What the Frack?

Up until a few months ago, I had never heard of fracking. If you had asked me what it is, I would have guessed it’s a substitute for a word that one should not use in the presence of children. As it turns out, that is not what it is, but it still has everything to do with something that should never be used in the presence of children.

Hydraulic fracturing, a.k.a. fracking, is an extraction process for natural gas that is currently being conducted in 27 states in the country. Josh Fox, director of the award-winning documentary Gasland, is convinced that fracking is one of the country’s biggest environmental and public health challenges in history. After learning about it myself, I could not agree more.  

Fracking involves drilling an initial hole approximately 8,000 feet into the Earth and blasting millions of gallons of water, along with sand and proprietary chemicals, into the well. When the initial well is tapped out the industry turns to horizontal hydrofracking, which is a similar process but differs in that it is much closer to the Earth’s surface and uses hundreds of proprietary chemicals. The water pressure fractures the shale under the Earth’s surface and creates fissures that allow natural gas to flow more freely out of the well. It also creates millions of gallons of unbelievably toxic water that can (and does) end up in drinking water, streams and rivers.

The issue of water contamination is not a problem for the oil and gas companies. In 2005, the Bush/Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act. This lobbying effort was led by none other than Halliburton and aided by the former CEO of Halliburton, then-Vice President Dick Cheney. The bill exempts companies from disclosing the chemicals used during fracking, as the chemicals are considered “trade secrets.” Given this legal exemption, the EPA was taken out of the picture, even though EPA environmental engineers reported in 2004 that the chemicals being used in fracking were not safe and were in fact toxic at the point of injection.

Excuse me?

I recently wrote a piece on the coal mining practice of mountaintop removal and how in 2002 the Bush administration reclassified mining waste as permissible “fill material” under the Clean Water Act. This has allowed toxic coal waste to be dumped directly into 2000 miles of Appalachian headwaters. At the time, this blew my mind, but now it looks as if my mind may explode.

Fracking is stunningly outrageous in its toxic contributions to land, air and water. One well can be fracked as much as 18 times, and for each frack 80 to 300 tons of chemicals may be used. In an interview on the news program Democracy Now, scientist and founder of the Endocrine Disruption Exchange Dr. Theo Colborn explained that “30 to 70 percent of that water that’s injected underground can possibly come back up to the surface. No one knows exactly how much stays underground and how much is going to be coming back up to the surface.” And no one outside of the natural gas insiders knows all the chemicals that are being used and what the ultimate ramifications are in using them.

Well, actually, some people do.

In the 2009 documentary Split Estate, which examines the impact of the oil and gas drilling boom in the Rocky Mountain West, they focus on a woman named Laura Amos. As the film explains, “in 2001 gas wells were drilled using the fracking technique a mere 500 feet from the Amos home. Underground, the drilling breached their water well, causing their drinking water to fill with grey sediment and fizz like soda pop. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission tested the water well and found methane but said it was safe. But they warned the Amoses to keep a window open, so the methane gas wouldn’t build up and cause an explosion in their home.

Keep a window open? Seriously?

The Amoses stopped drinking the water but continued to bathe in it. Later, having developed a rare adrenal tumor, Laura called Dr. Theo Colborn to explain her circumstances. Dr. Colborn states, “That was the beginning. I mean, when she called, it just sent chills up and down my spine. She had been breast-feeding her daughter through the period when they were using the water that they were told was safe. She was bathing her baby in the water in their home. They were breathing the stuff that was coming into their house.”

Laura later found out that a chemical that had been used in the 2001 fracking has been linked to adrenal gland tumors. When she went to EnCana Corpation, one of North America’s largest natural gas producers, they denied using it on that well or any other. Months later, the Oil and Gas Commission admitted that it had been used after all. The film goes on to explain that after years of mounting medical bills, devalued property and diminishing options, Laura agreed to a monetary settlement with EnCana. The settlement stipulated she stop telling her story publicly, which is why she was not interviewed in the film. As the documentary explains, “Many family stories like hers will never be told because of company settlements that require silence.”

Imposed silence? Is this really happening in the United States of America? Putting the welfare of human life and the living Earth second to the welfare of the oil and gas companies? Unheard of! Or so I wish.

Watching this excerpt of the documentary, seeing photographs of Laura and her beautiful, young daughter, I felt sad and furious. Aside from Laura’s adrenal tumors, the effects on her daughter’s health are still unknown. And she is only one of so many children throughout this country awaiting their fate.

I began thinking about my six-year-old daughter Claire and her love of baths. I remember those first days of bathing her in the sink, gently pouring water onto her precious newborn body, falling in love with her smile as she experienced water with sheer delight. And still today she loves the playful nature of bath time, requesting that I pretend to be a little girl who has come upon a girl in a pond, not yet knowing that that this girl is a mermaid and that I will have the rare opportunity to go deep down into the sea with her.

Claire would take a bath every night if I let her, but I limit them because of her tendency toward dry skin. How insignificant my concern compared to the idea of bathing her in endocrine disruptors, neurotoxins and carcinogens! And I’m just talking about baths. What about the water children drink? How can anyone in good conscious allow children, or anyone, to take such chemicals into their body? This makes no sense. No sense at all.

Gasland’s Josh Fox, who traveled the country talking to people and taking water samples said, “I think what I uncovered, you know, or what was coming to me through all these other people who were talking about it, is this incredible threat…to the nation’s water supply, but also to people’s health. I mean, health problems throughout these regions are really rampant.” Of course they are. Drinking toxic chemicals makes humans sick. No science needed to prove this.

The Obama administration is conducting a two-year study on fracking that has only 2 million dollars to support it. Dr. Colborn explains that the study lacks the participation of scientists and has neither sufficient money nor time to be conducted properly. At the same time the natural gas companies have “already spent $140 million in the last couple of months, arguing against what’s called the FRAC Act, which was proposed by [members of Congress] Maurice Hinchey and Diana DeGette, which would repeal the Safe Drinking Water Act exemption.”

Why aren’t these millions of dollars going toward making sure that fracking is not poisoning people and the Earth? What good is it to have natural gas to fuel our modern lives if we end up living them in horrific health as a result of such energy extraction practices? I for one am not going to allow this to go on. We’re talking about water here. Clean water is essential to all life. We cannot survive without it. Isn’t it worth our time to pay close attention to such destructive means of obtaining energy and fully support the change to clean, renewable energy sources for the sake of this precious thing called life? I hate to say it, but the clock is ticking louder than ever. Poisoning people and the Earth should be out of the question at this point in human history. No question about it.

The good news is that people at the local level are getting educated and standing up to oil and gas companies. In West Virginia, Pennsylvania, New York and Maryland, citizens are organizing and making it clear that clean water is a fundamental right. It’s a fact that we can make a difference if we truly want to. All is not lost if we stand together against that which destroys life. And now is the time to stand up, while we are still lucky enough to be standing.

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