Fracking Safety Debate Persists

Study raises new questions about health impact of process

Photo by Casey Junkins Once Marcellus and Utica shale contractors drill a well, a new team arrives for a fracking operation. The national debate over the safety and benefits of fracking continues.

WHEELING –It takes up to 10 million gallons of water, 4 million pounds of sand and 9,100 gallons of chemicals to frack a typical Marcellus and Utica shale natural gas well, although many of the substances are often found in soda, detergent and hair dye.

In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency found the process — formally known as hydraulic fracturing — did not lead to “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources in the U.S.” Still, the debate over the safety and benefits of fracking continues.

A study published this month in the Science Advances journal shows babies born to mothers living within a half-mile of a fracking site are 25 percent more likely to have low birth weight. The researchers said lower birth weight increases a baby’s risk of infant mortality, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, asthma, lower test scores, lower academic achievement and lower earnings.

“This study provides the first large-scale, peer-reviewed evidence of a link between hydraulic fracturing activities and our health, specifically the health of babies,” Michael Greenstone, director of the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago, said.

At the same time, a separate study commissioned by the industry-funded Energy In Depth organization shows fracking did not impact health adversely in six Pennsylvania counties, including Washington County, from 2000 to 2014.

“In all six counties that had the highest development activity in Pennsylvania, the death rates declined or remained stable, despite a significant increase in the elderly population. This indicates that health and longevity did not decline as some have said would happen, and in fact, longevity increased as the average household income and employment in these counties improved,” study author Sue Mickley said.

Officials estimate it takes anywhere from 1 million to 10 million gallons of water to frack a single well, along with about 4 million pounds of sand, in addition to the chemical cocktail. Frackers inject these materials deep into the earth at a force as high as 10,000 pounds per square inch to shatter the rock in order to release the oil or natural gas.

In all, the EPA identified 1,076 chemicals that have been used in fracking, although the majority of those were rarely identified at individual sites.

Some widely used fracking chemicals include: ammonium chloride, hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol, isopropanol, glutaraldehyde, petroleum distillate, guar gum, ammonium persulfate, formamide, borate salts, citric acid, potassium chloride and sodium carbonate.

According to the research indicating risk to infants, the study relied on birth certificate data from more than 1.1 million births in Pennsylvania from 2004 to 2013. Researchers said the effect on infants living at a distance between a half-mile and 2 miles from a frack site was not as definitive, while they found no adverse impact among babies born to mothers farther than 2 miles from an operation.

“While we know proximity to hydraulic fracturing sites is associated with compromised infant health, we do not yet know the mechanism — air or water pollution, chemicals on site, an increase in traffic or some other channel — or whether it affects health after birth,” study co-author Katherine Meckel, an assistant professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, said.

Conversely, the competing Energy In Depth study finds that “unconventional gas development was not associated with an increase in infant mortality in the top Marcellus counties.”

“This report confirms what we have been saying for years: The shale industry has an overwhelmingly positive impact in the communities in which it operates,” said Energy In Depth Executive Vice President Jeff Eshelman.