Living Death: The Real Costs of Fracking

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The Real Cost of Fracking by Michelle Bamberger and Robert Oswald paves the way for the high-volume hydraulic fracturing industry to be put on trial for its role in endangering the health of American families, animals, food and water systems.

In 1997, my husband and I got three Siamese kittens. Two were a brother-sister pair born into the same litter. The third was a kitten so tiny that she fit easily into the palm of my hand and, when she reached our house, into the cut-glass fruit bowl where, for half a day, she retreated in bereavement. It turned out that she should have stayed with her mother longer; she wasn’t quite weaned. So I became her mother: part of the time I carried her around with me in a sack as if she were a baby. I’ll admit that the cats have been like children in our family – especially Zoe, as bold, cheerful and fearless as she was small, with huge foxlike ears, large sapphire eyes, a slender muzzle and subtle, tan stripes. For the rest of her life, Zoe was with me when she wasn’t sleeping – following me around the house, perched on the back of my chair while I wrote, lying next to me when I slept. On December 27, 2013, she died of kidney failure. The other two cats, now 17, live on.

It is hard to imagine how I would feel if a corporation invaded my neighborhood, drilled for gas, spread fracking waste on our driveway, and contaminated the water our animals and we drink. To think of Zoe or either of the other two being poisoned by the drilling chemicals, and by the heavy metals, radium and fracking fluid chemicals that spew up in millions of gallons after the drilling, is terrible. But this is exactly what has happened to companion animals and livestock owned by rural residents of Pennsylvania, site of the nation’s most frenzied and protracted high-volume hydraulic fracturing. (By now you probably know what “fracking” of the high-volume variety means: “high-volume” involves millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals and sand, which are propelled down drill bores to blast methane up and out of shale. The flowback I’ve just described follows the actual drilling.)

Sarah and Josie are neighbors in countryside south of Pittsburgh, a quiet rural landscape undergoing massive industrialization by the fracking industry. Josie’s dream was to raise purebred boxers and bulldogs, her life revolving around the animals. Sarah lived in a farmhouse more than a century old, together with her two children. A neighbor leased several acres of his farmland to a fracking company and Josie, who already knew about the links between fracking and water contamination, began keeping precise records charting the drilling and completion of wells and also the completion of a wastewater impoundment. It was after the impoundment was completed in spring 2010 that Josie lost her well water and her spring water dropped to a trickle. With her husband she began hauling water from a nearby creek for the family needs – they couldn’t manage physically to haul water for their horses.

“A young dog less than two years old, progressed from healthy to incapacitated in a few days, with lab work indicating the possibility of cancer, but also liver and kidney toxicity.”

The first animal to die wasn’t a horse, but a young, beloved boxer named Mr. Higgins. A veterinarian diagnosed kidney failure. One of Mr. Higgins’ lymph nodes was enlarged; a New York State veterinarian named Michelle Bamberger, who was interviewing Pennsylvania residents for a book she was writing with Cornell University molecular medicine professor Robert Oswald, advised a needle biopsy to rule out lymphoma (common in this breed, she notes in the book that has finally appeared, The Real Cost of Fracking: How America’s Shale Gas Boom Is Threatening Our Families, Pets And Food, published by Beacon Press in August).

The needle biopsy was never done – even though Josie brought Mr. Higgins to a specialty clinic, she “declined further diagnostics and opted for euthanasia,” not being able to bear watching him suffer any longer. “A young dog,” observes Bamberger, “less than two years old, progressed from healthy to incapacitated in a few days, with lab work indicating the possibility of cancer, but also liver and kidney toxicity.” Josie told Bamberger that two days before Mr. Higgins became ill, a truck had spread wastewater on her road (a common industry practice), and Mr. Higgins lapped up a puddle near the driveway. “Josie will never know for sure,” says Bamberger, “but very likely Mr. Higgins drank a cocktail of heavy metals and radioactive and organic compounds that tasted salty and made him want to consume more.”

Next in the death march was a horse named Amy, pronounced healthy by a veterinarian several months after Mr. Higgins died, but who, a few weeks after that, stopped eating, lost weight and appeared to lose her balance and coordination. A vet came to treat Amy for what he assumed was a neurological disease (equine protozoal myeloencephalitis) and took blood for testing. Two days later Amy’s back legs became so weak she couldn’t stand. She sank in her stall and began convulsing. Again distraught, Josie had Amy euthanized. The blood results indicated liver failure due to toxicity – the vet suspected poisoning from heavy metals (these are present in fracking wastewater) – but the illness was never diagnosed. Josie couldn’t afford the necropsy and further testing that might have concluded the diagnosis. Moreover, representatives of the drilling company came soon after the euthanasia and offered a “neighborly thing”: carting Amy’s body off to be incinerated.

“There were times . . . in the morning – the air would feel dewy. You could just feel the chemicals on you.”

Both Sarah and Josie experienced the entry of fracking crews in their area as an invasion that started with “dust . . . dirt, and . . . noise caused by . . . constant drilling traffic.” Earlier, the view from Sarah’s farmhouse had been gorgeous, with vistas across the valley to the next ridge of hills, and a feeling of seclusion and privacy. But a large well pad (a “pad” is the area where wells are located) was built with seven wellheads and attendant tanks (one of the signal characteristics of high-volume fracking is multiple wellheads occupying a single pad). From these issued poisons (my word rather than the euphemism “contaminants”) that thickened the atmosphere, finally driving Sarah, a single mother and a nurse, to take her children and leave. “There were times . . . in the morning – the air would feel dewy. You could just feel the chemicals on you,” she told Bamberger. “It was so thick. It’s almost like a bug that is caught in a fogger . . . I felt like I couldn’t breathe – I would get so short of breath.”

The animals were sentinels for Sarah’s symptoms. Besides shortness of breath, she lost her sense of smell. After abandoning the house, whenever she returned, she’d get a metallic taste in her mouth and a recurrence of headaches. She still feels guilty that she waited to leave this house, one that commanded her love and loyalty because her great-grandfather had lived in it. With what the authors describe as “a mother’s guilt” Sarah said, “We didn’t even know [the impoundment] was up there until we figured out what was going on. We just thought it was a well pad.” Both women are left to live with uncertainty about the consequences of living where they have: cancers, for instance, take many years to develop, and by the time they do, it is even harder to establish causes.

The book’s frontispiece has the simple legend, “For the animals,” and the way animals and children become sentinels for adults living amidst fracking infrastructures. Children’s metabolic rates are higher than adults’; their immune systems, immature. But animals suffer greater exposures than children do. “While children are sentinels,” write the authors, “for many reasons, animals are even more so. When families leave for work and school, their animals are often left at home either in the house, barn, or yard, increasing exposure times. Whereas children can be given bottled water to drink, few people can afford to buy bottled water for a horse.”

High-volume hydraulic fracturing is a virtually unregulated industry.

In October 2011, air testing was done on Sarah’s and Josie’s properties by a nonprofit organization that provides the service for low-income families affected by industrial drilling. The tests detected chemicals that, according to Bamberger, “[read] like an environmentalist’s worst nightmare: BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, m-xylene, p-xylene, and o-xylene); carbon tetrachloride; chloromethane; methylene chloride; tetrachloroethylene; trichlorofluromethane; I, I, 2-trichloro-I, 2, 2-trifluoroethane; and I,2,4-trimethylbenzene.” These chemicals, the authors observe, impact the neurological and respiratory systems and can be toxic to blood cells.

High-volume hydraulic fracturing is a virtually unregulated industry; we might as well be back in the early 20th century when Sinclair Lewis wrote his scarifying exposures of the meat industry. In 2005, fracking was brought back into that palmy era of elite and corporate privilege by Vice-President Richard Cheney, who crafted the Energy Act of that year; it exempted fracking from all US environmental laws. There followed linguistic sleights of hand that transform horribly toxic waste containing heavy metals, radioactive matter and chemicals from fracking fluid, into innocuous “brine” or “residual waste” (you see these legends on the side of trucks passing by you as you drive on Pennsylvania highways). Many of the chemicals used in fracking are deemed “proprietary” – that is, corporations don’t disclose them, compounding problems of testing and diagnosis when animals and people get sick.

That the industry was already underway meant it was ignoring what’s known as “the precautionary principle,” under which any action suspected of causing harm must be proved not to cause harm by the agency committing it.

The authors began thinking about writing about fracking in 2009, as they read about it in local papers and learned that their neighbors in New York State had leased land to gas companies. They heard “stories we found hard to believe: healthy cattle dying within one hour after exposure to hydraulic fracturing fluid; cows failing to reproduce and herds with high rates of stillborn and stunted calves after exposure to drilling wastewater; dogs failing to reproduce after drinking contaminated water; dogs and horses developing unexplained rashes and having difficulty breathing after living in intensively drilled areas.” In 2012 they published an article, “Impacts of gas drilling on human and animal health,” that became known for the same scientific assiduousness as the book that would follow. They had already begun interviewing dozens of people in Pennsylvania, and finally decided on the five families whose stories are related in The Real Cost of Fracking (all names are pseudonymous; the stories are true).

That the industry was already underway meant it was ignoring what’s known as “the precautionary principle,” under which any action suspected of causing harm must be proved not to cause harm by the agency committing it. That principle, write the authors, “would suggest that this industry has the obligation to prove that its actions do not cause public harm. The fossil fuel industry . . . seems to have taken a page from the tobacco industry playbook. That is, if a link between drilling operations and public health cannot be proven definitively, then the link is rejected, effectively putting the burden of proof on the victim.” (9) So Bamberger and Oswald set about “document[ing] exposures and subsequent health problems by detailed reports – just as would be done for a new disease – in both animals and their owners.”

In Butler County, Pennsylvania, a region in the state peppered with wells and fracking infrastructure, Claire Wasserman, who had leukemia but was in remission, had a resurgence of the disease after gas operations arrived in her community. In August 2011, she noticed a metallic taste in her water and a black stain on her dishes. Tests by the drilling company and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) showed no “obvious contamination” and so Claire and her husband Jason, a retired water-well driller, continued drinking their well water. Claire’s white blood cells spiked, her leukemia returned, the family then stopped using their well water for drinking and the leukemia went back into remission.

“When he was holding it like that, blood started coming out of his eyes. I said, ‘Close your eyes, close your eyes!’ and it started coming out of his ears. I thought, ‘This is it . . . ‘”

But Jason began suffering from massive nosebleeds. “[H]e was standing in the bathroom, and he said, ‘Oh my God, Claire, come here.’ Blood was just pouring out of his nose. I said, ‘Hold it up here, hold it up here!'” She tilted her head back and pinched her nostrils to illustrate to Bamberger. “When he was holding it like that, blood started coming out of his eyes. I said, ‘Close your eyes, close your eyes!’ and it started coming out of his ears. I thought, ‘This is it . . . ‘” (161) The bleeding happened during the flaring of a gas well (gas impurities are burned off in this process). Chemicals released by flaring include the BTEX compounds described above. Among the blood cells destroyed by BTEX chemicals are platelets, whose numbers fall under BTEX impact; platelets are important in clotting and when their numbers fall, explains Bamberger, bleeding is more likely.

The Real Cost of Fracking weaves facts like these through the stories of the families. Documentation is meticulous and continuous throughout the book. (For example, the footnote to the facts about blood-cell destruction acknowledges an article from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; effects on platelets are based on “Platelet Function,” an article from the Platelet Research Laboratory. Sources range from medical and scientific ones to Supreme Court and other legal decisions, articles on the industry, the US Department of Agriculture, and many more. There are nearly 20 pages of footnotes and a 14-page index.) The book is arrestingly written; its accounts are really stories, not a mere concatenation of scientific observation with description of incidents. One wants to read The Real Cost of Fracking after one begins.

In high-volume fracking there’s a practice called “land farming” or “land treatment” or “land spreading” – disposing of drilling waste or drilling wastewater from fracking by spreading it on farmland.

The book’s first section is about families and their pets. The second is about farmers and food-producing animals, with particular attention to “the potential introduction of toxicants into the food supply directly from crops or exposed animals (from meat, milk, eggs, or cheese) or indirectly through rendering, where animals’ flesh and bones are turned into products used to feed other animals or, in some cases, humans (through the production of lard from animal fat).” A final section explores issues surrounding high-volume fracking and environmental justice.

Reading the section on farmers and food production reminded me of trips my mother and I used to make to the Reading Terminal Supermarket in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, just after World War II. The market, a vast expanse of tiled floors and stalls at the end of the Reading Railroad line, offered the wares of family farmers from rural Pennsylvania. At that time “organic” wasn’t part of American culinary vocabulary. As for “natural gas,” it was just “gas,” the blue flame on our stove. In rural Pennsylvania, gas came out of wells described by older Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers as “just little pipes in the ground.” But now everything is changed because of the industrialization of formerly pristine farmland.

“The only honest answer to the question of whether our food and water are safe from this process is that we really don’t know.”

One factoid from the book: in high-volume fracking there’s a practice called “land farming” or “land treatment” or “land spreading” – disposing of drilling waste or drilling wastewater from fracking by spreading it on farmland. “Land farming” involves not just one, but multiple applications of the waste on farmland. “Land treatment” or “land spreading” involves “only” one. As I explained above, “waste” and “wastewater” is a euphemism for a toxic mix of fracking chemicals, heavy metals, radium and more. Then there are the fracking infrastructures that stand where food grows and livestock live. “We have seen condensate tanks venting volatile organics in a corn field,” write the authors, “a wastewater impoundment adjacent to a field of squash, cows grazing near drilling rigs, and deer walking across drilling pads. The only honest answer to the question of whether our food and water are safe from this process is that we really don’t know.” (101)

The book has a cumulative effect, each group of stories building on the preceding groups, until one understands not only a great deal more about the illnesses this industry produces in animals and people, but the extent of contempt by the industry and “environmental” agencies for the victims. The authors write that “the most consistent finding from case to case, and one that most people discussed at length was the irresponsible behavior of the drilling companies and the state environmental regulatory agencies in handling problems occurring after the onset of oil or gas drilling.” (13) (In cases where companies have agreed to settle with their victims, the latter have usually been forced by the companies to sign non-disclosure agreements, a fact noted in the book.)

Destroying life with full consciousness of doing so is, in my opinion, evil – a word Bamberger and Oswald never use, but which may come to mind as you read this massive indictment of an industry so vast that it has penetrated every part of American life (think: the fuel in your car and stove, as well as the food on your table).

In 2008 James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, who testified to Congress in 1988 about climate change and first aroused broad awareness about it, called for putting fossil-fuel corporation CEOs on trial for “high crimes against humanity and nature.” It was Hansen who first compared the disinformation spread by fossil-fuel corporations to tobacco companies’ cover-ups of the link between tobacco smoking and cancer. No industry deserves to be put on trial more than the high-volume hydraulic fracking colossus. This exceptional book paves the way to doing that. It would be nice to think that through it word might spread, and Americans might protest, even more than they do now, an industry that richly deserves to be banned.