Health Bureau — joined the commission because so many health questions had to be considered.

The jug of murky well water at the taste test belonged to Kim McEvoy and her family in the Woodlands community of Connoquenessing Township in Pennsylvania’s Butler County. The McEvoy family had to move because of health problems and were forced to abandon their $80,000 house, which they couldn’t sell because it has no water. Since the move, their health problems, including rashes, hair loss and shortness of breath, have gone away.

Other Woodlands residents have been without usable tap water for about two years. They can’t drink it, cook with it, shower in it. Their water had been fine until fracking began in December 2010. In January 2011, the water started running brown and full of particles. Initially, the drilling company provided a water buffalo. But the state eventually ruled the water “safe to drink,” and the drilling company removed the emergency water supply. These families now rely on volunteers, organized by a church, to bring them gallon jugs of water. For two years, no one but local volunteers has even tried to address their water problems.

Apparently, though, Pennsylvania homeowners have been receiving incomplete water reports that fail to disclose contamination from heavy metals and volatile organic compounds, according the director of laboratories for the state’s Department of the Environment. The director testified in a Washington County lawsuit that her lab was directed to generate reports that withheld information about heavy metals, such as lithium, cobalt, chromium, boron and titanium, and VOCs that are associated with hydraulic fracturing fluids. Reports are here and here.

Water from the Woodlands also went to the Stop the Frack Attack in Washington, DC, carried by bicyclists on the Tour de Frack. For CCAN’s taste test, rider Jason Bell got the water from the Woodlands and Mike and Karen Bagdes-Canning drove the water from Butler over the weekend. Mike and Jason circulated photos from CCAN’s event on the Marcellus Outreach Butler (the MOB) facebook page. “Connoquenessing water fights fracking in Annapolis……Janet Mcintyre, Kim McEvoy, and other residents of the Woodlands, your hard work and courage are paying off,” Mike wrote on the MOB page. (A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article about the Woodlands families is here.)

The first day of Maryland’s 2013 General Assembly session coincided with big protests in Albany, N.Y., urging that state legislature to ban fracking.

A few other coincidences:

The session in Maryland also opened on the same day news circulated from climate scientists that 2012 was the hottest on record for the contiguous United States; 2012 was also the second “most extreme year” on record for the nation, with droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, storms. During the year, 11 disasters each caused more than $1 billion in losses. The discussion continues on how much is natural variation and how much is caused by human activity, “[but] many [scientists] expressed doubt that such a striking new record would have been set without the backdrop of global warming caused by the human release of greenhouse gases. And they warned that 2012 was probably a foretaste of things to come, as continuing warming makes heat extremes more likely,” reported the New York Times. The NOAA report is here; other reports are here and here.

The session opened just days after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reported high rates of methane leaks from fracking. If the rate of leakage is greater than 2 percent, natural gas is no better than coal for the warming climate. So, what rate did NOAA find? A eye-popping 9 percent. Over 20 years, that leaking methane will trap about 72 times more heat than carbon dioxide.

The session opened just as Bureau of Meteorology in Australia had to add two colors (deep purple and pink) so it can start showing temperatures above 122 degress F.

Before the presidential election, a Fox news analyst  downplayed polls that looked bad for the station’s favorite, Mitt Romney.  “You can go through all the scientific gobbledygook you like…I don’t believe it.”

We saw how well that turned out for Fox news.

Time to pay attention to all the scientific “gobbledygook.”

–elisabeth hoffman

fractured garrett county

August 31, 2012


Map showing extent of Marcellus Shale in Maryland.
//map by inafutureage.wordpress.com

A few years ago, “you could count on two hands the people in our county who knew much about [fracking], even though thousands of acres had been leased for drilling,” says Garrett County farmer and winery co-owner Paul Roberts. 

No longer. 

Since then, Roberts has helped organize a dozen or so public meetings about the problems associated with drilling. And in the meantime, those early leases that paid farmers about $10 an acre have been sold and resold by energy companies, eventually for $10,000 or more an acre. “Think of the millions in profits made at my neighbors’ expense in Maryland,” said Roberts, who is also the citizen representative on the 14-member state Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission. “I know an attorney who rode an airplane, headed for Dallas on a Friday afternoon from Pittsburgh, where the gas men drink scotch and laughed about all the poor people, retirees, Amish people, and country bumpkins they ripped off that week,” Roberts said in an email. 

“Several people have been made millionaires already on money made in Maryland — but none of them are Marylanders,” he said. 

Residents remain deeply divided about whether fracking should be allowed in Garrett, one of two counties in Maryland that lie atop the Marcellus Shale. But they have much more knowledge now. Perhaps half are alarmed at what they see from news reports and scientific studies about the environmental and health dangers associated with fracking; they also fear it would hurt tourism. On the other side are those who have a more benign opinion of extractive industries and maintain that the royalties landowners receive and the drillers’ spending  at motels, stores and restaurants could boost the county’s economy. 

The split was evident at back-to-back meetings at Garrett College last week. Roberts, who decided that the industry-arranged visit by commission members to a fracking site and similar fare were “inexcusable” and insufficient, organized a presentation during which residents heard firsthand accounts from neighboring states of sickened children, dead farm animals and poisoned water caused by fracking. “We’ve heard more than one presentation by industry representatives, and devoted an entire monthly meeting to visiting staged conditions at Chevron fracking sites,” Roberts said. “Yet, there are two states full of people right next door with important experiences to relate, and our commission has not heard a peep from them.” Roberts invited a Pennsylvania attorney whose clients were harmed by fracking and a West Virginia rancher who lives near drilling sites and who showed slides of a dead cow and industrial operations next to homes on hillsides. They traveled at their own expense. 

Directly after this presentation, and during the only nighttime commission session thus far,   farmers and other business owners, parents and a small-town mayor, health professionals and a real estate agent spoke with passion during the three minutes allotted to each about their fears or their hopes from shale drilling in the county. At the meeting, the 10th since being appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley to determine under what conditions fracking might be allowed in Maryland, close to 50 people testified in the nearly full auditorium that can hold 300 people. About 30 people called for no fracking or at least a moratorium; about a dozen, including one who represented perhaps 15 Farm Bureau members who raised their hands in the room, thought fracking could be “done right” and urged the commission to expedite permits.

 Sometimes the divide seemed to be between those born in the county and those considered outsiders, but not always. Or between farmers and non-farmers, but again not always. Undeniable was the split between those who trust the industry to get it right and those who don’t. 

“Good fences make good neighbors,” said Liz McDowell of New Germany, and so far “all we’ve needed is a little blue paint.” She called fracking a “game changer” and asked, “Where can we buy fencing that can keep the quantity and quality of the water safe?” Or keep out air, noise and light pollution, she added. “Any fracking in my neighborhood will impact my property rights.”    

Some of those wary of fracking asked for a legislative moratorium because they feared no legislation relating to best practices or even funding for the commission could ever be passed. More than 20 bills to set safety standards and fees for gas leases were introduced during the last General Assembly session, but only one passed – a law that says that if drinking water sources are contaminated within 2,500 feet of a well, the driller is presumed responsible. 

The gas industry is very powerful and “doesn’t have our best interests at heart,” Matia Vanderbilt told the commission. It “kills bills. … Any bills we put forward to protect people, they kill.” 

“Drilling is going to come,” predicted Eric Robison, but he urged a legislative moratorium. “We’ve seen the consequences of going quick,” he said. “We need the best information to go forward, so we need the money” and time for a study. Instead, he said, the state Department of the Environment “is shaking the couches for change.”

Others were concerned about roads, the integrity of concrete casings that separate the hazardous drilling fluids from the aquifers, and about contaminating water for future generations.

Leo Martin, the mayor of Mountain Lake Park in Garrett County, said his town voted to ban drilling. Even the traditional 1950s drilling created a mess, he said, because companies left equipment, trash, mud and ponds. To the commissioners, he said: “Your job is to recommend pollution or no pollution. Your job is to recommend trashing the county or not trashing the county. We hope you recommend not trashing.” 

“We are all concerned with the truth,” said Stephan Moylan, “but industry influences the truth” by funding scientific studies and lobbying in Annapolis. Industry claims that only a small amount of chemicals are in the fluid. “I don’t know how much poison my small children need to drink to get sick,” he said. “Probably a small amount.” He said he bought a “little piece of paradise” in Garrett County. “People won’t want to move to a place where kids can’t drink the water. … Go slow. Get the truth.” 

Patrick Riley pointed out that he is a Republican and opposes “overregulation.” Nevertheless, he remains concerned that residents won’t be able to “stand up to corporations with unlimited pockets.” He said he can call the sheriff about noise from a loud party, but “if I call the sheriff about loud noise at a compressor station, the sheriff won’t come.” 

Nadine Grabania, who owns Deep Creek Cellars Winery in Friendsville with her husband, Paul Roberts, urged the commission to study “the economic problems this will cause,” not just the economic promises. She wants to know  the effect on property values and the existing tax base and whether enough emergency response personnel would live nearby to handle an accident with hazardous materials. What criteria will be considered when determining if fracking is safe, she asked. 

For the environmental community, including the Climate Change Initiative of Howard County,  that has called for a fracking moratorium or ban, the number of speakers urging caution was encouraging. A poll commissioned by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network (CCAN) in March showed that 71 percent of Marylanders surveyed (65% of Western Marylanders) wanted to study fracking before allowing it (and 81% wanted industry to pay for such a study), but this was the first time so many had stepped up to a microphone to tell the commission that fracking could be the undoing of their county known mostly for its hiking trails and forests, boating, fishing and swimming,  as well as farming. Garrett is second only to Ocean City as a tourist destination in the state. And Garrett residents who oppose fracking said speaking publicly is not easy. One resident emailed afterward: “I was pleasantly surprised at all the people who turned out and a little surprised that many others who are equally concerned didn’t speak. I hope they will make their opinions known at some time.” 

Among those in favor of drilling without further delay were representatives of the Garrett Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Cumberland Committee and some farmers, including William Bishoff, representing the county Farm Bureau and more than a dozen people who raised hands in the auditorium. Bishoff said the companies would be heavily bonded and the water guaranteed. “MDE did a good job with the coal industry,” he said, and he expects the same with the drilling industry. “Let’s see what they can do before we tell them they can’t.”

Bill Aiken said he would rather have drilling than new houses, which bring floodlights, four-wheelers and “septic tanks that are more threat to my water” than drilling. He said fracking offers an opportunity for jobs, a broader tax base, low-cost energy, help for struggling farmers, and it can be done “with a minimum of damage.”   

Nicole Christian, president of the Garrett Chamber of Commerce said, “Shale gas and tourism can coexist.” But Barbara Pritts, a real estate agent who said she will be 80 in December and had lived in Garrett her entire life, insisted “fracking and tourism will not mix.” Olen Beitzel, who said he had lived for 72 years in Garrett, said he had “confidence in the regulators.” He noted that Deep Creek Lake was also controversial and could never have been built today. “I support it if it’s done right,” he said. 

At the presentation prior to the commissioners’ meeting, Tom Bond, a rancher with 500 acres near Jane Lew, W.Va., and John M. Smith, an attorney in Canonsburg, Pa., who represents several families who are suing energy companies, spoke to about 100 people in a nearby Garrett College classroom. 

Smith said his clients signed leases for drilling on their property but have had to move.

The four neighbors in four homes have benzene, toluene, arsenic and other dangerous chemicals in their urine. The children fare even worse. He said he saw children clutching their stomachs; some “have had their stomachs ripped away.” Children are particularly vulnerable because they are shorter, and vapors hover closer to the ground, he said. Their arsenic levels “are through the roof.” 

Gases vented during flaring are also heavier than the air and sink, “gassing the population.” His clients, he said, have lost their sense of smell because of the hydrogen sulfide emitted during flaring. 

Some of his clients’ cows, horses and dogs have died or had stillborn offspring. 

His clients tested the water before drilling began, and it was “pristine.” The industry has disputed the tests on the contaminated water, saying, for example, that a client “must have dumped nail polish remover in the drain.” 

“It is life-changing,” Smith said of the drillers’ presence. “It has no hours of operation,” continuing around the clock. 

Frack ponds and surface contamination from spills were the biggest menace, he said. Some municipalities are banning the ponds, although existing ones are typically  grandfathered in. Some of the ponds “let go.” Commissioner Roberts said, “It’s hard to imagine this sort of pond being allowed” in Maryland. 

Bond, the rancher who is also a retired teacher with a doctorate in organic chemistry, has four of the “old-fashioned” gas wells on his property. Around him, though, are hydraulically fracked wells. While some proponents of fracking say the two are the same, “that is not true,” he said. The pressure is “far, far greater” in the fracked wells, and he said he endures significant light and noise pollution. He showed a slide of a hillside farm that hadn’t leased land adjacent to another farm with drilling. “Inevitably, there is tremendous property devaluation,” he said. 

The drillers “have externalized the costs,” he said. “The legitimate costs of doing business are put off on somebody else … on people who get sick, on hunters who can’t hunt, fishermen who can’t fish,” on farmers and on businesses that cater to tourists. 

Following the meetings, Roberts said in an email: “Today in my county, thousands of people are educated about gas leasing and gas-drilling. No matter what happens with drilling, the new leases will not be bought for $7 an acre. … It’s going to be very expensive for the industry to operate in Maryland. Industry supporters say Maryland has a bad climate for business. Really? Every elected representative in Garrett and Allegany County demands that drilling should go forward. Really? Who do they represent?” 



Food & Water Watch’s logo for its ban fracking campaign.

Concerned about fracking’s contribution to global warming, the Climate Change Initiative of Howard County recently signed on with CCAN to support a moratorium on fracking in Maryland until the industry can prove that drilling can be done safely. Delegate Heather Mizeur has said she intends to introduce that legislation in the next General Assembly session. CCIHC also signed on with Food & Water Watch’s campaign that calls for a ban on fracking.  As Jennifer Krill of Earthworks pointed out in a conference call recently, we in the environmental community should not let the ban-vs.-regulate debate divide us. Fracking is ongoing, she said, and we need to call for strict regulations for those areas while at the same time moving for a ban in areas we want to protect from fracking.    

Fracking poses threats to human and animal health, air, land, forests and water, but also to the climate. Natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than oil and coal, but it produces more methane, a shorter-lived but more powerful greenhouse gas, during processing and through leaky pipes. The International Energy Agency has concluded that even if the world shifts quickly to natural gas, the planet would still warm a catastrophic 6 degrees F by the end of the century. Sign CCAN’s petition calling for a legislative moratorium here and Food & Water Watch’s call for a ban here.

Turns out, also, that the Marcellus basin in Western Maryland is only the tip of the shale under our state. The US Geological Survey reports additional shale basins on the Eastern Shore and in southern and central Maryland.

—elisabeth hoffman