The environmental dangers of hydraulic fracturing

Sara Lee

"The Water's Gone Bad"

Carter Road, in Dimock, Susquehanna County, has earned the nickname “ground zero,” as it gains fame in the natural gas controversy of Pennsylvania. Residents of Carter Road organized to file suit against Cabot Oil and Gas after 14 wells used for drinking water became undrinkable. (See "Passing the Buck on Water Contamination" for details of the lawsuit). While Cabot denies that deep rock fracking caused the water contamination, the company was heavily fined by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, and later forced to plug three wells in Dimock.

Lawyer Ken Komoroski represents Cabot Oil and Gas in public forums, and appeared at a gathering organized by the League of Women Voters in Susquehanna County. He attempts to reassure the residents of Dimock that Cabot is taking care of their water problems, but someone shouts “Why doesn’t Pat have water?!”

The Pat in question is Pat Farnelli, mother of eight and resident of Carter Road. Pat was convinced for months that the illness plaguing her family was a simple bug being passed between children and parents. Mostly, her children complained of stomach cramps and extreme nausea. Pat didn’t understand, though, why her children felt fine all day at school but would double over in pain, vomiting, shortly after arriving home in the afternoon. Now she knows that her water is saturated with 12% methane, and unacceptable amounts of barium.

Farnelli began to put the pieces together after a conversation with her neighbor Jean Carter. “Jean’s my closest neighbor. She leaned over to me and said, ‘Pat, I think our water well’s gone bad.’ I asked her what she meant. They’d been drilling for two months. She said ‘I’m not sure what I mean…but the water’s gone bad. It smells strange, and it just doesn’t taste right. After I drink it, I just don’t feel right.’ ”

Farnelli’s other neighbor had drawn herself a bath and noticed sediment at the bottom of the tub. Her husband assured her it was probably just dirt, which sometimes collects in certain weather in their well. At his direction, she continued to let the water run until it cleared. It never did.

As the water ran, it began to change colors until it appeared orange. Jokingly, her husband suggested they light it on fire. The water in their bathtub burned for eleven full minutes.

Another resident was fortunate enough to be out of her home when methane built up so much in her well house that it exploded, propelling a concrete wall across her property.

Cabot has been responsible for the contamination of fourteen water supplies in Dimock alone, according to the DEP at press time. Komoroski acknowledges the water contamination in Dimock but maintains that to date, there have been no reports of groundwater contamination due to hydraulic fracturing activity in the Marcellus Shale.

He argues that the methane in the water on Carter Road migrated from a shallower formation through natural fractures in the ground.

One anonymous Dimock resident argues that this excuse amounts to a cover up. He found research claiming the methane was tested, and the results were inconclusive; it could be from shallow formations, it could be from the Marcellus Shale. Cabot and the DEP exchanged emails during testing, with Cabot asking the DEP to be “sensitive” to the potential for scandal if the methane was found to be from the Marcellus Shale.

By making it public that the methane was from a shallow formation, the oil and gas industry shifts blame for the incident to an accident or individual operator. However, if the methane was found to be from the Marcellus Shale, public perception of “safe” drilling would drastically change, as people would begin to realize that the danger doesn’t lie with individuals or circumstance, but with an inherently unsafe process.

Komoroski makes the case that surface spills are the issue to worry about, admitting “that is where we have the potential for contamination.” Several area residents interviewed expressed concern that surface spills are another red herring, mentioned in order to draw attention to the many measures used to prevent the spills. Their fear is that if the general public is analyzing the potential for surface spills, it is not inquiring about the potential for gas leaks deep underground, or other dangerous and more likely situations.

Living with Fracking: Road Damage, Air/Noise/Light Pollution, Forest Fragmentation

The drilling picks up in the late spring, after the ground is softened by the annual thaw. The spring thaw also brings annual destruction to the roads in and around Dimock. This year, however, the terrible condition of the roads cannot be blamed on mother nature alone. One resident, Lynn Senick, tells us she “can’t remember seeing them this bad before.” As our group drove, we saw holes the size of small sedans in the road. At one point, we were directed through a one lane passage as a crew frantically used a backhoe to try to fill in one of these cavernous ditches with gravel to at least make it passable. The edges of practically every road are shredded to jagged bits.

Natural gas extraction even threatens the ozone and the air of Pennsylvania. Compression stations in particular give off high levels of both nitrogen and oxides, which combine with toxic results. The mayor of Dish, Texas, Calvin Tillman, travels around the country speaking to areas with natural gas drilling to warn them of the air pollution his town suffered after fracking was used to infiltrate the Barnett Shale.

Stadium lights are used to keep drill sites active around the clock. Residents near these sites complain that sleeping is nearly impossible at night. Many have given up and spent their personal money on heavy-duty curtains guaranteed to keep light out.

Senick describes the experience of owning a home near drill sites as “living next to a carnival...but without the rides or prizes.” Low level noise from machinery hums around the clock, punctuated by the occasional blast. “It’s getting to the point where I think we’re getting hearing loss. It’s just so constant,” Farnelli says.

The construction of drill pads damages the state’s remarkable forests. Even if trees are spared the direct axe, the digging associated with drill pad construction causes root damage, which can kill or weaken trees. Weakened trees are most susceptible to pests, boring beetles in particular. Opening the canopy to create a pad in the middle of a stand of trees puts extra stress on the trees at the edge, and they become more susceptible to damage by cold, wind, water, or sun. Access roads build for trucks also cause fragmentation of natural ecosystems. Komoroski himself admits “it is a disruptive process… it is.”

The official stance the landmen have, and tell the people whose land they lease,is that the land will be left as it was after the drilling (eventually) commences. “They say, ‘we’re gonna put everything the way it was’… what are you, a magician??” Vera Scroggins asks. She describes how a company will replant a pad with grass, where there was once a vital, thriving forest ecosystem.

In the end, it is clear to residents and visitors alike that this land is not what it once was. “This year they’re putting in 73 more horizontal wells, and ten vertical wells, all in a nine square mile radius. This is my neighborhood now,” Switzer says.

Scroggins, too, notices the changes. “I moved to the country because I wanted to have a country life, and it’s being changed. It’s like we’re being sacrificed so the world can have more fuel… Think of something else. They’re pumping billions into this… [They should] pump it into other technologies, ones that don’t change the ecosystems of our county.”         

Flowback: The Process’ Poison

The surface spills Komoroski mentions are likely from what the industry nicknames “flowback.” After any given frack, 15-30% of the fluid returns to the surface as flowback. This fluid contains chemicals originally used in the fracking, “NORM,” (naturally occurring radioactive material) salts, and heavy minerals. The flowback is stored in containers on site. (See website for link about flowback catching fire.) After it is collected and stored, the companies assure the public that it is taken to qualified treatment centers or reused.

When the flowback initially returns to the surface it cannot be immediately contained. The incident is called a blowout. “A blowout turns out to be this drilling water mess coming up after all the pressure.” Vera Scroggins visited a local drill site after hearing about the blowout. “The guys were all working to clean up the mess, trying to pump it into a pit.” She stresses that it’s hard to see things happening, because the area is marked with no trespassing signs. “By the time you ask for permission [to visit the site], whatever’s happening is done.” After the blowout, the rest of the flowback leaves the ground in a more orderly and manageable fashion.

“You would not believe how gross the pits are,” Farnelli tells us. The flowback used to be stored in pits that would collect litter like cigarette butts, coffee cups, even dead animals. The smell is “a mix of blue fish and diesel fuel. It’s enough to make you barf,” Farnelli says.

The gas companies assure Pennsylvanians that only .5% of the fluid used to frack is additives. However, .5% of four millions gallons is still 20,000 gallons of chemicals, which need to be trucked in from around the country and stored before they are used.

In Dunkard Creek, Greene County, in the southwest region of the state, massive numbers of fish and other aquatic life died after a bloom of golden algae. Golden algae thrive best in waters with low flow and high amounts of dissolved solids. The most obvious source of dissolved solids is waste water from gas drilling. Many believe that undisclosed dumping of the fracking fluid into the creek is responsible.

Though the permits used by the gas industry regulate how much water can be taken from waterways, environmentalists still raise concern about the hundreds of thousands of gallons being withdrawn daily. Residents argue that the massive quantities of water are “stolen” from them.

Last year, the DEP received a call in Mcnett Township in Lycoming County: a woman noticed bubbles were coming up in a local stream and she didn’t know what to do about it. The entire town was evacuated due to the high methane levels. The Pennsylvania state police closed roads to the public. The situation, which the drilling company claimed was caused by a faulty string of casing, took several days to repair. 

The Snake in the Grass: Natural Gas Pipelines

The Marcellus Shale also has extra appeal for oil and gas companies: its vicinity to the vast and demanding markets along the East Coast. To get natural gas from Vicky Switzer’s backyard to Philadelphia, however, requires massive lengths of pipeline. These pipelines reach thousands of miles across the state, crossing over both private property and pristine forest.

In Pennsylvania, energy companies are allowed to claim eminent domain in order to lay transmission pipeline. These pipes can leak, reducing the oxygen available in soil. The pipelines themselves form a physical barrier, and can cause fragmentation of natural ecosystems.

Lynda Farrell of Chester County, is building a network for residents who want to be involved in pipeline safety issues. Her model is based on the Pipeline Safety Trust of Washington state, which formed after three boys died due to a pipeline accident. The first boy was overcome by fumes from a leaking pipe as he fly fished in a stream, leading to his drowning. The second two were setting off firecrackers further downstream, when the water caught fire and killed them.

Farrell worries about closer to home, as she has a pipeline running across her property. In Appomatox, Virginia, a pipeline exploded due to corrosion. The pipeline had undergone testing using smartpeg technology to detect any potentially troublesome corrosion in early summer. It exploded before anyone had gotten around to checking the results of the testing. Though the pipelines are required to be tested every seven years, there are no requirements for periodic replacement of old pipes. “A lot of these lines should absolutely be replaced. I don’t know if the industry agrees with that. Their approach is that if it’s in the ground and it’s not causing any problems, then it’s fine,” Farrell tells us.

When environmental disaster happens in our own backyards, it is vital to get the story from below. The media above and the gas company “coalitions” would have us convinced this is an isolated incident and completely unrelated to Marcellus Shale. We know better, and must use this information to make better policy decisions about natural gas drilling in our state. “Until Carter Road is everywhere, till everyone’s kids are vomiting and getting leukemia, no one’s gonna do anything,” Scroggins fears.

Contact Sara at: