APOLLO — Advocating for the safety of the citizens of Indiana County was the goal of an informational evening held by the League of Women Voters of Indiana County at the Apollo Memorial Library on Thursday.
Titled “Shale Gas and the Public Health,” the presentation was hosted by several LOWV members presenting their own research into the impact the shale gas industry has had on the public and how individuals can respond to worries they may have about living near a gas well.
“As an organization, we don’t advocate for or against (drilling),” said LOWV President Sherene Hess. “We do advocate stringent regulations, a safe process, a transparent process, a process that’s going to protect the average citizen.”
Over the last several years, few issues in Indiana County have gotten more attention than the sudden rise of the shale gas industry and the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
In fracking, a drill is sent down vertically through the earth into a layer of shale rock. The drill is then sent horizontally through the rock. A series of explosions is set off within the drilled out space, creating openings in the rock. A solution of primarily water and sand is then pumped into the openings, further fracturing the rock and allowing gas and other natural resources to flow freely from the rock. It is pumped out and collected on the surface.
A large portion of the fracking debate has centered on the water solution itself, according to information presented at the forum. Questions about how the water is stored, treated and whether or not it is seeping into the ground and drinking water are common.
In some cases, the water is stored in a pit or frack pond. Some water is recycled and reused for future drilling. Some is sent to water treatment plants to be released later into rivers and streams.
Some water is injected back into the earth. This recently caused a controversy as some have claimed this practice can cause frequent earthquakes if the water is injected too close to a fault line.
The need for tighter regulation is hindered when one takes into consideration that the oil and gas industry is exempt from a number of environmental laws, according to Hess.
According to Hess, the oil and gas industry is not required to show compliance with certain portions of the following laws: the Safe Water Drinking Act, which ensures the quality of drinking water and regulates underground injection control for protection of groundwater; the Clean Air Act, which limits the number of air pollutants which are known to cause health problems; the Clean Water Act, which regulates discharges of pollutants from industries and municipal sources into natural water sources; and the Toxic Release Inventory, which requires most industries to report any significant toxic substances they are working with to the Environmental Protection Agency.
“It’s important to note that these exemptions are very specific,” Hess said, “and they don’t exempt the industry from everything in these laws. But these are some very key things which have to do with public health.”
“Oil and gas isn’t completely unregulated,” Hess added. “We have lots of Pennsylvania laws and regulations.”
Researchers studying how the industry is affecting health are playing catch-up at this point, said Vera Bonnet, who sits on the league’s environmental committee and wrote the research for the presentation.
Shale gas drilling started in Texas in the mid-’90s, according to Bonnet, before coming to Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale regions. The health community wasn’t consulted before drilling began.
This situation is quite different from what is happening in New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo placed a moratorium on fracking until it was best determined how to protect the public.
“Figuring out what is going on is a complicated thing, because this is an environmental process that’s going on with shale gas,” Bonnet said. “It’s not just one person that’s being affected by one chemical in a lab. It’s an entire system that we have to study in order to understand what’s going on.”
One of the ways health studies are being conducted is through statistical analysis of reported health problems before and after a certain event.
A second method is through toxicology studies. Toxicologists can administer certain doses of a chemical to an organism to see what the effects are.
A final method is through exposure analysis. Researchers will look at different levels of exposure through different populations and see what the health outcomes are.
Dr. Barbara Harley, a retired pediatric endocrinologist, noted that there were three ways an individual could come in contact with chemicals related to fracking. Contact typically comes from contact with flowback fluids from the fracking process, chemicals that escape the well heads, or chemicals that escape the compression stations that pressurize pipelines to keep the gas moving.
While companies are often required to list the chemicals used in their processes, Harley said, many companies don’t reveal all of them. Certain chemical compositions are proprietary to a particular company and are therefore trade secrets. Some websites, like www.fracfocus.org, will list the chemicals certain companies are using.
“Even if (the list) is accessible, it is often not complete,” Harley said.
These chemicals represent less than 1 percent of the fluid used in the fracking process, but Harley said the amounts used can be quite large.
“When millions of gallons of water are going down a well,” Harley said, “that means tens of thousands of gallons of these chemicals are going with it.”
Some selected chemicals can include arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde and phenol. Radioactive materials can also be found in flowback fluids.
A community survey was recently conducted in 14 Pennsylvania counties of 108 respondents who lived no further than five miles away from a fracking facility. The most common symptoms reported were increased fatigue, nasal irritation, throat irritation, sinus problems, eyes burning and shortness of breath, according to information presented at the forum. These symptoms are similar to symptoms reported by the residents of one of the first fracking wells in Texas.
“All of these studies show association, they don’t show causality,” Harley said. “But it’s funny that we keep getting the same associations.”
Ultimately, league officials said their main goal is to keep the public informed.
“This is basically the league’s position: that we have to be cautious about shale gas development and we have to continue to do research as best we can,” Bonnet said. “Meanwhile, life goes on. Our health workers are doing their best to protect the public. Our folks who are seeing this happening in their backyard are hoping that they can get some benefit from shale gas development and keep their health. And industry keeps on drilling and trying to improve the bottom line, which is what their mission is.”