Residents living in the shadow of fracking rigs say they’ve suffered from headaches, nosebleeds and other health effects since drilling began in their communities. Meanwhile, state agencies refuse to release the results of air and water pollution tests.
Thirty years ago, Jenny and Tom Lisak moved into a historic farmhouse in Pennsylvania’s rural Jefferson County. The couple raised three children there and established a certified organic farm they named LadyBug Farm.
“When living in the country, your time is marked by nature and each season comes with its own smells, sounds and colors,” Jenny Lisak recently told environmental researchers. “But those colors have faded and our wellbeing, livelihood and dreams are now threatened.”
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The trouble started when the oil and gas boom hit Jefferson County and rolled into the Lisak’s neighborhood. First came the trucks carrying equipment and supplies in a stream of constant traffic; then oil and gas wells were drilled in the area.
The Lisaks say they experienced frequent headaches, fatigue, sore throats and eye and nose irritation when they went near oil and gas facilities. The state issued a permit for a gas well and open-air impound pit to store drilling waste next to LadyBug Farm, and even though the project never commenced, the family has had trouble sleeping and experienced stress and anxiety.
Facilitated by enhanced drilling techniques known as “fracking,” an ongoing oil and gas rush is rapidly industrializing rural Pennsylvania and neighboring states. Since 2005, 20,000 conventional wells and 5,700 “unconventional” wells, which employ controversial new fracking techniques, have been established in Pennsylvania.
The boom has generated big profits and boosted domestic fossil fuel production, but a growing list of environmental and health concerns have made fracking one of the nation’s top environmental controversies.
The boom hit Pennsylvania hard and early, and now people like the Lisaks have health problems they say were nonexistent before the frackers arrived.
Scientists are only beginning to uncover the relationship between reported health problems and fracking, and environmentalists claim the industry and state government have refused to consider the issue.
Pennsylvania lawmakers recently stripped $2 million in funding that had been earmarked for researching and tracking drilling-related health problems from landmark oil and gas legislation. The state’s environmental protection agency recently has come under fire from residents and a state lawmaker who say the agency is hiding air quality monitoring data from the public and failing to provide complete lab results to residents who fear that fracking has contaminated their drinking water.
Fracking Air Pollution Linked to Health Problems
A recent, in-depth survey by the environmental group Earthworks found that contaminants are present in the communities near fracking operations, and many residents have developed health problems they did not have before. The most commonly reported symptoms include tremors, dizziness and irritation of the eyes, ears, nose and mouth. These symptoms correlate to chemicals used in fracking, like benzene and volatile organic compounds, and suggest a “strong possibility” that oil and gas drilling is causing health problems, according the report.
Residents living closer to drilling operations reported health symptoms at higher rates. The survey found that 56 percent of children living within 1,500 feet of facilities reported nosebleeds. On average, children surveyed reported an average of 19 health symptoms that are not normally found in healthy kids.
In addition, 80 percent of respondents said they “sometimes” or “frequently” smelled bad odors.
“I strongly object to being forced to breathe toxic fumes and other unhealthy conditions, and to my family facing the possibility of one day becoming refugees from our own home,” said Lisak, who participated in the survey.
Earthworks contends the findings raise serious questions about statements made by the fracking industry and its supporters. The industry is known for dismissing health impact claims as “personal anecdotes,” and people living near drilling operations often are told that their health problems are likely due to other factors like lifestyle choices and family disease history, according to the report.
Regulators Accused of Hiding Test Results From the Public
On May 25, the Cornerstone Care community clinic in Pennsylvania’s Washington County was temporarily shut down after being evacuated three times. Gusts of fumes had invaded the clinic for weeks, filling the building with nauseating odors and making patients and health care workers sick. The clinic remained closed until early July.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) investigated the odors at the clinic and determined that the fumes could not be linked to oil and gas drilling; but the agency has refused to hand over 400 pages of raw testing and quality control data to a concerned lawmaker.
State Rep. Jesse White, a Washington County Democrat, requested the records to share with independent scientists and researchers after the clinic shut down, but the state DEP denied his request.
White then filed a Right to Know request under Pennsylvania’s sunshine law, but the agency said it was not required to hand over the records because they were part of a “non-criminal” investigation. White is quick to point out that, despite the non-criminal exemption, the agency could legally release the records if it chose to do so Pennsylvania DEP spokesperson Kevin Sunday told Truthout the agency refused to hand over the data to maintain the “confidentiality” of the air monitoring investigation, but did not explain why such data must be kept from public view.
“To date, the DEP has still refused to release the 400 pages of raw data, which is troubling for a variety of reasons,” White wrote in a December 6 letter to DEP Secretary Michael Krancer. “Unless and until you release this data, I will continue to have serious concerns about DEP’s commitment to transparency and openness in its operations.”
White also wants to know why the DEP has withheld certain sets of test results from residents who believe their drinking water is contaminated by fracking.
Last year, samples from a Pennsylvania resident’s drinking water were taken to a state lab to determine if the water had been contaminated by nearby fracking activity. The lab tested the water for 24 contaminants as required by federal standards, but the results for only eight of them were reported to the resident and the DEP’s oil and gas division.
Kendra Smith, an attorney representing the resident in a lawsuit against the DEP, sent a letter to Krancer alleging that his agency uses a “deliberate procedure” to withhold critical water test results from the public.
Tara Upadhyay, the technical director for the state lab where the water was tested, had confirmed in a sworn deposition that the water samples were tested for a full set of contaminants, but the lab only reported the results for eight heavy metals.
Upadhyay said that DEP field agents provide a “suite code” for lab tests that specifies which of the test results should be reported. Smith’s client, for example, received test results for barium, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium, manganese, sodium and strontium. The lab tested for 16 other contaminants; including boron, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, silicon, lithium, molybdenum and others, but the results of these tests were not reported to the resident or the oil and gas commission.
Several of the metals that were not reported to the resident are found in fracking waste water, Smith wrote, and many of them are carcinogenic or otherwise hazardous to human health. Smith demanded that Krancer review the procedure of using suite codes and urged the agency to share more crucial information with the public.
Smith’s accusations angered Rep. White, who was already frustrated with DEP for withholding the air quality monitoring data from the Cornerstone clinic. The state lawmaker demanded an investigation to determine if “someone belongs in a jail cell.”
“This is beyond outrageous. Anyone who relied on the DEP for the truth about whether their water has been impacted by drilling activities has apparently been intentionally deprived of critical health and safety information by their own government,” White said in November. “There is no excuse whatsoever to justify the DEP conducting the water tests and only releasing partial information to residents, especially when the information withheld could easily be the source of the problem.”
Secretary Krancer quickly defending the “suite code” procedure in a letter to White. Krancer stated that the industry has used the procedure to identify drilling contamination since 1991, and similar procedures are used in other states.
“Although other results are generated by the lab tests, such results would not contribute to answering the question at hand – determining whether there is a connection between gas well activities and the water supply,” Krancer wrote.
Krancer added that, in the particular investigation in question, the levels of contaminants that were not reported to regulators and the concerned resident were below the maximum concentration allowed by law.
The controversy raged in the Pennsylvania media for weeks. Experts weighed in, telling media outlets that the “suite code” procedure is an industry standard, but agreed with White that, regardless of whether oil and gas drilling is to blame for water contamination, the people who drink and use the water could benefit from access to the full spectrum of test results.
Wilma Subra, a lead researcher behind the Earthworks report that linked fracking to health problems in Pennsylvania, told Truthout that communities near fracking operations are at a disadvantage because they do not have the resources to pay for extensive testing and monitoring. For this reason, communities deserve to have access to all available data. The industry enjoys this privilege, Subra said, but communities often do not.
DEP officials continue to defend the procedure, arguing that the agency is simply doing its job – determining if fracking has caused water contamination.
White is not backing down. On December 6, the lawmaker once again demanded the air quality monitoring data from the Cornerstone clinic investigation and raised more question about water testing procedures.
“The DEP’s ultimate explanation for leaving thousands of Pennsylvanians in the dark over the safety of their water is to say, ‘That’s just the way we do it around here, so tough luck,'” White said. “And I don’t believe I’m alone when I call that brand of callous disregard for transparency and accountability unnerving and unacceptable.”
Earthworks and researchers like Subra recommend that regulations be strengthened in Pennsylvania and other areas hit hard by the oil and gas boom. Public health should play a central role in permitting fracking and other industrial activities, and regulators and the industry should conduct health impact studies to identify potential problems before drilling begins.
When it comes to public health, they argue, the burden of proof should be on the oil and gas industry and its regulators, and not on the communities living in the shadows of fracking rigs.