Hydrofracturing (fracking) is essentially new in West Virginia’s gas industry. Stepped up hundreds of times over the old method, today’s practice of drilling just one well, with horizontal underground branches in many directions, requires millions of gallons of poisoned water, acres of stripped land, many diesel engines running day and night, over a thousand tanker trips, a 25-foot flare that can burn for months and continual venting from tanks of volatile liquids — all of which creates air pollution rivaling the dirtiest of cities.
Maybe most concerning, though, are millions of gallons of fracking wastewater that return to the surface daily and need disposal. Along with 500 or more chemical additives, at least 28 of which are known to cause brain damage or cancer, this water, forced laterally through the Marcellus shale for up to two-miles, picks up heavy metals and radioactivity in concentrations of up to 3,000 times safe drinking level. Lasting thousands of years, the radiation accumulates. At close range, as in bones and lungs, even very low amounts of radiation can be far more lethal than high doses from outside. According to research done after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant meltdown, ingested radioactive particles cause birth defects, cancer, IQ loss, organ failure, early aging and death.
Now, a study from New York state has found that all of 24 randomly-chosen frack water samples from West Virginia and Pennsylvania contained dangerous amounts of an odorless, colorless chemical, 4-NQO, that is highly carcinogenic even in parts per trillion. Not found in nature, it is manufactured to induce cancer in lab rats but also appears to be produced from a common additive during fracking.
Fracking waste has been videotaped being dumped onto roads, down mountainsides and into creeks — including a tributary 100 feet from the Elk River, from which 300,000 West Virginians get their drinking water. Class II wells, though not designed for hazardous waste, are officially accepted dump sites and cannot accept even a third of it. So, incredibly, in 2011, the state of West Virginia contracted to use this radioactive gas well brine as a deicer on our public roads.
It seems that gas companies have gained nearly full control of all levels of government, including the agencies assigned to protect us. Yet the media, on whom we rely for unbiased information, sell large amounts of advertising to frackers and are thus hesitant to state the danger.
However, there is help. Concerned citizen’s groups, armed with facts, petitions and, sometimes, professional friends, can influence county commissions. State law says the commissions are “authorized to take... necessary actions for the elimination of hazards to public health and safety.”
Thanks to the efforts of citizen groups, the state of New York instituted a moratorium on fracking that has extended for five years. And France has a nationwide ban on fracking that has withstood a final appeal.
In Richwood, a very few residents caused the first gas well flare penalty ever issued in West Virginia.
For all of us, a good start might be information. One possible source is the National Public Radio program “Living On Earth.” Recently, it featured research from MIT indicating that methane, the main component of natural gas, is 100 times more powerful as a greenhouse gas than CO2. Due to many documented methane leaks during gas field recovery, processing and transport, this finding completely offsets the clean-burning benefits that proponents of natural gas regularly cite.
Together we make a difference.
Daniels is an environmental reformer in Richwood.