by Walter Brasch
You’re sitting in your favorite restaurant one balmy September morning.
Your waitress brings a pot of coffee and a standard 5-ounce cup.
“Would you like cream and sugar with it?” she asks.
You drink your coffee black. And hot. You decline her offer.
“Would you like arsenic with it?” she asks.
Arsenic? You’re baffled. And more than a little suspicious.
“It enhances the flavor,” says your waitress.
“I really don’t think I want arsenic,” you say, now wondering why she’s so cheerful.
“It really does enhance the flavor—and there’s absolutely no harm in it,” she says.
“But it’s arsenic!” you reply. “That’s rat poison. It can kill you.”
“Only in large doses,” she says. “I’ll add just 150 drops to your coffee. It tastes good and won’t harm you,” she says, still as cheery as ever.
“But 150 drops is deadly!” you reply, looking around to see if you’re on “Candid Camera.” You’re not, and she’s serious.
“It’s really nothing,” she says, explaining that 150 drops, when mixed with five ounces of coffee is only 0.5 percent of the total. She explains that 99.5 percent of the coffee—about 2,800 drops—is still freshly-brewed coffee.
Of course it’s ridiculous.
But the oil and gas industry want you to believe that 99.5 percent of all the fluids they shove into the earth to do horizontal fracturing, also known as fracking, is harmless. Just fresh river water. Move along. Nothing to see here.
As to the other half of one-percent? They tell you it’s just food products. Table salt. Guar gum (used in ice cream and baked goods). Lemon juice. Nothing to worry about, they assure you.
The Environmental Protection Agency, in 2013, identified about 1,000 chemicals that the oil and gas industry uses in fracking operations, most of them carcinogens at the strengths they shove into the earth. Depending upon the geology of the area and other factors, the driller uses a combination of fluids—perhaps a couple of dozen at one well, a different couple of dozen at another well. But, because state legislatures have allowed the companies to invoke “trade secrets” protection, they don’t have to identify which chemicals and in what strengths they use at each well. Even health professionals and those in emergency management aren’t allowed to know the composition of the fluids—unless they sign non-disclosure statements. Patients and the public are still kept from the information.
What is known is that among the most common chemicals in fracking fluids, in addition to arsenic, are benzene, which can lead to leukemia and several cancers, reduce white blood cell production in bones, and cause genetic mutation; formaldehyde, which can cause leukemia and genetic and birth defects; hydrofluoric acid, which can cause genetic mutation and chronic lung disease, cause third degree burns, affect bone structure, the central nervous system, and cause cardiac arrest; nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide, which can cause pulmonary edema and heart disease; radon, which has strong links to lung cancer; and toluene, which in higher doses can produce nausea, muscle weakness, and memory and hearing loss.
Each well requires an average of three to eight million gallons of water for the first frack, depending upon the geology of the area. Energy companies drilling in the Pennsylvania part of the Marcellus Shale, the most productive of the nation’s shales, use an average of 4.0–5.6 million gallons of water per frack. That’s only an average. Seneca Resources needed almost 19 million gallons of water to frack a well in northeastern Pennsylvania in 2012; Encana Oil & Gas USA used more than 21 million gallons of water to frack one well in Michigan the following year. A well may be fracked several times (known as “restimulation”), but most fracking after the first one is usually not economical.
After the water, chemicals, and proppants (usually about 10,000 tons of silica sand) are shoved deep into the earth, most have to be brought back up. Flowback water, also known as wastewater, contains not just chemicals and elements that went into the earth, but elements that were undisturbed in the earth until the fracking process had begun. Among the elements that are often present in the flowback water are Uranium-238, Thorium-232, and Radium, which decays into Radon, one of the most radioactive and toxic of all gases.
Wastewater is often stored in plastic-lined pits, some as large as an acre. These pits can leak, spilling the wastewater onto the ground and into streams. The waste water can also evaporate, eventually causing health problems of those living near the pits who can be exposed by inhaling the invisible toxic clouds or from absorbing it through their skin. In the eight years since drilling began in the Marcellus Shale, about 6.5 billion gallons of wastewater have been produced.
Many of the pits are now closed systems. But that doesn’t prevent health problems. Trucks pick up the wastewater and transport it to injection wells that can be several hundred miles away. At any point in that journey, there can be leaks, especially if the truck is involved in a highway accident.
Assuming there are no accidents or spills, the trucks will unload flowback water into injection pits, shoving the toxic waste back into the ground, disturbing the earth and leading to what geologists now identify as human-induced earthquakes.
Now, let’s go back to the industry’s claim of innocence—that 99.5 percent of all fluids shoved into the earth are completely harmless. Assuming only five million gallons of pure river water are necessary for one frack at one well, that means at least 25,000 gallons are toxic.
Would you like cream and sugar with that?
[Dr. Brasch, an award-winning social-issues journalist, is the author of 20 books. His latest book is the critically-acclaimed Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting With Disaster, an overall look at the economics, politics, health, and environmental effects of fracking.]