Unless you've been living on a desert island for the last couple of years, you've probably heard of "fracking," or hydraulic fracturing, and you may well have seen dramatic footage of tap water being ignited. If you listen to the slick and expensive public relations campaign from the natural gas drilling industry, lobbyists and politicians of both parties, fracking is the answer to this country's energy problems, a way to free us from our problematic ties to Saudi Arabian and Middle East oil.
President Obama, for example, insists that this country has a 100-year supply of shale gas. Yet that figure has been shown to be grossly exaggerated. In fact, the U.S. has 11 years of recoverable shale gas. And because the price of natural gas in this country has plunged to the lowest levels in decades, we are now looking to export it, mostly to Japan and China.
Yet for this, we are turning large swaths of our country into toxic industrial zones. Currently, fracking is taking place in 36 states across the nation. Natural gas drilling, one of the most powerful businesses on the globe, has become the new gold rush for those who stand to benefit. But for those who stand in the way, it can be devastating.
Chris Mobaldi became gravely ill after gas rigs moved 300 feet from her home in Rifle, Colorado. Her symptoms worsened when a well next to the property exploded. Developing symptoms of biblical proportions -- rashes, blisters causing her skin to peel off, headaches, bloody stool -- she began to rapidly age, with her vision and balance severely compromised. When the Mobaldis found they could ignite their water, the gas company told them to stop drinking it. But then four months later, the company said it was again safe to drink. Then, Chris was diagnosed with the first of three rare-pituitary tumors linked to fracking chemicals.
"My wife's fingerprints disappeared, which doctors said may have been caused by chemical damage to her DNA or chromosomes," her husband Steve told me. Two of their dogs developed tumors, as did neighboring pets. Dozens of trees and birds on their 10-acre property began to die. Two baby llamas they were raising died of respiratory difficulties. "We were living in a killing field," adds Steve. "My wife was worse affected because she was home most of the time, whereas I was traveling for my work."
Unable to live in or sell their five-bedroom $439,000 home, they were forced to abandon it and move 60 miles away. Eventually, Chris would be diagnosed with severe chemical exposure. She died of her multiple maladies at the end of 2010.
Fracking involves boring down as deep as 10,000 feet, and then, at that level, can go as much as two miles out horizontally. Chemically laced water is forced into tight seams of rock formations to loosen the methane or natural gas for collection. For every single well -- and there are already a million across the country -- eight million gallons of water, mixed with some 91 tons of chemicals per million gallons of water, industrial sodium and sand, are required. When a bore extends so far underground, there are any number of potential leak points along the way which can poison water tables. According to the industry's own statistics, cementing of pipe casings fails due to shoddy workmanship in an astounding one in four cases.
Each drilled gas well produces a nightmarish chemical soup, and tons of foul smelling, harmful emissions and highly toxic liquid byproducts. "You wouldn't want to drink it," says Aubrey McClendon, the CEO of Chesapeake, the second largest gas producer in the U.S. (McClendon is currently under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Internal Revenue Service for allegedly taking out $1.1 billion in personal loans from the company.)
What goes down, also comes back up. "These regurgitated waste fluids are mixed with what Mother Nature has been safely ensconcing way underground for 350 million years -- strontium, radium, arsenic, heavy metals," Cornell University's Anthony Ingraffea, Ph.D., one of the world's leading experts on fracking, told me. Known as NORMS -- Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material -- this witches' brew, combined with the fracking chemicals, is exceedingly dangerous to human health, he points out. It is also very hard to dispose of safely.
Putting Health at Risk
Currently, the drinking water of 20 million New Yorkers and Philadelphians is under threat, since both cities receive unfiltered drinking water from the federally designated "wild and scenic" Upper Delaware River where gas companies have begun drilling.
Yet, gas corporations have long refused to identify the chemicals that they use, claiming they are "proprietary." Despite this, scientist Theo Colborn, Ph.D., a modern day Rachel Carson, who has testified before Congress a number of times on this issue, was able to obtain samples for testing. Since then, her critical research has identified 944 chemicals used in different mixes of gas drilling. Of great concern to scientists is what happens when the various chemicals are combined in gas drilling and go on to create what are known as "daughter chemicals." Since these chemicals can affect the reproductive system, there is also fear that they will pass down to subsequent generations, as happened with DES.
"Families living in what have become highly industrialized gas drilling zones should move away. But how can they, if they have a mortgage and a house they can't sell because their water has been poisoned?" asks Colborn.
Look what happened to Laura Amos, now in her 40s, who developed a rare adrenal tumor linked to fracking chemicals. Due to "split-estate" laws, her family had a gas well on its property when Laura was breastfeeding her infant daughter for two years, until 2002. Like many Americans, the Amos's only owned the surface rights to their property. They didn't own the mineral rights underneath them, and these can be sold and sold again without the homeowners having any say. Common in the West, split-estate lands can be found in every state in the country.
When four wells near the Amos house were being fracked, a methane explosion occurred. The family was told the methane was "transient" in nature, and harmless. But they were also warned to properly vent their home, otherwise the gas could build up and explode. In Ohio, a home was blown off its foundations: And of course, it was methane that triggered the massive BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico two years ago after the well's casing failed. In high enough quantities, methane kills.
Two years later, Laura became very sick, and was diagnosed with the tumor, associated with a chemical, 2-BE, a colorless, odorless liquid, and a constituent of fracking cocktails. For a year, the gas drilling company denied that 2-BE had been used. Exposure to 2-BE causes kidney damage and failure, toxicity to the spleen, the spinal column and bone marrow, as well as liver cancer, female fertility reduction, embryo mortality and elevated numbers of tumors of the adrenal gland. After a five-year battle, Laura won a settlement from EnCana that reportedly covers health costs of her and her daughter, whom she had been breastfeeding at the time, for the rest of their lives. The settlement came with a gag order, as so often happens. Consequently, Laura can't talk about that experience, but she can talk about what happened next.
As if her family has not suffered enough, Axia Energy of Denver arrived on the doorstep of their new home miles away, wanting to drill on this property. Despite knowing Laura's tragic history, Axia threatened the family with "forced pooling," a law that permits fracking companies to seize mineral rights through eminent domain.
"I'm stunned, heartsick and terrified all over again," says Laura. "I look at the beautiful little face of my daughter Lauren, and I'm petrified for her future. I fear for my husband. I still have health concerns. Axia knows what happened to me. They don't care. They care only about their profits."
Fighting the Halliburton Loophole
Shockingly, despite the hazards involved, the fracking industry is all but unregulated. "The gas and oil industries are currently the only industries exempted from key elements of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act," says U.S. Representative Maurice Hinchey, (D-NY). The so-called "Halliburton Loophole" was pushed through by then Vice President Dick Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton, in 2005. There is also a dramatic shortage nationwide of well inspectors. In Wyoming, for example, there are 55,000 gas wells and only 12 inspectors. Other states frequently have fewer than that.
With growing evidence to the contrary, energy companies deny any link between what they use in their drilling operations, and what is harming the health of Americans. Homeowners say when they complain about problems, all too often bullying field employees, the first line of contact for locals, tell them: "Nothing to do with us. Prove it. Sue us. You won't win."
In a number of states, families have found that the lawyers they hired to represent them, suddenly quit to take jobs with the gas industry. State officials investigating their cases often do the same. In Pennsylvania, the industry pushed through a gag order that physicians believe prevents them from telling individual patients what chemicals caused their illness.
It's very difficult to stop the gas industry because of its massive profits, which gives it very strong political connections and a superb PR machine, points out longtime energy attorney Lance Astrella in Denver. "It takes many years for a lot of these illnesses to develop, and local doctors and lawyers have no idea of what they are dealing with. Gas corporations could one day find themselves facing tremendous liability. Look at tobacco, Monsanto, Love Canal." It took 60 years for the tobacco industry to be held to account, 40 years for Monsanto on PCBs, and 20 for Love Canal. "It will eventually happen," he says. "Although the current CEOs and executives won't be around by then, and they know it. They'll be dead or retired. Right now, there are just not the regulations to stop them."
Americans across the country are also fighting back, however. Barbara Arrindell, who has a degree in bioengineering and is director of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, one of the first anti-gas drilling groups in the northeast, understood from the beginning the threat posed by the natural gas industry. "The industry is highly toxic. Chemicals that leach into water systems and into the air pose a major threat to human health. We cannot live without water," she says. "And if you add up all the contaminating emissions from compressor and processing plants, the venting, flaring pits, burning off, condensate tanks, glycol dryers, etc., it is a recipe for disaster."
So concerned was the city of Pittsburgh, PA, after a nearby fracking accident, that the city council banned gas drilling in its environs in 2010. Other smaller communities have taken similar steps, but gas drilling companies threaten to sue them to overturn such bans. New York State had a moratorium, but Governor Andrew Cuomo is expected to formally announce that fracking will take place in five of the state's (poorest) counties. It has been revealed that the woman he lives with and de facto "First Lady" has ties to the drilling industry. France also has banned fracking.
The gas drilling industry receives billions of dollars in government subsidies for drilling, pipelines and more. Taxpayers even subsidize them when a well comes up dry. "They should never be getting this money in the first place," says Rep. Hinchey, who has been fighting to halt the subsidies. "Gas drillers are making their largest profits ever, higher than other corporations. This is a trillion dollar industry. There is absolutely no need to provide them with public funding, when this country has a huge deficit."
Ironically, we don't even need natural gas or other fossil fuels. Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands and other European countries are now producing energy from waste burned in non-emission incinerators, running whole cities this way. The U.S., the largest producer of waste in the world, could do the same.