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Concerns about Marcellus shale gas drilling go beyond threats to water quality
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by Beth Little, Chapter Marcellus Shale Gas Campaign | 2010

Gas drilling via hydro-fracking takes a lot of water, but there are other health and environmental issues that need to be addressed as well.

After trying to keep up with the overwhelming amount of information I receive daily about gas drilling, my main concern has become that there are critical questions going unanswered for lack of research and adequate monitoring. Some of these questions are about issues other than the water threats that have received primary attention so far.

In Pennsylvania, Dr Volz, of the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Healthy Environments and Communities, said that “while environmental groups and citizens scour lists of chemicals added to hydraulic fracturing fluid used to break up the shale formation, the greater threat may come from toxins that come to the surface as flowback.

“Flowback is a slurry that can contain naturally-occurring benzene, strontium and arsenic. It is often stored in uncovered fracking ponds where volatile organic compounds (VOCs) evaporate into the air. Condenser stations, wells and pipelines also discharge VOCs. VOCs emitted by a single well pad may not be that significant, but as drilling intensifies, air quality will become an issue.” 

Air quality is already an issue in Wetzel County, where there are many gas wells being drilled as well as pipelines and proposed compressor stations. Folks there are experiencing deteriorating air quality. Unfortunately, neither DEPs’ Department of Air Quality nor DEPs’ Office of Oil and Gas does any monitoring or regulating of air quality at gas wells. The Wetzel County Action Group is requesting that the DEP start monitoring immediately in order to set some baselines, since there are daily increases in emissions.

Air contamination — specifically the production of ozone — is what worries Ken Jaffe, a farmer in Meredith, NY. When excess methane gas, coupled with volatile compounds like benzene, oluene, and xylene, are released into the air in a process the gas industry calls “venting,” it can inhibit lung function and wreak havoc on plant life.

Another issue with unanswered questions is naturally occurring radioactive materials or NORMs. Red flags about this were raised when the soil in the Fernow Experimental Forest, where drilling wastewater was sprayed, tested surprisingly high in lead. (The testing was done because all the vegetation in the spray area, including large trees, died within days.) Lead is what radioactive substances decay into. Then I read an article reporting that New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation analyzed 13 samples of wastewater that were brought thousands of feet to the surface from drilling and found that they contained levels of radium-226, a derivative of uranium, as high as 267 times the limit safe for discharge into the environment and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink.

A report from Cornell University states, that “the Marcellus shale is considered to be ‘highly radioactive.’ As the Marcellus shale is developed it will be important to understand the radioactivity of the various waste streams that are produced (e.g., returning water, gas, pit/tank sludge and drill cuttings). During drilling there may be a large volume of radioactive shale rock removed in the drill cuttings, especially from horizontally drilled wells.”Radioactivity is dangerous even at low levels because the emitted particles can cause damaging mutations in the DNA of cells. If the damage occurs to genes regulating cell division the result can be uncontrolled cell growth, producing cancer.

Radioactivity cannot be seen, felt, or otherwise detected by humans without special instruments, but can nonetheless be extremely damaging. There is no safe level of radioactivity, as damage is proportional to dose, and exposure is cumulative.

So, are there NORMs in the Marcellus wells being drilled in West Virginia? The answer is nobody knows.  The Marcellus Shale Committee funded a study last year with the Gas Technology Institute to analyze flowback fluid samples from 19 wells. The report came out in December, but they did not report any NORM values because the high TDS in the samples prevented proper analysis of radionuclides. To measure radionuclides, the water has to be filtered a certain way to separate and concentrate them and there is currently no funding for this research.

It would be nice if our Department of Environmental Protection would require answers to these questions before permitting hundreds of Marcellus wells that could have severe consequences to our health. But that’s not the way it works. It is one of the sad facts in West Virginia that profits take precedence over health. Never mind that medical bills might eventually consume all the profits realized in the short term. As long as our government leaders receive increased revenue from taxes or campaign contributions, they will side with the short term gains to be made over long term consequences. At least until we get smart and stop electing them.

This election season is an opportunity to ask candidates if they are willing to stand up to industry and pass legislation to protect our water, our air, and our health

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