Last Thursday I attended an event at Cooper Union called “Hydro-Fracking for Natural Gas: How This ‘Clean’ Fuel Technology Threatens Our Water, Our Health, Our Landscapes and Our Energy Future” about drilling for gas in the Marcellus shale in upstate New York. I didn’t really need to be convinced of what a horrible idea this would be, but after listening to some of the speakers I’m even more adamant that the state should put a stop to the idea before it can go any further.
Kevin Bone, director of the Cooper Union Institute for Sustainable Design, called the drilling “the Love Canal of our time,” stating that it posed the most serious threat to New York City’s drinking water supply ever (90 percent of the city’s water supply comes from the region where gas companies want to drill).
On top of that, Bone said, “the aesthetic impact on the landscape is extreme.” (Bone noted the irony that wind farms are considered an eyesore yet giant drill sites would be acceptable to some.) Farming, tourism, and second home values would all be negatively affected. Perhaps most importantly, Bone said that if government subsidies for natural gas continue, we won’t have the funds necessary to invest in real alternative energy sources. He suggested that it has become unpatriotic to question the nation’s domestic energy agenda and thus no one does.
Keynote speaker Dr. Theo Colburn, director of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange in Colorado, has seen firsthand how hydro-fracking has affected her home state in her studies of the drill sites there. Colburn explained that natural gas drilling is largely exempted from federal regulatory laws, and even the EPA has a “hands off” policy.
Starting from the initial drilling and going through fracturing (“fracking”), gas treatment, and waste handling, Colburn outlined each step of the gas extraction process and what neighbors of these drill sites can expect. First off, depending on the type of well, drilling can go on continuously for three to four weeks, with the drill site illuminated at night like it was daytime. Then, fracking will go on for another 36 hours, non-stop. Colburn likened fracking blasts to “mini earthquakes” and said nearby houses might shake. The extracting pipe, once under the surface, might reach out as far as a mile.
Colburn said that only 30 to 70 percent of the harmful chemicals used in the fracking process are recovered, meaning the rest seep into the ground. What’s more, fracking releases nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds, both of which lead to ozone production in the atmosphere. Ozone at ground level can burn holes in the alveoli in the lungs, leading to asthma and other respiratory disorders. Children are especially susceptible, Colburn said. Ozone also harms trees and other vegetation that are necessary for maintaining the water supply by slowing runoff and snow melt. Areas that fail to meet federal standards for acceptable ozone levels lose out on federal funding.
More noxious chemicals are used to strip out water and impurities from the natural gas that is extracted, and then all the waste water must be disposed of. The way the system works now, Colburn explained, gas companies never have to report exactly what is in their waste. Even when they obtained a sampling Colburn and her team were unable to identify all the contents.
The chemicals they did determine, however, were highly likely to cause eye and skin irritations, respiratory problems, gastrointestinal ailments, and even brain and nerve damage. Colburn said these ailments might not turn up until months or even years later. Moreover, most government safety regulations are based on whether or not the practice in question is cancer causing, with little regard to other health issues. While cancer may not be high on the list when it comes to the harmful effects of chemicals used in hydro-fracking, there are plenty of other serious health risks to take into account. How can we be sure gas companies are properly disposing of their waste if they won’t even tell us what’s in it?
This is not just a NIMBY issue – there are serious effects to consider when it comes to hydro-fracking in the Marcellus shale. Basically, it should not be allowed to happen here. It’s heartening that Mayor Bloomberg and NY Attorney General Andrew Cuomo have come out against the drilling, but there are still plenty of people who only see this as an economic issue rather than an environmental and health issue. Here’s hoping the environmentalists win out on this one.