On April 8, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald held a public hearing on the issue of leasing Deer Lakes County Park to Range Resources for fracking. Fitzgerald claimed that there is no way that frack fluids several thousand feet down in the Marcellus Shale layer could contaminate aquifers, because “gravity is holding them down”. Clearly our county executive needs a science lesson on the behavior of liquids and gases under pressure. Below is testimony I prepared, with scientific literature citations, on the subject of how water contamination occurs from fracking:
One of the points the county executive keeps emphasizing is that drill rigs will not be erected within the park boundaries, only next to the park. I would like to discuss how drilling under the park will still expose the park’s ecosystems and the people who use the park to air and water toxins.
First of all, there is an unacceptable level of risk of water contamination inherent in fracking, even if there is no well pad within the park. The drilling is occuring several thousand feet below the surface, but unfortunately, the geology layers between the Marcellus shale and the surface are far from impervious. They are in fact full of cracks and fissures (Hazen & Sawyer Environmental Engineers 2009). In this region our geology is sedimentary, which means different layers of sandstone and shale and other materials on top of each other like a layer cake. Sometimes the layer cake is angled one way or another because of folding, though. All those layers are full of horizontal cracks. There are also vertical fissures that connect the layers. The process of fracking, setting off high power exposures designed to fracture a rock layer, expands these fractures. Liquid and gas materials under pressure deep below the ground naturally follow the fractures, because they move into openings, areas of lower pressure. This is how methane and other toxins from geology layers deep in the earth can contaminate aquifers and water bodies near the surface. This is not hypothetical; studies have proven that the source of surface contaminants is from deep underground layers by examining their chemical signature (Jackson et al. 2013).
Furthermore, in many cases contamination comes from failed well casings. The well casing separates the toxins that flow up from the Marcellus layer with the gas from the surrounding geology; if these have even small cracks, holes, or gaps anywhere in them, the high-pressure contents flow out into the surrounding geology layers. They can reach adjacent aquifers directly, or through cracks and fissures in these layers. It is even more likely that cracks and fissures near the surface will connect with bodies of water and with aquifers, because the history of mining and gas drilling has turned these layers into an underground honeycomb. No one has a map of any of this; it cannot be predicted, or reliably avoided.
Surface bodies of water like streams and lakes are usually fed partly by surface inputs like rain and stream flow, and partly by groundwater. So if the contaminants get into aquifers, they get into our streams and lakes as well. Is this what we want for Deer Lakes? Should our county government actively be facilitating this risky endeavor?
Air pollution also does not respect political boundaries. There are two kinds of air pollution that are concerning from Marcellus wells; first, they increase the levels of smog in the region at large. The Dallas-Fort Worth area now has as much air pollution from fracking as it does from motor vehicles (Armendariz 2009). But even more concerning are the hazardous air pollutants that affect people close to the wells far more than those further away.
We can’t always see, smell, or taste these toxins. But they matter. A study published this February in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives examined babies born in Western Colorado, and found an association between the density of natural gas wells within a ten mile radius of expectant mothers’ homes and the prevalence of fetal anomalies such as low birth weight and congenital heart defects in their infants (McKenzie et al. 2014). The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) has called in an epidemiologist to investigate a recent spike in fetal abnormalities (Landman 2014). Wouldn’t it great if Pennsylvania even had a department of health and the environment, and if our government would take responsibility for protecting us from these kinds of harms, rather than helping expose mothers and children who use our public parks to toxic chemicals?
Armendariz, Al. 2009. “Emissions from Natural Gas Production in the Barnett Shale Area and Opportunities for Cost-Effective Improvements”. Dallas, Texas: Southern Methodist University. http://www.edf.org/documents/9235_Barnett_Shale_Report.pdf
Hazen & Sawyer Environmental Engineers. 2009. “Final Impact Assessment Report: Impact Assessment of Natural Gas Production in the New York City Water Supply Watershed”. New York City Department of Environmental Protection. http://www.nyc.gov/html/dep/pdf/natural_gas_drilling/12_23_2009_final_assessment_report.pdf
Jackson, Robert B., Avner Vengosh, Thomas H. Darrah, Nathaniel R. Warner, Adrian Down, Robert J. Poreda, Stephen G. Osborn, Kaiguang Zhao, and Jonathan D. Karr. 2013. “Increased Stray Gas Abundance in a Subset of Drinking Water Wells near Marcellus Shale Gas Extraction.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June, 201221635. doi:10.1073/pnas.1221635110. http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/06/19/1221635110
Landman, Anne. 2014. “Colorado Investigates a Spike in Fetal Abnormalities Near Natural Gas Drilling Site.” AlterNet, April 1. http://www.alternet.org/environment/colorado-investigates-spike-fetal-abnormalities-near-natural-gas-drilling-site?fb_action_ids=10152124815419125&fb_action_types=og.likes&fb_source=aggregation&fb_aggregation_id=288381481237582.
McKenzie, Lisa M., Ruixin Guo, Roxana Zulauf Witter, David A. Savitz, Lee S. Newman, and John L. Adgate. 2014. “Birth Outcomes and Maternal Residential Proximity to Natural Gas Development in Rural Colorado.”Environmental Health Perspectives, January. doi:10.1289/ehp.1306722. http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1306722/.