To Frack or Not To Frack

To Frack or Not to Frack

“If it were happening in your backyard and your ONLY source of drinking water was at risk, would you just sit back and wait to see what happened and do nothing at all?”

- Mark DeSabato

Gerard Zarella, 2012

     As the national debate over fossil fuels, expanded mining and drilling and in particular “induced hydraulic fracturing” or “hydro-fracking,” commonly known as “fraccing” or “fracking” heats up, common citizens, environmentalists, media pundits and politicians argue the pro’s and con’s of the practice.  The Marcellus shale boom is reawakening heretofore languishing local economies and in practical terms, putting people to work! And whether it’s the national debate or a local argument there are no simple answers in either direction as the comments section to this recent report show.  In some cases, it’s pitting neighbor against neighbor.  New gas and oil exploration is already impacting tens of thousands of lives economically and environmentally across the nation.  Passions run high as people deal with the direct  consequences of a depressed economy and further threats to  fragile ecology. As the quote in the title indicates, most of these contentions seem inconsequential to our personal little worlds. Until, of course. it’s happening in our own little world.

The site is prepared to begin drilling a new gas well.

A new gas well is installed about .25 miles to the west & upstream of the affected pond. Run-off from an access road to the site was the culprit identified by the Ohio EPA in poisoning a stream that fed the pond. Click to enlarge.

        My friend and hundreds of rural families are worried that their environment and particularly their underground and surface water supplies may be adversely affected by nearby drilling. In that same community, a rural township in northeast Ohio hit hard by the fall of the steel industry and more recently the Great Recession, another friend appears to be very excited about the prospect of the booming natural gas and oil industries new and increasing demand for specially trained and skilled laborers. Fairness dictates that I disclose that he’s been taking classes at one of the many industry-sponsored facilities that have been cropping up around the country, to prepare the local workforce for employment in the shale gas industry.

       Unemployment and under-employment have been the scourge of industrial centers around the country.  Job opportunities are still all too scarce for some.  Additionally, aggressive partisan politics has made being a public servant more tenuous, contentious and stressful these days.  So, I easily understand and empathize with why my friend, a successful, professional fire fighter, is looking enthusiastically at the many lucrative opportunities in the burgeoning industry.  I’m sure I’m not the first to observe that the shale gas and oil industry is bringing a much-needed shot in the arm to many parts of the country where local economies have been devastated by dying manufacturing and production industries.  The news story linked above “Ohio shale gas worth billions of dollars and 200,000 jobs,” sounds more hopeful than many recent jobs and economy headlines.

     One one hand, my friend makes a spirited, thoughtful, convincing argument in favor of responsible (my emphasis) drilling:

Click the picture to enlarge

Although there are risks involved, responsible companies go to great pains to make sure water is not affected. I’m not saying it does not or could not happen, but the risk is minimized by multiple safeguards and science that advances every day. I consider myself a staunch environmentalist and I am an avid fisherman. I also have two young children that need clean water. I would never get involved in an industry that I believed would bring harm. I’ve done my homework, I can assure you of that.

     I want to be able to trust what my friend has to say there. He’s an honorable, trustworthy person, who’s looking for what the rest of us want; Job security, a decent wage commensurate with his experience and training, and a safe, healthy world for his kids.  I’m sure that he has all of those things in mind as he continues his quest for the American dream.  And if he happens to read this, I sincerely wish him the best. I hope that his high aspirations for the gas industry are not disappointed.

     The American Dream notwithstanding, unfortunately, experience in the energy industry is rife with examples of incalculable human error, lack of contingency planning, reckless drive for the bottom line, flaunting and devaluing regulation and inexcusable government under-regulation at great expense to all humans and our natural environment.

The few dead fish here belie the hundreds killed.

The few dead fish here, photographed early in the crisis belie the hundreds killed. Click to enlarge.

     My other friend, who’s quote I used at the top of this piece, also makes an impassioned plea for consideration of the impact that drilling has on his family’s water supply. Let me provide a brief historical context to preface his comments that I’ve included below.

      A few days following a couple of days of summer storms with heavy downpours in late July,  in a small man-made, spring-fed farm pond in rural northeast Ohio, a couple hundred fresh water fish and aquatic wildlife were killed by a then unknown source.  The carcasses of fish of all sizes and species littered the grassy edges of the small body of water.  Locals remarked that they were surprised that there were so many fish in the pond.  The unfortunate operative word here, “were.”

Workers collect fish carcasses after run-off from a local drilling project caused a fish kill.

Workers, from an environmental clean-up company hired by the well drillers collect fish carcasses after run-off from a local drilling project caused a fish kill. Click to enlarge.

The stench of  dead fish amplified by record hot and humid days, could be smelled any time a breeze blew in one’s direction within several hundred yards and more from the pond. During muggy nights, the overwhelming stink of rotting fish and the dying pond hung heavily in the still moist air. The odoriferous bouquet would remain for more than a few days even after the rotting carcasses were collected by an environmental clean-up company hired by the well company who was in the process of installing a gas drilling operation at a nearby farm. Investigation by local officials and the state EPA determined that during a heavy rain storm run-off from a recently installed gravel driveway washed into the stream feeding the pond.  The effect of loose gravel ash washing into the stream was to cause a dramatic change in the PH levels or acidity of the water and cause the death of a couple hundred fish of all species and sizes, from several inch long Bass and Blue Gill, fry that provided food for some of the birds and larger predators of the pond, to fat, at least three and four-foot long Carp that skimmed mostly undetected along the grassy bottom of the normally dark green pool, Nature’s vacuum cleaners. It was siting these large Carp near the edges of the pond, in the shallows, where they are rarely if ever seen, that sent up red flags, that something was drastically wrong with this little body of water.

Three & four pound Large Mouth Bass were once common from fish stocked over 40+ years of the pond’s existence. Click to enlarge.

     Over the years, the man-made pond had been stocked by local residents with numerous species of fresh water fish including Bass, Carp, Catfish, Blue Gill and Rock Bass. After 40+ years of growth and evolution the pond was a nice little habitat for a great number of turtles, frogs and assorted water and land birds. A good example of a rural aquatic biosphere.  I’ve personally seen over the years a four pound Large Mouth Bass and a 30+ pound Snapping Turtle pulled out on fishing lines by local kids.

A White Egret & Great Blue Heron Fish the Shallows of the Pond

Aquatic birds including a White Egret and his close cousin a Great Blue Heron return frequently to feed on fry, tadpoles and frogs in the shallows. Canadian Geese gather here in the fall, feeding in local corn fields to prepare for their annual pre-winter migration. Every year at least one family and occasionally others return in early spring, lay eggs and stays through the summer to rear up to six goslings that were hatched in the marsh where the spring feeds into the pond.

Original Wildlife Photography - Gerard Zarella 2012

A family of Canadian Geese take an early paddle on the pond in late spring. They’ve grown quickly. They will be ready to depart by fall.

       At any given time there’s a collection of wild and domestic ducks that call the pond home.  The ducks and geese enjoy occasional handouts from kids and adults that bring stale bread and rolls  for the birds. Though hand feeding is not the best for the wild birds, the handouts sustain the domestic ducks who stay at the pond year round.  This little pond may not be much compared to the Great Lakes or the Gulf of Mexico. But it’s one little piece of Mother Nature’s dynamic, life filled domain.

     Additionally there are several hundred people who live in the area and several small family farms that rely on surface water and water wells drilled into the local water table to provide their residential water supply, as do many rural Americans.  Here’s a sampling of my friend’s impassioned comments on the event that changed the life of this active little pond for a long time to come: (Link included by me – the emphasis is his)

Click the picture to enlarge.

…on Fracking: According to the local news channels, the EPA has reported that the cause of the fish killed in our lake was due to run off from the drive they installed at the well site. From what I understand, it altered the PH balance in the water, which is what killed the fish. According to the EPA report, they did not take the proper precautions in controlling the run off from entering a water source and were sited [sic] for not doing so. I’ve received MULTIPLE nasty-grams telling me, “See, it wasn’t the Fracking that caused the problem” and that I “Jumped the gun by complaining”. My response to this is simple. If it were happening in your backyard and your ONLY source of drinking water was at risk, would you just sit back and wait to see what happened or do nothing at all? Furthermore, if the company that is doing the drilling couldn’t even install the driveway leading to the well site properly without overlooking something major or taking short-cuts, would you still trust them to PROPERLY RUN A SAFE SITE just up the road from your house? So far, NO ONE has replied back to me. I wasn’t in favor of this whole project, and NEVER will be. If something I’m saying offends or upsets you, feel free to unfriend me IMMEDIATELY !!! It’s my family’s well-being that is at risk here. I WILL NOT BACK DOWN NOR WILL I CHANGE MY OPINION TO MAKE SOMEONE ELSE HAPPY. For everyone that supports or agrees with what I’ve said, THANK YOU !!!

      Even though this “accident” was not a direct result of fracking, or the by-products of fracking wells and sites, it was a wake-up call to be aware of what is going on in our neighborhoods and on our country sides.  Like my friend said above, “If the company that is doing the drilling couldn’t even install the driveway leading to the well site properly without overlooking something major or taking short-cuts, would you still trust them to PROPERLY RUN A SAFE SITE just up the road from your house?”  Fracking is not without its risks and unintended consequences. There are many reports of unusual and sometimes criminal occurrences related to drilling. Earthquakes and burning water have occurred in areas where fracking and the related injection well industry has come to town.  Fish kills have become all too common around the country. Some for natural reasons such as algae blooms, overheating, and drought. Some others from more nefarious sources.

      Currently the Marcellus Shale gas industry is starting to boom.  People all over Ohio, New York, Pennsylvania and diverse other places are starting to feel the positive effects the boom is having on local economies.  Natural gas is becoming a popular commodity for traders and the support industries such as machine manufacturing and pipe manufacturing are reaping the profitable benefits of the newest craze in natural energy supplies.  But we’ve already seen the great cost of those endeavors.

Detail of Tower for drilling horizontally into...

Detail of Tower for drilling horizontally into the Marcellus Shale Formation for natural gas, just north of Pennsylvania Route 118 in eastern Moreland Township, Lycoming County, Pennsylvania, USA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

       Especially here in the Great Lakes area, the middle Atlantic states, Appalachia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, the Virginia’s, Tennessee and Kentucky, mining for coal and drilling for oil and gas are a big part of local economies, as the demand for fossil fuels increases worldwide.  We humans are having a significant impact on the environment as we attempt to satisfy an increasing demand for energy.  As noted in a recent article, the industry’s increasing demand on our water supply is  also causing problems in areas already impacted heavily by a summer of unprecedented drought.  The summer of 2012 brought diminished water resources to many areas of the country being opened for oil and gas exploration. Not only are local water sources in danger from damaging pollution, additionally, industry demands on the water supply is competing with local residents for dwindling resources.  The impact is summarized in the article(Links included in original AlterNet.org post):

“Besides the discomfort of relentless heat and unmitigated sunshine, the drought has forced us to rethink several issues commonly taken for granted—namely, abundant and affordable foodsecure livelihoods for farmerssafety from natural disasters, practical public policy regarding the delegation of crops for food and biofuels, and most importantly, the value of water.

The value of water is inestimable. Without it, as the drought has shown us, uncertainty and chaos quickly enter the picture, throwing superpower economies off kilter and quite literally,imperiling lives.”

       Along with water contamination, the AlterNet.com article also looks at issues of deforestation, water depletion, and air and noise pollution as other unintended consequences of our relentless search for natural energy sources.  The authors are equally critical of nuclear energy as a source of major headaches for the environment. We can look as far away as Russia and Japan or to our own atomic “mishaps” to see how far the consequences of a major atomic energy disaster can reach.

      As much as we would like to believe that well drillers are using safe, ecologically sound methods to drill, human error, like that which caused the local fish kill, and shoddy workmanship are causing problems in areas being opened for drilling.  Although fracking is supposed to be done well below local water tables, in at least one instance in rural Pennsylvania, faulty concrete used to create the casing for the well shaft allowed methane gas to leak into the water table level. Eventually, residents were faced with burning water. The drilling company faced penalties in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to reimburse homeowners.

       The millions of gallons of liquids used in the fracking process are creating another problem.  In little communities nationwide people are noticing the constant traffic of tanker trucks transporting water and chemicals to the sites, and tanker trucks transporting used water and chemicals from the sites.  Heavy truck traffic on rural roads are impelling local governments to required drilling companies to pony up to cover damage to roads and bridges.  Some states require monetary deposits made by companies to cover possible road damage.  To the consternation of their constituents, others do not.   The company working in our area here at least “beefed up” the local roadways from the state highway to the local roads where the well is located.  Signs instruct truck drivers to stay on designated roads, with warnings such as “No Well Traffic Beyond This Point” at key intersections.  Additionally, motor vehicle accidents are not rare.  Big trucks lumbering through town can be a significant hazard for locals.

            Before being transported away from the site by tanker trucks, drilling by-products are held in  large holding ponds that are built on site to hold millions of gallons of  used fracking liquids.  Though these holding ponds are to be built to EPA specifications, accidents can and do happen.  The incident above was caused because the drilling company did not follow EPA protocols to make sure that drainage from the site was not running into local streams, ponds and water tables or aquifers.  The above cited article sums up the problem :

“…no matter how it’s moved, it’s inevitable that water is going to get spilled. Since 2008, more than 5,000 new wells have been drilled in the state. Those wells have brought with them more than 700 violations of state law related to water, (my emphasis) with fines totaling over $1.5 million. And spills tend to take place out of sight — at frack pads up in the woods, or at recycling plants. People worry about what they can’t see.”

      In another case, injection wells, which are used to inject used toxic water and chemicals into deep wells in the ground were occasionally over-pressurized and ended up contaminating aquifers used for drinking water. And, let’s not forget about unusual earthquakes in diverse areas of the United States, were earthquakes were uncommon until the injection practice was started. Another article cites several studies of injection wells around the country and warns that if they aren’t causing problems now, they could be a problem later, even 25 or 50 years down the road.  Unfortunately, it seems that the “experts” don’t know as much as we would like them to know, before assaulting our environment in new and dangerous ways.  Note that the Deepwater Horizon project had not been fully evaluated.  BP and the government had not considered an accident of that magnitude occurring and hadn’t developed a contingency plan to deal with it.  We are learning, while doing.  It used to be called “O-J-T,” on the job training.  That isn’t good enough!  How many small ponds, how many aquifers, how many streams and rivers will be ruined before we “learn” what’s right and what’s not.  How much more of an assault can the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic Ocean and other bodies of water take? Not only are our local bodies of water and waterways at great risk, we are causing, what some feel is irreparable damage to our oceans and coastlines.

Deepwater Horizon Offshore Drilling Platform o...

Deepwater Horizon Offshore Drilling Platform on Fire (Photo credit: ideum)

Recently a report appeared about how Hurricane Ivan, when it battered the Gulf Coast of the USA unsettled submerged oil and tar balls along the Louisiana coast.  Consequently, 0fficials closed a twelve-mile section of beach. Deepwater Horizon officials aren’t commenting until it can be determined that it is oil from the ill-fated, contingency deficient, deep ocean experiment in exploitation of Earth’s resources.  Of course, it could be coming from any leaking platform or supply line. But it doesn’t matter. It’s just another case of we Human Beings crapping up our world so that we can make some of us richer and the rest of us more dependent. That insatiable addiction to fossil fuel energy and our literal physical dependence on oil and natural gas is driving us to exploit more and more of our environment in search of a fix.

Contractors Assist in Deepwater Horizon Spill

Contractors Assist in Deepwater Horizon Spill (Photo credit: DVIDSHUB)

My gripe today isn’t to debate the efficacy of continuing our endless, however exhaustive exploitation of our natural resources. Or to try to convince anyone to forsake their oil dependency for more renewable, green, eco-friendly solutions. No, my point today is to give voice to a little town in the Great Lakes corner of the country.  To all of the little towns and burghs in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and the rest.  Little towns barely big enough to warrant a dot on a typical road map.  I hoped to contrast the personal impact of reckless exploitation of our natural resources with the greater impact of an incident like the Deepwater Horizon tragedy, whose effects we will feel for at least decades.

     The Deepwater Horizon’s legacy along with whatever other lesser spills, leaks and releases have happened over the last 100 or so years have had a significant effect on hundreds of miles of Gulf Coast communities.  We are only now finding out what impact that single horrific event is having on the ecosystem of the Gulf. We are only finding out what impact oil and gas exploration is having on our local communities.

        Local environments are being impacted by the widening of oil and gas exploration on the mainland.  Our children and grand children will reap the benefits of our efforts today. They will also pay the price for the mistakes we make.  Will we leave them a healthy and safe environment?  We need the oil and gas industry to bolster our economy. We need the jobs and the revenue. But we also need regulation of the industry.  Everyone needs to come to the table and the oil and gas industry has to be held accountable for what they are doing. As President Obama said in his Democratic National Convention acceptance speech, the industry needs to be at the table, but we must “…not let oil companies write this country’s energy plan, or endanger our coastlines, or collect another $4 billion in corporate welfare from our taxpayers.

     The Environment is screaming a warning at us. Are we listening?

UPDATE:  I’ve been watching the pond since the “accident” and am glad to report that barring any other man-made messes, it seems life is slowly coming back to our little natural habitat. I’ve seen some small schools of fry and many tadpoles near the edges of the pond.  The birds seem to be returning and feeding freely in the marsh and along the shallow banks.  The pictures of the herons above were taken after the incident and provide further evidence that the pond is coming back.  But that one incident has set the pond back several decades, and it will take years to replace the wildlife that was lost as a result of  poor planning and oversight.

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