Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Fracking health concerns continue

Air quality complaints and water contamination debated

Fracking sites can emit dangerous levels of
toxic substances over short periods of time.
There are more than 6,000 active gas wells in Pennsylvania. And every week, those drilling sites generate scores of complaints from the state’s residents, including many about terrible odors and contaminated water.

How the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection handles those complaints has worsened the already raw and angry divide between fearful residents and the state regulators charged with overseeing the burgeoning gas drilling industry.

For instance, the agency’s own manual for dealing with complaints is explicit about what to do if someone reports concerns about a noxious odor, but is not at that very moment experiencing the smell: “DO NOT REGISTER THE COMPLAINT.”

When a resident does report a real-time alarm about the air quality in or around their home, the agency typically has two weeks to conduct an investigation. If no odor is detected when investigators arrive on the scene, the case is closed.

“The time that it takes them to respond is something people are concerned about,” said Matt Walker, a community outreach director for the Clean Air Council in Pennsylvania, an environmental advocacy organization. Waiting a few days to two weeks to respond to odor complaints, he said, is “way too long.”

The concerns of residents are not likely to be eased by a study published in Reviews on Environmental Health, a peer reviewed journal.

The study, researchers say, confirms what they have long suspected about natural gas operations — that emission levels from these sites spike drastically over short periods of time, making it hard to assess the true threat to people’s health.

Researchers at the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project collected real-time readings of particulate matter — soot, dust and chemicals — in 14 homes in Washington County, a heavily drilled part of the state.

They found repeated episodes during which measures of contaminated dust rose sharply, to dangerous levels in the course of a day.

David Brown, the lead researcher on the study, said that a person in such circumstances could get what amounted to a full day’s exposure in half an hour.

The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association declined to comment on the Environmental Health Project’s study but said that the oil and gas industry is “heavily regulated” and that the association’s member companies “strive to comply with numerous federal and state air quality related rules, regulations, and reporting requirements.”

Information provided by the DEP shows that between 2011 and 2014, the department received over 2,000 complaints about oil and natural gas operations. Water quality issues featured prominently in the list of complaints. The DEP also registered 110 of the complaints as odor issues.

John Quigley, a former director of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, said the need for greater transparency in the oversight of the fracking industry was real and urgent.


Gas drilling operations include several processes that release toxic chemicals into the air. The type and level of chemicals released varies from hour to hour depending on the type of activity taking place on the well pad.

Despite this, researchers and regulators seeking to assess the health threat of fracking operations have typically used measurement devices that capture air emissions over longer periods of time, often 24 hours.

These levels are then, in many cases, compared to the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which were created over 40 years ago at a time when large, 24-hour-a-day sources of pollution such as coal fire plants and steel mills were dominant.

“You can’t use 24-hour standards if the health effect occurs within a few minutes,” said Brown, the lead author of the study released Friday.

The question of whether episodic bursts of contaminated air from fracking could pose an unappreciated but real health menace was first explored in West Virginia in 2010.

West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection asked Michael McCawley, then a professor at West Virginia University’s Health Sciences Center, to study air emissions from fracking operations in the state. McCawley found the contaminants he detected at fracking sites fluctuated over a wide range.

Those findings mirror those in the Pennsylvania study published on Tuesday.

Research has shown that fracking operations can release an array of toxic chemicals — some carcinogenic, others capable, at significant enough levels, of causing serious neurological and respiratory damage. The worry, Brown says, is that these chemicals are attached to the microscopic dust particles that he detected and can reach the bloodstream after being inhaled.

McCawley and Brown say that the wide fluctuations that they’re picking up on are also attributable to operators not using the best available technology to limit possibly harmful emissions.

State and federal regulations, for instance, do not require operators to use equipment that would capture all emissions during drilling. Often, gases are vented or flared into the air. The regulations also don’t consider activities, like diesel truck traffic, that degrade air quality at the fracking site.

“The law requires best technology,” said McCawley, and the data, he says, is telling us that the gas drilling industry is “not working according to the strict definition of the law.”

Source: ProPublica. This article has been edited for length.

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