the fracking rebellion

November 13, 2014

wendy lynne lee photo of trio

Penni Laine, Maggie Henry, and Alex Lotorto from Pennsylvania help block FERC entrances to protest the agency’s approval of infrastructure for fracked gas. //photo by Wendy Lynne Lee

In Western Maryland last week, the Marcellus Shale advisory commission and state officials scrambled to finish reviewing three years of studies on whether to proceed with fracking in Maryland.

The election the night before, though, shifted the landscape utterly. The few commissioners who have consistently raised concerns about fracking in Maryland recognized that whatever safeguards were in the works, insufficient though they might be, could be dismissed by the newly elected governor, Republican Larry Hogan. What the science was starting to show about the health, economic and environmental hazards for the many could be ignored for quick profit for a few.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the state and in Washington, DC, a week of peaceful and bold protests was under way, showing what people will resort to when their fears are ignored, their lives disrupted, their communities shattered, and their remaining choices few.

As part of a week of actions called Beyond Extreme Energy (BXE), determined protesters headed for Cove Point and briefly took over a dirt hill where Dominion is building a pier for a fracked-gas export facility. Another protester locked herself to Dominion equipment at a predawn sit-in. In Washington, BXE activists blocked entrances at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), the mostly invisible and always intractable agency that rubberstamps pipelines, compressor stations and export facilities and is therefore the chief patron of the fracked-gas industry. The industry — and industry-bought politicians — have promoted fracked gas as clean energy and a solution to climate change when science and experience shows it is neither.

In all, about 80 people were arrested over five days in Washington and Cove Point. Some protesters had just finished walking across the country as part of the Great March for Climate Action. In addition, 15 people were arrested blocking a FERC-approved gas storage facility in salt caverns on Seneca Lake, NY.

blockadia by minister erik r mcgregor 2

Protesters used huge portraits of harmed families and a miniature town to block the front entrance to FERC’s offices.//photo by Erik R. McGregor

On Monday, protesters blocked the main entrance with giant photographs of Rachel Heinhorst and her family, who live across the street from Dominion’s Cove Point front gate, and the Baum family, who live near a giant compressor station for fracked gas in Minisink, NY. In front of the portraits was a small town of shops and homes, schools and parks. Homeland Security officers guarding FERC offices eventually pulled apart this little village, much as FERC destroys communities with its rulings.

On Friday, the final day of the protests, residents of the Pennsylvania shalefields told tearful yet angry stories to FERC staff who were blocked from their offices and who had gathered on the sidewalk to watch police cut out five activists linked by lockboxes. “You have no right to poison people,” said 61-year-old Maggie Henry, who was labeled an ecoterrorist in an FBI Joint Terrorism Task Force report. Her family’s 88-acre organic farm, mentioned in a 2009 New York Times article, is surrounded by the fracking industry. A mile away is a cryogenics plant; 4,100 feet away is a frack pad; a fracked-gas pipeline skirts the land, a gas-fired power plant is being built a few miles away. Four homes three miles away have replacement water tanks: “Water buffaloes dot the Pennsylvania landscape like lawn ornaments,” she said. An earthquake in March from nearby fracking damaged her home’s foundation and cracked the drywall. That farmhouse, which has been in her husband’s family for 100 years, sits empty and she is searching for land elsewhere. “I don’t have the nerve to tell people [the food] is organic,” she said, because of the nearby emissions of carcinogens, neurotoxins, endocrine-disrupters such as toluene, ethylene, butylethylene.

Penni Laine of Summit Township told a similar story: Her tap water can ignite, and she has an air monitor in her house. On a good day, she said, her daughter can say, “Yay, Mom, the air is ‘unhealthy’ today. It’s not ‘hazardous.’ ”

“We are living now in a war zone,” said Wendy Lynne Lee, a philosophy professor at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania who writes the impatient and scathing blog, The Wrench, about the fracking industry’s devastating occupation of her state. Trooper Mike Hutson with the Pennsylvania State Police/FBI Joint Ecoterrorism Task Force once showed up uninvited at her door. “FERC does not listen. FERC does not care. FERC needs to be disbanded. FERC needs to be dissolved,” she told the FERC crowd. “FERC exists to broker permits [for Chevron, Anadarko, Exco, Williams Partners and others]. FERC does not do anything but the bidding of big industry.”

swings by penn johnson

Protesters hold a photo of an empty swing with three frack towers nearby. //photo by Penn Johnson @


A protester holds up a poster with the abbreviated list of demands for FERC.//by John Abbe

A giant poster at the FERC action shows an empty swing with three frack towers rising in the background. Another showed a map of schools and frack sites and asked: “Our children are at risk. Would you send you kids to these schools?”

BXE protesters called on FERC to repeal permits for the Cove Point export plant, the Myersville and Minisink compressor stations, and the Seneca Lake salt-cavern storage facility; to halt future permits for fracked-gas infrastructure; and to consider as a priority the rights of human beings and all life on Earth.

Back at the Eastern Garrett Volunteer fire hall in Finzel, members of the shale advisory commission were reviewing the last three studies, all done by the staff at the state Departments of the Environment (MDE) and Natural Resources: a 241-page risk analysis, a 7-page traffic study and a climate study that barely runs over onto a fourth page.

Notable about the risk study is what it doesn’t cover: risks from downstream infrastructure (such as export plants and gas lines). The risk study doesn’t say one way or the other whether fracking can be done without “unacceptable” risks, the benchmark Gov. Martin O’Malley set in the executive order that put the commission and studies in motion. And the study says more monitoring and modeling would be needed to understand the cumulative and synergistic effects of fracking on air quality in Garrett County and the rest of the state. The overall probability of air emissions is high, the report says, while the “consequences cannot be determined at this time” because of a lot of unknowns. (Appendix B, p. 44) (Comments on the risk study, due Nov. 17, should be sent to with the words “Risk Assessment” in the subject line.)

The greatest risks to humans, the report concludes, would be from truck traffic and accidents, noise, and methane migration to water wells. The last of those perils, the report says, could be reduced to a low risk if fracking operations are at least 1 kilometer (3,280 feet) from drinking water sources. (The state’s best practices propose a 2,000-foot setback from drinking water sources, with reductions allowed under some circumstances.) The greatest threats to the environment are from fragmenting forests and farms, and “subsurface releases or migration” — underground leaks — of frack fluid and frack waste. All the risk levels assigned assume that the state’s best management practices will be in place and enforced.

“We don’t know what the level of enforcement is going to be, we don’t know how many staff are going to be hired,” said Matthew Rowe, the MDE deputy director of the Science Services Administration who led the study.

“There’s no way you can verify and enforce some of these [best practices],” Commissioner Ann Bristow said, “but you use them to reduce the risk.” She called this one of the Catch-22s of the study.

The other, she said, is that the study ranks risks as lower only because few people in any one location would be affected. “You are studying risk analysis in an area that you know is sparsely populated and now you are using sparse population as a reason not to assess risk as severe.”

She held up a paper titled “LOCALIZED, AND DISENFRANCHISED: Who Endures Fracking Risks?” that lists numerous occasions when the study reduced the risk from high to moderate or moderate to low because the risks were “localized.” She had worked on the paper with Nadine Grabania, who co-owns a winery and farm outside Friendsville with her husband, Paul Roberts, the citizen representative on the shale advisory panel. For example: “The consequence of the release of drilling fluid is classified as moderate because, although it could cause considerable adverse impact on people or the environment, the damage would be localized.” (Appendix, p. 15)

“What I hear you saying is that because it’s occurring to a very small number of people, the risk isn’t that great,” Roberts said.

“We are talking about human beings who are living close to these facilities … where there is going to be considerable adverse effect,” Bristow said. Then ensued a brief discussion about how many people harmed is too many. Three? 500? Bristow said they would be “sacrificed.” Commissioner Harry Weiss objected, but Bristow said, “I am going to use some superlative language here” when so much is a stake.

Also troubling was that the risk study labeled many threats as “moderate,” which at first glance sounds downright reasonable and benign. All things in moderation, as they say. But, Bristow and Roberts said, the study defines moderate as: “Considerable adverse impact on people or the environment. Could affect the health of persons in the immediate vicinity; localized or temporary environmental damage.” Suddenly, moderate is sounding rather grim. And keep in mind that all but four counties in Maryland lie on top of shale basins.

Commissioner George Edwards, re-elected state senator in the Republican rout of the night before, was getting impatient. Worried about trucking? A distribution center brings traffic, too, but no one would ask for a risk study on that, he said. Forest fragmentation? Wildlife and hunters like it, he said. You can’t get 100 percent guarantee on anything, he also said. And, mocking Trout Unlimited’s push for a ban on fracking in the Savage River watershed, Edwards said, “Maybe we need to do a study on the fishermen to see if they might get hurt if they slip on a rock.” One of the commissioners, Nick Weber, who had long pushed for the risk study, is a past chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Council of Trout Unlimited.

“You are going to see a big change in Annapolis this year,” Edwards said. “We had an election. … People went and voted, and they elected people that publicly said they supported drilling but they want it done right.” He also mentioned that he had not read the risk analysis.

And on Friday, the day Pennsylvanians told their stories of despair outside FERC’s offices, the day protesters were shouting “The people are rising. No more compromising,” and signs said “Protect Our Children. Stop Drilling Near Our Schools,” and “Climate Can’t Wait,” The Cumberland Times-News published reactions from Edwards and Del. Wendell Beitzel about the election. Beitzel called the election a “game-changer.” The commission’s onerous proposals would squash drilling in Maryland, he said, and he hoped the new administration would moderate regulations, “more like what other states have done.”

Indeed, during the campaign, Hogan accused the state of “studying [fracking] to death.” As an “all-of-the-above kind of guy” on energy, Hogan called natural gas a “clean energy” and fracking “critical to our state economy.”

Protests continued Monday at Cove Point, where Lusby resident Leslie Garcia was arrested while trying to deliver an eviction notice to Dominion. About 50 residents and other supporters picketed at the entrance of the construction site. “I have nothing to lose by protesting, because I have everything to lose if this project continues,” Garcia said.

–elisabeth hoffman

ferc face the families

FERC: Face families you hurt.//photo by Erik R. McGregor




A new sign outside the state's monthly Marcellus shale advisory commission meeting. //photo by Savage Mountain Earth First!

A new sign outside the state’s monthly Marcellus shale advisory commission meeting. //photo by Savage Mountain Earth First!

As Maryland closes in on a decision whether to allow fracking, two key studies — on economic and health effects  — are in play. One doesn’t deliver on its main mission. The other has huge gaps, not of its own making but because the science it relied on is incomplete.

So, if the process works, the Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission and the Maryland Departments of the Environment (MDE) and Natural Resources (DNR) should at the very least, with these studies in mind, tell Gov. Martin O’Malley that they don’t have the information necessary to decide whether fracking poses unacceptable risks to the state’s residents. That’s what the governor, in his 2011 executive order, said he wanted to know.

visions of dollar signs

The biggest trouble with Maryland’s $150,000 economic study of fracking was what was missing: the effect on tourism. A few years of boom followed by a bust will ensue, the report said. But we suspected that before we even took a peek. Western Maryland will get some jobs and tax revenue. We knew that in advance, too. All that is documented with rows of numbers and dollar signs.

What everyone wanted to know was whether fracking would harm tourism, the main economic engine in Western Maryland, and, if so, by how much?  We still don’t know.

Dr. Daraius Irani and his Towson University team’s economic report on fracking in Western Maryland took such a pummeling at the commission meeting Monday at Frostburg University that one observer remarked that he was beginning to feel sorry for the economist. In addition, an economist living in Garrett County is already on record asking for his taxpayer money back.

“I knew our report would be disliked by both sides of the argument,” Irani said, as if that were the problem. It’s not.

He apologized a couple times and said the team at the university’s Regional Economic Studies Institute is rewriting and reorganizing the report, released in May, because of numerous complaints. The “well is dry,” though, he said, and “every hour is on our dime. We’re doing this because we want a good report.”

He said the team was unable to get sufficient data on drilling’s effect on tourism. He mentioned, however, one Utah study indicating that tourism and extractive industry could coexist with sufficient geographic separation. “If you have extractive industry, you probably wouldn’t want to put them next to your natural wonders,” he said. How large of a separation? He didn’t know.

The report found that property values within a half-mile of drilling would decline 7 to 9 percent, a falloff that would continue for years after drilling had ended. Turns out, though, that this estimate is based on data from conventional gas wells, which don’t produce nearly the disruption that comes with fracking. The report also failed to examine costs from accidents or well-water contamination. (Costs to community health and emergency systems weren’t part of the study scope — or any of the state’s study scopes, for that matter.) The report also couldn’t say how many local residents would get the boom-year jobs, although Irani said he would try to include an estimate in the rewritten report.

The report included a number of warnings, though, including that nonresidents might “avoid Western Maryland if they perceive the local trails, streams, and woodlands to be of lesser quality near drilling activity — ultimately impacting the popular second-home market of Garrett County.”

And the report quotes another study, prepared in New York: “[T]he regional industrialization associated with widespread drilling could do substantial damage…threatening the long‐term growth of tourism.”

Curious language indicates that “tourism-related businesses (hotels, restaurants, retail, etc.) can provide the amenities needed by shale drilling workers.” Leaving us to imagine drillers relaxing at B&B’s and taking a kayak ecotour in their off time.

Kayaks on the shore of Deep Creek Lake.//photo by Crede Calhoun

Kayaks on the shore of Savage River Reservoir.//photo by Crede Calhoun

And then this warning: “[T]ourism can be part of long-term economic development strategy, whereas employment growth associated with drilling is typically short-term.”

Overall, Irani said, the report doesn’t recommend whether to allow fracking. “This is an opportunity for the counties to make decisions about whether they want to pursue this or not,” he said.

Leaving several commissioners fuming.

“I heard you just now recommend….that the counties need to look closely at the options and weigh the pros and cons. That’s what we get for $150,000?” said Paul Roberts, a farmer and winery owner who is the citizen representative on the commission.

Irani said he had described the lack of data to the departments last summer but had already commissioned the contingent valuation survey (an economic tool to gauge how much people would be willing to pay to protect the environment and avoid drilling). “We tried basically, as best we could, to squeeze in the tourism study. …The issue is really data. There are not any good data.”

“We agreed that was a principal part of your job,” Roberts continued. “What else would we be doing this for, except this?”

Irani called the report an objective analysis. “We tried to walk that fine line. There are no clear answers,” he said. “Drilling and tourism can exist as one, depending on the separation of the two.” And, “I apologize. I just don’t have the data.”

“We failed to get at a central issue in this debate,” said Roberts, who also said he would would be writing the governor to ask for money for another study.

“We don’t have the answers to so many things that could cost this region so much money,” Commissioner Ann Bristow said.

Commissioner and Del. Heather Mizeur said the state had initially hoped to fund the studies with fees from land leases. At that time, MDE and DNR officials estimated they would need $4 million. When the legislation failed during two sessions, O’Malley approved $1.5 million for studies. Maryland gets credit for studying before fracking, Mizeur said, but the funding and studies “have been woefully inadequate to get at the range of questions we had.”

Many in the audience also expressed grave disappointment with the report.

Michael Bell, Ph.D., an economist at George Washington University who said he operates a tourism-related business in the Deep Creek area with his wife, said the report “really doesn’t address the question that would affect my livelihood and my ability to retire.” In addition, in a comment about the report posted at the state’s study commission website, Bell wrote: “If [I] had turned in a report like this I would not have received payment for the work because it would be unacceptable. As a taxpayer, I want my money back.”

“We wanted to know the impact on tourism from drilling,” said Eric Robison, a co-founder of Citizen Shale and a member of the county’s Shale Gas Advisory Committee. “Now it’s been reduced to a sideline.”

“It’s extremely self-evident that the linkage of tourism and property values … is the elephant in the room,” said Paul Durham of the Garrett County Board of Realtors. “We have to study it and report out on it before making any decisions.” The Board of Realtors also issued a press release days before the meeting saying it opposed fracking in the Deep Creek Lake Watershed because of research indicating a 22 percent loss in property values in drilling areas.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the unknowns have to do with risk … and more of the knowns have to do with benefits,” said John Quilty, also a member of the county’s shale advisory committee.

Ken Braitman of Frostburg (and Bristow’s husband) picked up on Irani’s recommendation not to drill near natural wonders: “The whole county is a natural wonder.”

into the red zone

The health report, previewed in June and based on a review of available scientific literature, outlined the many hazards associated with drilling, especially from air pollution, an overburdened local health-care system, and dangers for gas workers. Those working in the industry, for example, are at risk from “silica sand [which causes silicosis], hydrogen sulfide, and diesel particulate matter, as well as fatalities from truck accidents, which accounted for 49% of oil and gas extraction fatalities in 2012, … mental distress, suicide, stress, and substance abuse.”

The report includes eight scorecards about the hazards, each derived from adding up a number of risk factors documented in scientific studies — such as duration of exposure, frequency of exposure, likelihood of health effects, magnitude of health effects, and effectiveness of setbacks. A summary of the scorecards is here:

health summary

Worth noting is that the scorecards for water contamination and cumulative risks  — with hazards ranked as “moderately high” — would have been in the “high” risk, red zone with an extra point or two.

water graphiccumulative graphic

And they got just one point in several categories only because the study team couldn’t determine the risk:  “[E]vidence regarding the magnitude/severity of health effect could not be determined because of insufficient data.” Without more data, these categories, with their promise of “moderately” high risk, offer a bit of comfort where none might be warranted.

The report includes 52 recommendations for reducing the hazards, including full disclosure of frack chemicals and no allowance for trade secrets. (The state’s proposed best practices make some allowances for trade secrets.) The report also recommends a minimum setback of 2,000 feet from residential property lines for wells and compressors that don’t use electric motors. (The state’s proposed best practices list 1,000 foot setbacks from homes, schools and other occupied buildings.) Even the greater setback, though, has no scientific basis. One of the three experts invited to review the health report, John L. Adgate, Ph.D, of the Colorado School of Public Health, wrote, “additional measurements, modeling, and knowledge about processes on well pads are needed to address the scientific basis for setbacks.” ( Comments from all reviewers are here.)

Other recommendations include: starting a birth outcomes surveillance system (to watch for birth defects, stillbirths and low birth weights found in some studies); start a study of dermal, mucosal and respiratory irritation (reports are numerous of residents complaining of rashes, nosebleeds and asthma in drilling areas); develop a funding mechanism for public health studies; require air, water and soil monitoring to protect the community and workers; assess whether standard setbacks are sufficient; require monitoring of leaking methane, a powerful greenhouse gas; and train emergency and medical personnel to be able to care for the industry workers.

“There are a lot of unfunded mandates here,” Bristow said.

And a lot of monitoring by communities: “Engage local communities in monitoring and ensuring that setback distances are properly implemented.” And “Create a mapping tool for community members using buffer zones (setback distance) around homes, churches, schools, hospitals, daycare centers, public parks and recreational water bodies.”

And many unknowns, acknowledged in a section called Limitations. The industry is new, the science is limited, money is short, and some illnesses might not show up for years.

“To do original research is $15 million or so … and [would] take 10 years,” said Dr. Clifford S. Mitchell, a commissioner and director of the state’s Environmental Health Bureau at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “What we’re doing in the country is we are doing that study without intending to do that study. … In Pennsylvania, they’re doing [research] on their population.”

“So, perhaps we will continue the experiment here,” Commissioner Nick Weber muttered.

Would the recommendations mitigate adverse impacts, taking a high to a medium, Commissioner Harry Weiss asked.

“It doesn’t say you can lower a score by 10 points if you adopt this recommendation,” said Mitchell, who outlined the report but deferred many questions until next month’s meeting, when the study team would be present. The recommendations would only bring some improvement and help prepare Maryland, he said.

Research into the hazards of tobacco took many years, Bristow said. “We are really looking at exactly the same kind of problem.” She encouraged the commission to “stand up and say we’ve got to have answers.”

Rebecca Ruggles of the Maryland Environmental Health Network, praised the report as a “momentous” start. “Other states are not doing experiments. They are experimenting on their populations,” she said. In a press release issued about the report, she said, “This report should be viewed as Maryland’s first, not last, inquiry into health impacts. The work is not complete.”

on high alert

A new sign was outside the meeting room Monday:

No backpacks

No bags

No packages

Guards checked bags. A Frostburg student’s hoisting of a jug of brown water during last month’s meeting triggered the heightened concern for security and safety.

Later, Mitchell advised commissioners to move to seats in the audience so as not to strain their shoulders while turning to view his PowerPoint slides.

Security guards check bags outside the monthly shale advisory committee meeting.//photo by Savage Mountain Earth First!

Security guards check bags outside the monthly shale advisory committee meeting.//photo by Savage Mountain Earth First!

If we are concerned about backpacks and ergonomics, we should be on high alert about contaminated air and water; climate-changing methane; trucks chewing up and crashing on narrow, winding roads; babies born too small or with birth defects; asthma; skin rashes; falling property values; loss of peace and quiet; unmeasured threats to tourism and food businesses built on healthy forests, rivers and farmland; and an energy future built on fracked gas, snaking pipelines and compressor stations dotting the landscape. Maryland’s western counties are worried about revenue gaps, closing schools, and young people moving away, but grasping at fracking seems the most unimaginative and dangerous of solutions.

As both these reports show, too much about fracking is unknown. Much of what we do know isn’t good. The governor’s executive order creates a false deadline. Instead of rushing to meet it, the commission and state departments should acknowledge what they don’t know. And ask for more time for the research to unfold.

Comment on the health study by Oct. 3 here or send an email to

The official comment period for the economic study is closed, but send emails to

–elisabeth hoffman


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

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

tidier sacrifice zones

July 20, 2013


Garrett County, with no fracking.//photo by Crede Calhoun.

Here are questions Western Marylanders might have to contemplate if fracking for natural gas is allowed: 

If a fracked well is near our home and a family member gets sick, how would a doctor quickly find out what chemicals are in the frack fluid? If an emergency at a well happens at 4 a.m., how would a doctor or EMT get information about the frack fluids? Would a doctor have to go through the state Department of the Environment (MDE) to get the list of chemicals, and how would this work at night and on weekends?  

Those sorts of questions have been raised at meetings of the state’s 15-member Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, appointed by Gov. Martin O’Malley to help state regulators determine whether and, if so, how to frack for natural gas without “unacceptable risks of adverse impacts to public health, safety, the environment and natural resources.” 

Here’s another concern: If a cement well casing is leaking, how would anyone know?  How long would drilling companies wait to report it? 

“How do we know if in fact something bad is happening?” Commissioner Clifford S. Mitchell, who is also director of the state’s Environmental Health Bureau, asked at one of the panel’s meetings this spring. He expressed concern about not knowing “the degree of small failure or large catastrophic failure.” 

Keep that in mind when considering comments about the draft Best Management Practices from MDE and the state’s Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Using these BMPs, the departments would develop regulations if fracking goes forward. Comments are due Aug. 9, unless the state grants an extension. Please ask for one. 

Email comments here:  or snail mail here: Brigid E. Kenney, senior policy adviser, Maryland Department of the Environment, 1800 Washington Blvd., Baltimore  21230 

In the absence of results from the state’s health, economic and climate studies, determining whether these BMPs will protect our health and the environment is difficult. Perhaps they will just create tidier sacrifice zones. But we can’t remain silent. A previous ClimateHoward post was about setbacks. 

And sending comments is more important than ever, given the news from Food & Water Watch that Governor O’Malley has commissioned a report from natural-gas-as-bridge-fuel proponent John Quigley that says Maryland has the opportunity for for “win-wins” with “responsible” fracking. Quigley has acknowledged problems with fracking, but he nevertheless reaches the conclusion that it can be done well enough. The former Pennsylvania official who oversaw fracking in Pennsylvania is also affiliated with PennFuture, a partner in the 1984-ishly named Center for Sustainable Shale Development. Fossil fuels are not sustainable.   

Here are 10 more ideas for comments. 

1)  Drillers combine millions of gallons of water, silica sand (from Minnesota and Wyoming) and a secret formula of toxic chemicals, including biocides, to blast the gas bubbles out of the shale in each well. During accidents, these chemicals have reached surface waters. If (or when) the cement casing around the drill fails or the new fractures meet up with existing fractures, those chemicals could eventually reach aquifers.  

The industry has been secretive about the chemicals, although some companies post them online once drilling is complete. Companies claim some of the chemicals are protected as trade secrets. Dr. Mitchell proposed banning the use of trade secret chemicals in Maryland, but MDE and DNR didn’t take him up on that idea. Under the proposed BMPs, the state would require disclosure of chemicals used in fracking before drilling begins as well as posting on site and with emergency agencies. If a company claims its chemicals are protected as trade secrets, it would still have to disclose the information to MDE, which would determine if the claim is “legitimate.” MDE would divulge the identity of chemicals deemed to be trade secrets “only to exposed persons or health care professions.”  Again, how would this work, particularly on the weekends or in the middle of the night? At a meeting this week about the BMPs, MDE policy adviser Kenney said doctors would also have to sign forms indicating that they would not disclose the information. Why is this acceptable? A comment might be: Let’s not inject toxic chemicals into the ground. And if a chemical is making someone sick, let’s warn the rest of the community.   

2)    The BMPs would require an operator of a drill to have an emergency plan for each site, including identifying trained and equipped personnel who would respond to a well blowout, fire or other incident:  “These specially trained and equipped personnel must be capable of arriving at the site within 24 hours of the incident.”  In a Pennsylvania case, a specially trained crew from Texas couldn’t get to an out-of-control well for 13 hours, with disastrous consequences. The blowout sent 10,000 gallons of fracking fluid over nearby farm fields and into a creek and forced the evacuation of seven families. So, 24 hours seems like a very long time.  

3)    Under the proposed BMPs, the state would require a Comprehensive Gas Development Plan (CGDP).  Maryland would be the first state to mandate these plans (In Colorado, CGDPs are voluntary. They are required in Pennsylvania state forests).  The CGDP is a company’s five-year plan that includes locations for well pads, roads, pipelines and other equipment. (A driller would also have to submit more detailed plans for individual wells permits.)  Part of the CGDP process would be a public meeting with residents and NGOs. Kenney at MDE said at a spring meeting of the commission: “There would not have to be unanimous agreement of the stakeholders group of the plan.” So, one question has to be whether the public would truly have a say or merely learn what is about to happen to them.  

4)    The BMPs don’t, but should, set a cap on the amount of land disturbed in Garrett and Allegany counties and control the pace of development.

The state agencies based the BMPs on a report by Drs. Keith N. Eshleman and Andrew Elmore of the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory in Frostburg.  Eshleman and Elmore said, “With careful and thoughtful planning …, it may be possible to develop much of the gas resource in a way that converts less than 1-2% of the land surface, even when accounting for the need for ancillary infrastructure such as access roads, pipelines, and compressor facilities.” 

They also recommended that the state “ ‘go slow’ and allow a new regulatory structure and experience in inspection and enforcement to evolve over time and effectively ‘catch up’ to the new technology ” as fracking proceeds. They said “effective planning … that moderates the rate at which the gas resource is developed across the region would help mitigate some of the negative effects of ‘boom-bust’ cycles that have occurred elsewhere.” 

MDE and DNR, however, rejected that recommendation. The proposed BMPs indicate that land disturbance would be limited to 1 to 2 percent only in “high value watersheds” and “the Departments do not recommend using [the mandatory comprehensive gas development plans] to limit the pace of development.” 

Commissioner Paul Roberts, in his dissenting opinion that will be included with the final BMP report, says: “If there is not a limit set on the total amount of development, [the BMPs are] only asserting a methodical pace to industrialization. … If we don’t set limits on the industrialization, the county will cease to be rural.” 

5)    The state would forbid open containment ponds for fracking waste. In Pennsylvania, these open ponds – larger than a football field – can leak and contaminate fields, rivers and streams. They also overflow in heavy rains, and wildlife can’t read the No Trespassing signs. This is a good BMP.

All frack waste would have to be kept in containers on site until it is either reused or sent via truck for disposal, presumably to Ohio, which has put out the welcome mat for this toxic and briny fluid. Ohio injects it into the ground, a practice linked to small earthquakes. Whether the waste will remain safely “away” is another question. Some research is beginning to doubt that.  So, then we have the moral question of whether we ought to ship our poisons to the children of other states. Should we drill when we have no solution for the waste? According to the state’s draft BMPs, all waste would be tracked and the records kept for three years. I don’t know why the records can’t be kept for much longer – perhaps for a few decades after the land is reclaimed. Just in case someone needs that information.  By the way, documentation didn’t prevent this case of tampering with records and dumping of frack fluid into streams.  

6)    Under the proposed BMPs, the state would require the driller to collect at least two years of baseline data. This is a great BMP, and will prevent the shenanigans in Pennsylvania, where drillers on at least one occasion tossed out a pre-drilling water test and refused to accept responsibility for water contamination. In fact, one BMP might be to require that industry acknowledge that its fracking activities have contaminated water. And clean up Pennsylvania before heading elsewhere to create havoc.      

7)    All that fracturing of rock under the ground creates new fractures — for the chemicals and methane to migrate. Drs. Eshleman and Elmore recommend  “a sufficient number (at least tens) of tiltmeter or seismic surveys.” The state has decided that drillers would have to test the first well drilled. That’s all. Is that sufficient? 

8)    The well pad, according to the BMPs, must be surrounded by a berm designed to hold at least 2.7 inches of rainfall within a 24 hour period, so that spills of gasoline, oils and other hazardous chemicals won’t run off onto surrounding land.  But Ryan Saunders, a summer fellow at Chesapeake Climate Action Network, has studied rainfall in our area. He found that 2.7 or more inches of rain has fallen in 24 hours two to six times since 2010 at gauges near western Maryland that share similar rainfall patterns. These locations include Hagerstown, Morgantown, W.Va., Dulles International Airport, and Reagan National airport. Most of these totals came during September 2010, Hurricane Irene, the remnants of Lee, Superstorm Sandy, Andrea (a few weeks ago), and other drenching storms this summer. As climate change brings more or more erratic rain to the eastern United States, this BMP will fall increasingly short.  

9) The BMPs address flaring, or burning off of gases from the well (not more than 30 days for an exploratory well and some restrictions once drilling has begun). Flaring nearby sounds like a jet engine taking off. It also releases nitrogen dioxides, volatile organic compounds like benzene, and other substances that have been linked to asthma and chronic bronchitis. Are restrictions on flaring sufficient to protect our health and the environment? Well, we haven’t done that health study, so we don’t know. 

10)  The language of the BMPs is full of rules that “encourage” this or that, require something “if possible”  “as possible” “wherever possible ” and “as far as possible.” Drillers should keep skies “as dark as possible” and avoid truck traffic during festivals and when buses are transporting children to and from school. (What about after-school activities?) Reclamation should be done “as quickly as possible.” Land managers should “consider suspending” drilling during hunting and trout season and bad weather.  A company could find a lot of wiggle room in regulations based on these BMPs. As the undead movie pirate Captain Hector Barbossa said, “The code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”  

Have you written a comment yet? Start writing. 

–elisabeth hoffman

too close for comfort

July 12, 2013


Cows graze near Friendsville and the Frazee Ridge in northern Garrett County. Within a mile of the Maryland Youghiogheny Scenic and Wild River corridor, the Frazee Ridge area is where one of the first wells was scheduled to be drilled.
//photo by Crede Calhoun

Over the next few weeks, state officials would like us to imagine that we are ready to frack for natural gas in Western Maryland.

We are to pretend that officials have answered all the questions about fracking’s effects on the tourism economy and decided that on balance, dividing up Garrett and Allegany counties into 5-acre industrial sites is just fine.

We are to imagine that they have examined the health risks and been able to conclude — even before the Environmental Protection Agency and the Geisinger medical system’s Weis Center for Research — that fracking is just fine for children and other living things. Oh, and the climate. We are to imagine that the state is certain it can keep leaks of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas, to a minimum.

So, we are pretending that we are ready to frack. Now we can look at the best management practices (BMPs) the state has devised to keep everyone safe and industry on good behavior. The state has barely begun the other studies, but the BMPs are ready to go. The state’s 15-member Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, which Gov. Martin O’Malley appointed two years ago, has been reviewing these BMPs and making recommendations for several months. We have until Aug. 9 to let officials know what we think:

This post is not an exhaustive list of concerns about the BMPs, but it’s a start. Please compose a comment before the deadline. While you’re at it, request more time for comments. Our health, water, air, soil and climate depend on it.

The state initially scheduled one public hearing on the BMPs, and that was this week in Garrett County. At the urging of NGOs and Delegate Heather Mizeur (who is also a commissioner on the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory panel), a second meeting has been scheduled at Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) offices for Tuesday, July 16, from 2-5 p.m., 1800 Washington Blvd., Baltimore. State officials will discuss the BMPs and take comments and questions. Please also request more public hearings at times convenient for the public so we can understand what’s at stake.

I am not a scientist, but I used as inspiration biologist Sandra Steingraber’s analysis of proposed fracking regulations in New York.

BMPs are supposed to keep us safe. One key way the state keeps residents safe is with setbacks – the minimum distance between us and something dangerous. Many comments could be written about setbacks.

Under the BMPs, for example, the edge of disturbance of the well pad can be a mere 300 feet from a stream, river, spring, wetland, pond, reservoir and 100-year floodplain. It also can be as little as 300 feet from cultural and historical sites, state and federal parks, trails, wildlife management areas, wild and scenic rivers, and scenic byways. (see page 16 in the BMPs)

In 2011, restaurateurs and volunteers in Texas made a 300-foot-long enchilada. So we will have fracking one big enchilada away from very valuable resources.  A football field without the end zones is also 300 feet.

The edge of a drilling area can also be 600 feet from “irreplaceable natural areas” and “wildlands.” The industry will be able to set up a drill pad alongside these irreplaceable areas and then drill down and under them.

By definition, these are irreplaceable, so how do we know that 600 feet is a sufficient buffer? How will the departments consider the cumulative effects of several wells in the vicinity, all 600 feet from one spot on some scenic byway or river?

Toxic air pollutants from these industrial sites travel far more than 300 or 600 feet. One peer-reviewed study found high levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the air during the drilling phase. From the study: “Selected polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) were at concentrations greater than those at which prenatally exposed children in urban studies had lower developmental and IQ scores.”

Officials could consult the state’s health study for guidance on this. But, wait. The health study hasn’t been done yet.

MDE and of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) based these setbacks on a report of BMPs prepared by Drs. Keith N. Eshleman and Andrew Elmore at the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory. That report says: “How much protection (if any) these setbacks can provide can clearly be debated; many setbacks do not seem to be based on solid scientific reasoning or empirical data.” One has to wonder, then, where these numbers come from and if they will be sufficient to ensure human and ecological health and safety. Eshleman and Elmore got the setbacks from regulations in other states. So, it’s possible that each state will keep making the same miscalculations.

Here are some more setbacks: The drill rig can be as close as 1,000 feet from an occupied building (house, school, medical office, store), 1,000 feet from a private well and 2,000 from public groundwater wells or surface water intakes and reservoirs.  A new Duke study found methane contamination in water wells up to a kilometer away (about 3,280 feet). Proposed New York regulations call for a buffer of 4,000 feet from “unfiltered surface drinking water supply watersheds.”

Paul Roberts, a grape grower and member of the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission, has pointed out numerous times that federal regulators granted industry a 2,000-foot buffer from fracking activities to protect an underground gas storage field near Sabinsville, Pa. He says that, because 80 percent of Garrett residents drink from private water wells, those wells should have the same protection as municipal supplies.

“Given that the state produced not one bit of justification publicly for a 1,000-foot setback from private wells,” Roberts wrote in a dissenting statement to be included in the final BMP report, “if it chooses not to extend the setback to at least 2,000 feet, everyone should be aware that Maryland disregarded evidence offered by the industry itself about the risks of drilling too close to resources that demand protection.”  In light of the Duke research, even the 2,000-foot buffer might fall short, he said.

So, which buffer will adequately protect human and wildlife, rivers and streams:  300 feet? 600 feet? 1,000 feet, 2,000 feet, 3,000 feet, 4,000 feet?

Commissioner Jeffrey Kupfer, a Chevron senior adviser, has said “lots of alternatives” exist for replacing a contaminated private water supply. He has not figured out, though, how to restore the value of the land once the water is gone.  Nor has he figured out how to replace the water for the fish, frogs, birds, rabbits, turtles, deer, foxes, raccoons and bears living on that land. (Visitors to Garrett County can get a free booklet on Learning to Live with Black Bears.)

I’ve heard numerous radio ads this summer beckoning visitors to Garrett County’s  mountains, rivers and lakes and inviting people to go hiking, kayaking and camping in the area’s natural beauty. (Drilling can be 2,000 feet from Deep Creek Lake.) Allegany County also promotes outdoor adventures in its mountains and along trails and streams. In a fracked future, perhaps Crede Calhoun, who runs an ecotourism business in Western Maryland, will be able to pause during kayak tours and light methane-filled streams on fire.

More than 30,000 people live in Garrett County year-round, and twice as many live in Allegany.  For them, these rivers and streams, mountains and pathways are home.

One part of the BMPs goes to lengths to show that even with the setbacks, 100 percent of the shale under Garrett and Allegany counties is still accessible to industry if the drill, after heading down, goes horizontally for 8,000 feet. (See Appendix D) And if those drills go only 4,000 feet horizontally, 97.7 percent of the shale is still accessible. What we need to know is whether 100 percent of the residents and “irreplaceable” ecosystem will be safe.

Another post will take up other portions of the BMPs. Meanwhile, start sending comments to You can read comments already submitted here.

   elisabeth hoffman

garrett county

Winter in unfracked Garrett County.

I’m going out on a limb here: A scenic byway with a drill pad for fracking natural gas 300 feet away will no longer be scenic. A scenic or wild river 300 feet from that drill pad will no longer be scenic or provide a sense of wilderness.

And yet, those are some of the setbacks for drilling rigs listed in the state’s draft of Best Management Practices (BMPs) for fracking in Garrett and Allegany counties in Western Maryland.

The 15-member Marcellus Shale Initiative Advisory Commission got its last chance last week to look over the document being prepared by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of the Environment (MDE).  Before releasing the BMPs to the public, the state departments are making final adjustments based on that discussion. Individual commissioners can also provide comments for a planned appendix. The BMPs will in turn be incorporated into regulations for drilling permits if Maryland opens the door to fracking.

Commissioner and Delegate Heather Mizeur, for starters, questioned why a drilling rig can be closer to a private well than to a public water supply. The draft plan says borewells must be 2,000 feet from a public groundwater well or surface water intake but can be 1,000 feet from a private well.  “It seems we should care as much about private wells as public,” Mizeur said. “If a private well is damaged, the homeowner is out the entire value of the property.”

Commissioner Jeffrey Kupfer, a senior adviser with Chevron Government Affairs, said imposing a 2,000-foot setback from all wells would make locating a spot for drilling all the more difficult. He said “lots of alternatives” exist for replacing a private water supply. (I can think of only two: huge “water buffalo” replacement tanks, a term I had never encountered before reading about families in Pennsylvania who had lost use of their water; and hooking up a household to the public water supply. That’s also done in Pennsylvania, leaving families with a monthly water bill and a feeling of contamination they never had before.) Although he said he didn’t want to discuss all the setbacks, Kupfer said, “I do think a number of these are excessive, based on actual scientific evidence.”

Drs. Keith N. Eshleman and Andrew J. Elmore of the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory had a different assessment of setbacks. In their recommended BMPs that are the basis for the state’s draft, they write: “How much protection (if any) these setbacks can provide can clearly be debated; many setbacks do not seem to be based on solid scientific reasoning or empirical data. Nevertheless, both industry and the state benefit when setbacks are clearly stated in statutes or regulations.”

Eight incorporated municipalities in Garrett County have public water systems from surface water and groundwater, while the remaining properties in the county have private wells. Private wells are concentrated most heavily around McHenry, Grantsville and Oakland, according to the DNR.  In all, 14,264 private wells are in the county, including 8,250 wells on top of land that at one point was leased for Marcellus Shale. (Not all of the leases remain in effect.)

Mizeur insisted that the loss of a private well to one family is a “gigantic disruption. They don’t have water to bathe in or drink.” And their property is worthless, Commissioner Paul Roberts said. He again argued for the 2,000-foot setback — a buffer federal regulators granted to Dominion Transmission Inc. when it sought to protect its Sabinsville Storage Pool in Pennsylvania from nearby fracking.  He says the state has no justification for the 1,000-foot setback and shouldn’t be in a position of “disregard[ing] evidence offered by the industry itself about the risks of drilling too close to resources that demand protection.”

Kupfer insisted there “clearly is a difference” between a private well and a source for public water. The setbacks are based on a risk-benefit calculation, and “That’s just reality,” he said.

Roberts, a farmer and winery owner, wanted to include in the regulations a cap on levels of disturbance to the land. The draft BMPs include a 2 percent cap only in high-value watersheds. “If there is not a limit set on the total amount of development, [the BMPs are] only asserting a methodical pace to industrialization,” he said. “If we don’t set limits on the industrialization, the county will cease to be rural.”

Commissioner Nick Weber of Trout Unlimited said even the 2 percent disturbance would be “devastating” near trout streams.

The Eshleman report says strong BMPs can limit land disturbance to “less than 1 – 2 percent.” It recommends minimizing the number and density of well pads, because the “infrastructure will likely be in place for at least a 30-year period before final reclamation.”

“I hope someone is doing the math,” Roberts said a few days after the meeting. A 2-percent cap “would be an outrageously high rate of development in a high-value watershed.”

Kupfer questioned a sentence in the draft that calls for initial drilling areas to be “removed from sensitive natural resource values.”  Christine Conn of DNR said the idea is to drill in “less sensitive areas” first to reduce “unintended impacts.”

Weber, though, said “I don’t know what is less needed for less-sensitive wells than for more-sensitive wells.”

Brigid Kenney of MDE said the state doesn’t intend to be “less protective” in any area, but “if we make a mistake, and something goes wrong, we will have time to correct [that] if what goes wrong is not in the most sensitive place.” 

Chairman David Vanko, for not the first time, suggested an airplane analogy: One wouldn’t fly a new plane over Manhattan, he said.  At a previous meeting, he has said the goal is to make fracking in Maryland as safe as the airline industry. Which seems overly optimistic. And beside the point, because airline travel is not compulsory, while living next to drilling will be if fracking goes forward.

Commissioner Harry Weiss, an attorney in fracked Pennsylvania, heralded the proposed Comprehensive Gas Drilling Plans (CGDP). “I don’t know whether industry will buy into this,” he said, “[but] to the extent this survives…what we are seeing is a revolution in this field…[that is] designed to give Maryland the most protective program in the nation.” He said he is “skeptical that it will fly, in that companies will squawk,” but if Maryland turns the BMPs into strong regulations, “Maryland will have the best…environmental protection program for shale gas development.”

Kupfer said he remained dissatisfied with state’s plan to require CGDPs. “I think saying one has the most protective [regulations] is not necessarily the most desirable in itself.” The state could have the most protective plan but then no gas development. “I think it’s highly unlikely that any company will go through this process,” he said. The CGDPs involve “too many moving pieces,” and the “resources involved for uncertain outcome would not be worth it.”

Last year, Garrett County closed two elementary schools rather than raise property taxes. Assessments had yielded $2 million less in revenue than the previous year, and even a last-minute $500,000 addition from the Board of Commissioners wasn’t enough.  George Edwards, who is a member of the shale advisory commission, a state senator in Garrett since 2007 and a long-time delegate, has mentioned the budget gap and the school closings as a rationale for fracking. He anticipates and welcomes what he predicts will be an economic boost from this industry. But this solution – fracking for a fossil fuel – seems unimaginative and counterproductive, as it puts those very schoolchildren in the middle of an industrial zone (borehole setback from occupied building: 1,000 feet), jeopardizing their health, their rural and majestic surroundings, and even their climate. Fracking also threatens to crack the economic bedrock of the region’s tourism economy so dependent on scenic byways and wild rivers.  If Garrett is to “save” its schools in this manner, officials should at least rename them to honor their benefactor. How’s this: Chevron Elementary. And Fracking Elementary.

–by elisabeth hoffman