Yesterday on The PediaBlog, we took another long looks at a pesky public health problem that just won’t go away — lead poisoning and the threat it poses to the cognitive and behavioral (brain) development of our youth. Don Hopey adds another environmental health risk that southwestern Pennsylvania parents have become concerned over: The proximity of unconventional natural gas infrastructure to where children live, learn, and play:
A new map and analysis claims almost 311,000 Pennsylvania children — including 73,000 in Allegheny County — attend daycares or schools within a half mile of oil and gas wells or processing facilities, and therefore face increased health risks due to toxic emissions from those facilities.
The map, released Thursday by Earthworks and Moms Clean Air Force, both national environmental organizations, also shows there are 1,118 schools and more than 1.5 million Pennsylvanians residing within a half mile of the state’s 108,000 oil and gas production and processing facilities.
Citing peer reviewed studies in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Utah, the environmental organizations say that unhealthful oil and gas production emissions, including methane, benzene, toluene, xylene and hydrogen sulfide, can put children at increased risk for cancer, respiratory illness, blood disorders and neurological problems and can increase fetal defects.
If you’re keeping score, the Pennsylvania Medical Society, a well-respected organization which represents the public health values of your own, personal physicians, has joined medical societies in New York and Maryland (states where fracking has been banned) in calling for a moratorium on unconventional natural gas development due to concerns that emissions cause real harm to real people, who, as a result of exposures to industrial-sized pollution, become real patients. A growing body of peer-reviewed, evidence-based scientific and medical research continues to raise red flags on these emissions, which occur at every point of infrastructure — from air pollution emanating from the teeming diesel truck traffic on highways, county roads, and neighborhood streets in gas patch communities, to the well pad itself where the drilling and fracking take place, to the vast network of new and existing pipelines, to the hundreds of compressor stations that move the product to gigantic processing facilities, power plants, petrochemical factories, and transportation facilities for foreign export.
Well pads are where much of the action occurs in regards to emissions of toxic chemicals into the air and water, though these other sites of infrastructure also emit prodigious quantities of pollution, both inadvertently via leaks and spills and ON PURPOSE with scheduled venting events (see pig launcher and blowdowns) and flaring. In fact, the industry (all fossil fuel industries, actually) must use our shared atmosphere as an open sewer in order to properly maintain the vast infrastructure of natural gas (and coal and oil) extraction, distribution, and consumption. A few years ago, a well pad might consist of a handful-or-so gas wells; today’s generation of natural gas extraction places two dozen or more wells at each well pad! Every time a well is stimulated or “fracked”, upwards of 5 million gallons of freshwater is forced under high pressure — generated by a dozen or more diesel engines — down a mile-or-two below the Earth’s surface, and then a mile-or-two horizontally (laterally), in order to crack layers of the Marcellus Shale and release methane and other fuels that began forming hundreds of millions of years ago. With the horizontal portion of these wells becoming much lengthier in recent years, twice as much freshwater may be needed each time a well is fracked. (Wells can be fracked many times over many years. The marketing line, “Drilling is just the beginning” is accurate as it is ominous.) Much of this fluid — which also contains huge amounts of chemicals (biocides, surfactants, and other synthetic chemicals that do not need to be publicly disclosed — yes, that is the way the law currently stands, believe it or not) and sand (to prop open the cracks in the shale to keep the product flowing) — returns to the surface. Now contaminated with not only the fracking chemicals, but also drill cuttings containing natural earth elements (lead and arsenic, for example), salty brine, and naturally occurring radioactive materials, this toxic soup of “flowback” materials is technically not allowed to return to the natural water cycle due to its environmental toxicity. Flowback fluid cannot be treated by current water treatment technologies. Instead, the toxic soup is handled in three distinctly disturbing ways. First, the flowback can remain stored in open evaporation pits, where it is purposely aerosolized, creating airborne toxics. (Did I say this is done on purpose? Who had that brilliant idea, I wonder?) Alternatively, the flowback fluid finds its way onto huge water tankers, where it is then injected deep into the earth (injection wells), where, theoretically, it is sequestered forever. Finally, the contaminated flowback fluid can be poured onto landfills.
End of waste problem, right? Not so fast. Wastewater tankers leak and spill, and injection well casings have been breeched on occasion, causing contamination of soil and surface waters. And then, there is the serious issue of earthquakes happening in areas that aren’t prone to them, due to the slickness or slipperiness of the fracking recipe. As for landfills, well, leaching of toxics is a well-known occurrence at landfill sites, resulting in potential contamination of air, soil, and water supplies. Since most of the injection wells and landfills being used today are some distance away from where they are produced on the well pad (many of these waste facilities, in fact, reside in other states), the wastewater problem that results from fracking becomes someone else’s public health problem far away from the source.
I could go on, of course. Instead, Hopey asks another educated and well-trained healthcare professional:
“As a nurse, the data is concerning,” said Laura Dagley, a registered nurse and medical advocacy coordinator for Physicians for Social Responsibility. “That exposure puts the general population at risk, but children are most at risk because they inhale more air, and therefore more pollution, per pound of body weight than adults, they’re outside more than adults and their organs are still developing.”
(Full disclosure: I am a board member of PSR-Pennsylvania.)
And in the other corner, of course, is the natural gas and petroleum industry, continuing to cite their own internal data that their fracking methods don’t pollute (sorry, everyone’s poop smells), that they are over-regulated as it is by state and federal environmental protection departments and public health agencies, and environmental advocates (a.k.a. “alarmists”), and, anyway, there is nothing to see here. Disingenuous is the industry’s assertion that public health is actually improved by fracking. If they were being honest, they could claim that by displacing coal as a source of electricity, health-harming air pollution is lessened. But, that’s like putting a filter on a Camel cigarette and saying, “look, a healthy cigarette!” Add in the vast leakiness of methane (many times more potent than CO2 in trapping heat in the atmosphere) in the extraction, production, and consumption process, and there is practically no climate-saving advantage to using natural gas over coal to generate electricity. Even those who seek to protect ideologic notions and monetary investments by denying the mounting evidence that natural gas production is harmful to human health due to the emissions it creates cannot deny the fact that replacing coal with natural gas does virtually nothing to solve the climate crisis.
We’ll have more to say about that tomorrow on The PediaBlog.