Conflicting Links Between Fracking and Health

Eric Weltman of Food and Water Watch speaks during a "New Yorkers Against Fracking" news conference in Albany, NY, on Monday, March 26, 2012. Dozens of grassroots environmental groups and several national organizations are joining forces to launch a coordinated campaign to ban natural gas development in New York state using high-volume hydraulic fracturing. AP/Mike Groll

The debate over the environmental and economic impact of hydraulic fracking in New York State has raged for the better part of the last decade. But now, a coalition of anti-fracking organizations called New Yorkers Against Fracking say the State needs to keep its promise to study the impact of natural gas drilling on human health. Groups are holding several rallies around the state this week. MetroFocus looks at what other fracking health reports have revealed.

Until last October, when 250 medical professionals sent a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo calling for a health impact study, much of the science and conversation had explored fracking’s effects on jobs and environment.

“In Texas [where fracking is legal], breast cancer rates rose significantly among women living in the six counties with the intensive gas drilling,” the letter read. “By contrast, over the same time period, breast cancer rates declined within the rest of Texas.” In addition, the letter argued that over 1,000 cases of water contamination from fracking have been discovered across the nation. The Natural Resources Defense Counsel has also warned of increased truck traffic, well explosions and an unstable influx of development in areas where fracking came to town.

On March 12, the New York State Assembly included $100,000  in its budget proposal for a school of public health in the state university system to conduct such a study, at the request of the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The budget for the health impact study would have been far smaller than that of similar studies conducted elsewhere, and yet, when the budget was released on March 26, the study was dropped. A bill currently in the State Senate aims to ban fracking until a health impact study can be completed.

On Tuesday, about 40 anti-fracking activists with New Yorkers Against Fracking (a coalition of  60 groups) held a rally in front of the Department of Environmental Conservation‘s headquarters in Albany, demanding a human health study be added to the department’s ongoing environmental impact study. Over the course of the week, they’ll hold similar rallies in Buffalo and Syracuse.

“This study is entirely inadequate that’s going to potentially approve this process,” John Armstrong, a spokesperson for the environmental group Frack Action, told the Capitol Report‘s Susan Arbetter. “There needs to be a health impact assessment before the state considers allowing  fracking to proceed.”

The push to drill, and push back

Last summer Gov. Andrew Cuomo lifted the official moratorium on the controversial drilling technique, which involves shooting a high pressure mixture of water and chemicals into the shale rock deep below the Earth’s surface. Since then, the Department of Environmental Conservation has issued an environmental impact review and accepted public comments through January. The department is now taking those public comments it received  into account as it completes the final version of its report. Cuomo has said he expects the the legislature could make a decision on fracking within a couple of months of the reports’ release.

We have a high unemployment rate in our area and for us, it’s all about providing training to get jobs, whether in New York or Pennsylvania

Advocates for fracking argue the industry will reduce the nation’s reliance on foreign energy, produce thousands of jobs in many of the state’s poorest areas and bring in billions of dollars in revenue. On Wednesday, a coalition of land owners and drilling executives will hold a fracking job fair at Broome County Community College in Binghamton, NY.

“We have a high unemployment rate in our area and for us, it’s all about providing training to get jobs, whether in New York or Pennsylvania,” Janet Hertzog, director of work force development at the college, told the New York Times.

Are health concerns really being left out?

From the time the initial Department of Environmental Conservation study was released, environmental groups have criticized it for not analyzing fracking’s potential impact on the bodies of people who live near the drilling sites and those, like the entire population of New York City, who receive drinking water from upstate. The debate over the health impact study heated up in New York last December, when former Department of Environmental Conservation engineering technician Paul Hetzler wrote a letter to the Watertown Daily Times, issuing an ominous warning call.

“Hydraulic fracturing as it’s practiced today will contaminate our aquifers. Not might contaminate our aquifers. Hydraulic fracturing will contaminate New York’s aquifers. If you were looking for a way to poison the drinking water supply, here in the Northeast you couldn’t find a more chillingly effective and thorough method of doing so than with hydraulic fracturing,” Hetzler wrote.

A contractor closes a valve at a fracking facility in Claysville, PA. Recent studies on the impact of fracking on human health have offered mixed results, but two Congressmembers have asked the EPA to examine the most recent report out of Colorado. AP/Keith Srakocic

The Department of Environmental Conservation responded that it had done everything it could to explore the risk of fracking chemicals on human beings. However, the union that represents more than half of the department’s employees told the Guardian that a recent 25 percent staff cut means the “DEC would also be hard-pressed to adequately provide emergency remedial response and clean up assistance for a major accident of any kind. The moratorium should be extended until there are adequate staffing levels.”

Fracking health impact studies give mixed messages on air, but EPA water report poses serious concerns

Last Friday, two member of the U.S. House asked the Environmental Protection Agency to examine a recent study by the Colorado School of Public Health on the impact of fracking on human health. That study, which took three years to complete and looked at the prevalence of toxins in the air, found that people who lived within half a mile of fracking sites face higher risks of cancer than the rest of the state’s population. Drilling advocates and local residents have continued to disagree over the meaning of its findings, though.

A similar study is currently underway in Alaska, and in February a study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration found that airborne methane levels leaking from a gas field in Colorado were much higher than originally estimated.

“There are no demonstrated cases of negative health impacts associated with natural gas development in the United States,” Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, told the Associated Press. “In fact, a $1 million study, completed last August in Fort Worth, Texas, concluded natural gas development in the Barnett Shale did not lead to adverse health effects.”

The study Gill is referring to was paid for by the city of Fort Worth, TX, and performed by Eastern Research Group, an environmental research and consulting group, last August. It found that fracking had not created any adverse health effects in Fort Worth. Critics were quick to point out that the study had only looked at air quality and not water, and recommended greater continued environmental review.

Another study, by the EPA in 2011, found groundwater near wells in Wyoming was contaminated with high levels of contaminants associated with fracking.

While all three of those studies explored air quality, a battle of the impact of fracking on water recently unfolded in Dimock, PA. Controversy first hit the town in 2009 when ProPublica reported that three drinking wells had exploded in the area where Cabot Oil and Gas had been conducting fracking operations, and nine other wells were found to be contaminated with methane. Last January, the EPA took over a state investigation in the town, and began testing water in 60 Dimock homes.

In March, after the results of 11 wells had come back from the EPA’s lab, the federal agency announced the water was safe to drink.  But the EPA took flack from several Dimock residents, who were given the EPA’s raw data, reported AlterNet. The EPA did not publicly announce that most of the well water contained high levels of methane gas and other contaminants which the Centers for Disease Control describe as carcinogenic.

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