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Energy & Environment

Inside Energy: Fracking and health, part 2

If you live right next to a drilling rig, or your kids go to school beside a fracking site, or your county is suddenly littered with well pads  -- are there health risks?   That’s a question that’s been asked from Pennsylvania to North Dakota, from Colorado to Texas as more and more people find themselves and their towns in the midst of an unprecedented energy boom.  In this second part of a series on public health risks, Inside Energy reporters Jordan Wirfs-Brock and Leigh Paterson clarify the confusion and describe a new scientific effort to help communities make informed decisions about this booming industry.

Maybe you’ve heard some things about fracking fluid…

Industry types will tell you 99 percent is just water and sand.  And to prove it, they’ll drink it…here’s natural gas executive Peter Dea on a youtube clip:

“I just happen to have a glass of Halliburton’s clean stem green frack fluid… so I’d like to actually mix a little cocktail here…..”

And anti-frackers, sometimes in song, will tell you about the hundreds of scary-sounding chemicals. Here’s Joel Kalma...

“Here’s what you’ll find in the fracking fluid, potassium chloride, boride, oxide…”

Joe Ryan says they’re both right. But what really matters is....

"Toxicity, mobility, and persistence"

Meaning how dangerous those chemicals are, how they move through the environment, and how long they stick around. So why should we listen to him rather than an anti-fracking song or a fluid-chugging industry exec? Because Joe Ryan is an engineering professor at the University of Colorado who studies how drilling affects groundwater. And his CV is 20 pages long! Yeah, and more importantly, he is the lead researcher on a twelve million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation. It’s a collaboration of more than 40 experts, studying how natural gas development affects communities from all angles: ecology, health, economics - even sociology.  So..

Back to that fracking fluid. Joe Ryan says those chemicals....?

“...we take a list of 1000 and get down to a list of a couple dozen…”

And those are the ones we need to focus on. The ones that can contaminate groundwater and make people sick. 

“Most people now have seen videos of people lighting their tap water on fire.”

Mark Williams is a hydrologist at the University of Colorado, and he’s part of Ryan’s team.

“I’ll just say a lot of that is real and what they’re lighting on fire is methane.  There are no human health effects for methane, unless of course you blow up your house which is not a good thing...”

But Williams and Ryan agree on this: Other, dangerous drilling by-products can contaminate groundwater.  And if it happens to you, its a big deal.  But it’s rare.  A fraction of a fraction of a percent. But there’s a serious concern that hasn’t caught public attention the way flaming tap water has…

“I think air pollution is a bigger issue.”

That’s John Adgate, a researcher at the Colorado School of Public Health. He’s also on Joe Ryan’s team, and he says water contamination--

“To me thats a lesser issue than the traffic and the noise and the air pollution that is around these sites.”

Trucks and construction equipment create diesel exhaust and dust. Extracting and transporting oil and gas can release pollutants like benzene and ozone.  All are known to be bad for your health.

Ryan’s grant is important because, when it comes to oil and gas drilling, our track record of using scientific research to make regulations isn’t so great. For example,

“How far should an oil or gas well be from a private residence or a school?”

That’s called set-back distance. Turns out, in Colorado...

“It was freely admitted that no scientific information went into the current choice”

That’s what this massive project aims to change...by creating a research-driven decision matrix to help people understand whether oil and gas development is worth it.

“There are risks that we accept and risks that are imposed upon us.”

For many communities, the fracking boom has been a risk imposed….

“And we get a lot more concerned about the risks imposed upon us than the ones we accept.” 

With more science, communities can learn what they should - and shouldn’t - accept.

For Inside Energy, I’m Jordan Wirfs Brock and I’m Leigh Paterson.

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