Enjoy your water cold, lukewarm, or flammable? In The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century, author Alex Prud’homme reports on cases where hydrofracking contaminated drinking water, causing people to develop tumors, headaches, sores, and other disturbing health issues.
In 2008, hydrofracked gas wells began to pop up all over the Appalachian town of Dimock, Pennsylvania (population 1,400). People’s drinking water turned brown and occasionally exploded; pets and farm animals suddenly began to shed hair; dangerous levels of methane, iron, and aluminum were found in wells; kids grew sores on their legs; and their parents suffered frequent headaches. In 2009, the state imposed a moratorium on drilling new wells in Dimock, though existing ones can continue to be used, and fined Cabot Oil and Gas, a Houston-based energy company, $120,000. Residents fear that fracking has made their properties worthless and have banded together to sue Cabot for compensation.
In other places, such as Silt, Colorado, fracking for gas has led to even more serious health problems for people, such as Laura Amos, who developed an adrenal-gland tumor after her water was tainted by hydrofracking for gas. Colorado gas-field workers believe that the fluids used in fracking have caused cancer, though it is difficult to prove.
Understanding the full extent of the problem has been made difficult by the secretive nature of the gas industry, and its ability to convince people such as Amos to sign nondisclosure agreements, as she did with Encana, the large Canadian gas company that drilled a well less than a thousand feet from her home.
Gas companies counter that such horror stories are simply not true or are not their fault. “In sixty years of hydraulic fracturing across the country, more than a million wells have been fracked, including fourteen thousand in New York,” maintained Jim Smith, spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York. The process “has never harmed a drop of drinking water.”
BP, the largest producer of natural gas in the United States, with over fifteen thousand natural gas wells, has been expanding through acquisitions, and predicts “a revolution in the gas fields of North America.” But just as the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico—which revealed shortcuts to save time and money, aided by regulators’ lack of oversight—brought new scrutiny of deepwater oil exploration, so have a series of accidents in natural gas fields brought attention to the tremendous potential, and risks, of hydrofracking—including a blowout at a Pennsylvania gas well in June 2010 that sprayed gas and wastewater for sixteen hours.
According to Pennsylvania regulators, in Dimock, Cabot Oil and Gas failed to properly cement well casings, which can allow methane and other chemicals to seep out. When gas gets trapped in the headspaces of wells, it can explode. Several wells in Dimock have exploded or been tainted by gas; a house near Cleveland, Ohio, exploded in 2007 when gas infiltrated its water well; and dozens of wells in Colorado were contaminated by methane in 2008. Gas industry representatives point out that methane can be naturally occurring and doesn’t always originate from gas wells. With over 450,000 gas wells in the United States, the industry says, incidents of contamination are statistically meaningless. But, as scientists study hydrofracking more closely, and Congress and states weigh tougher environmental oversight of gas drilling, the industry’s arguments are being challenged.
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