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Water and Wellness: Health Impacts of Fossil Fuel Extraction
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by Sally Wilts | 2012

The Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, with support from WV Highlands Conservancy, WV Citizens Action Group and Sierra Club, organized the conference “Water and Wellness: Health Impacts of Fossil Fuel Extraction” held on September 8 in Morgantown. Nearly 100 people attended and were treated to authoritative presentations by researchers in public health and emotionally wrenching stories of families displaced and made ill by mountaintop removal and shale gas extraction.
Wilma Subra, environmental scientist and environmental justice advocate, was the keynote speaker and gave a comprehensive overview of the health risks associated with the development of shale gas. She detailed the high incidence of symptoms experienced by those in proximity to oil and gas drilling or processing. She stated categorically that eventually all well casings will fail, so the potential for pollution of air, soil and water continues into the future.
Six individuals spoke tearfully of helplessly watching their children and families become ill and being ignored or told that the chemicals they were being exposed to weren’t harmful. The communities that they loved prior to the mountaintop removal or shale gas exploitation were destroyed and since most people have the majority of their assets tied up in their homes, they are forced to remain even as they are poisoned and made miserable by noise, dust, explosions, fouled water and air. Agencies which should be safeguarding these families are indifferent to their plight, and the exemptions granted to the oil and gas industries from environmental regulation and lack of enforcement have allowed these extractive industries to proceed without adequate oversight.

Public health panel members (l to r): Drs. Michael Hendryx, Jill Kriesky, and Ben Stout.
A panel of public health researchers spoke briefly about their work and then were available for questions. Dr. Michael Hendryx, Ph.D. (WVU) has published studies showing increased rates of cancer, heart disease, respiratory and kidney disease and birth defects, as well as shortened lifespan, in individuals in proximity to coal mining and processing. He stated that legislators are largely ignoring these peer-reviewed studies. 
Dr. Ben Stout, Ph.D. (Wheeling Jesuit University), aquatic biologist famous for his work with families whose wells have been polluted by coal slurry underground injection and for demonstrating that drainage from MTR fills does not mitigate for the streams that are buried, has been studying natural gas produced water. He is advising those with wells in areas impacted by shale drilling to check their water daily with a conductivity meter, and to have background water quality tests done at a lab repeatedly prior, during, and after drilling. He cautioned that the chemicals that are returned to the surface as produced water are extremely toxic.
Dr. Jill Kriesky, Ph.D. (U of Pittsburgh) related that there is a lack of funding to perform the public health studies that are needed to determine the effects of the pollution from shale drilling and processing. She cited several efforts that are underway and gave us several resource contacts. For further information on mountaintop removal, or are excellent sources of continuously updated information.
For Wilma Subra’s presentation, go to
The Southwest PA Environmental Health Project provides recommendations for water testing, both for a baseline and after drilling begins. Baseline testing should be done before drilling starts within 3 miles of your home.Baseline testing should include ethane, conductivity, and chloride in addition to the DEP recommended testing of bacteria, nitrates, TDS and pH. Other chemicals are recommended to be tested every six months during extraction activity. 

For a copy of the guidelines:

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