Using “fracking,” gas companies are drilling near our communities, polluting our air and water and risking the health of our children and other vulnerable populations. Fracking* involves injecting water, sand and chemicals at high pressures deep into the earth, breaking up underground rock formations to release natural gas. Blowouts and fires can occur at well sites, and drilling and extraction can contaminate our air and water, putting the health and well-being of nearby residents at risk.
Gas drilling companies are rapidly working to exploit the resources found in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations, which extend beneath much of Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, West Virginia and western Maryland. Gas companies have already drilled and fractured more than 10,000 wells in the region, and states are issuing permits for thousands more. In this five-state region, permitted well sites exist within one mile of more than 400 day care facilities, schools and hospitals.
To protect our states and our children, states should halt fracking.
Drilling companies are fracking for shale gas in close proximity to many vulnerable Pennsylvanians, Ohioans and West Virginians – with the potential to expand into other nearby states and more urban areas.
- Across the region, permitted fracking well sites exist within one mile of 190 day care facilities, 223 schools, and 5 hospitals. (See Figures ES-1 and ES-2.) The closest well sites are less than 1,000 feet from a day care or school. In Maryland and New York, which have not yet allowed fracking to begin in earnest, more than 8,000 daycares, schools and hospitals overlie areas that could potentially be exploited for shale gas extraction.
- Between 2008 and May 2013, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection recorded more than 250 violations of regulations intended to protect public safety and the environment at fracking sites within one mile of a day care facility, school or hospital.
Drillers have rapidly expanded fracking and gas extraction efforts.
- Pennsylvania has issued more than 13,500 permits for fracking wells (as of May 2013). Since late 2010, the number of fracking permits issued in Pennsylvania has quadrupled. West Virginia has issued more than 3,200 permits. Ohio has issued nearly 700 permits, while also accepting more than 400 million gallons of drilling wastewater from neighboring states for underground injection disposal in 2012. While Maryland and New York are currently under a drilling moratorium, oil and gas drillers are working to gain access to shale gas deposits in these states.
- There are 60 percent more day care facilities located within one mile of a fracking well in Pennsylvania than there were in late 2010.
- The gas industry has projected drilling on the order of 60,000 new shale wells in Pennsylvania alone over the next two decades. Should this occur, gas extraction activity will move even closer to vulnerable populations across the region, putting more people at risk.
Figure ES-1: Hospitals, Schools and Day Care Facilities within Two Miles of a Permitted Well Site
Figure ES-2: Proximity of Vulnerable Populations to Permitted Well Sites
Fracking and related infrastructure jeopardize the health and safety of nearby residents, especially vulnerable populations.
- Residents living near fracking sites have long suffered from a range of health problems, including headaches, eye irritation, respiratory problems and nausea.
- Children are likely more vulnerable to the impacts of gas extraction because they are still developing. Moreover, they are more likely to play outside near areas that could be impacted by an accident. The elderly and the sick, meanwhile, have fewer defenses against pollution.
Fracking increases health and safety risks, including truck accidents on nearby roads and fires at well sites.
- Fires at well sites can present an immediate safety threat to nearby residents, occasionally resulting in evacuations of homes and businesses.
- Fracking requires increased truck traffic, which in turn raises the risk of accidents. In the northern tier of Pennsylvania, developing each fracking well requires approximately 400 truck trips for the transport of water and chemicals, and 25 rail cars’ worth of sand.
- Fracking sites also create noise and light. Excessive noise exposure can disturb sleep patterns and increase the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks and strokes. Excessive light is associated with sleep disturbances and depression.
Fracking brings with it the potential for spills, blowouts and well failures that contaminate groundwater supplies.
- According to analysis of Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) records by the Scranton Times-Tribune, oil and gas development damaged the water supplies for at least 161 homes, farms, churches and businesses in the state between 2008 and the fall of 2012. In one case, PA DEP found drillers responsible for contamination of the water supply of a home that was 600 feet away from a well.
- Studies in Pennsylvania have found elevated levels of methane and ethane in drinking water wells within one kilometer (0.6 miles) of a well site, suggesting that pathways exist for contaminants to travel underground – whether through faulty well construction, conduits created by drilling, or through fractures in rock created or expanded by the fracturing process.
- Disposal of fracking wastewater into injection wells – common in eastern Ohio – can also cause drinking water contamination. Nationally, routine testing of injection wells in 2010 revealed that 2,300 failed to meet mechanical integrity requirements established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to prevent contaminants from leaking out.
- Fracturing fluid can contain toxic chemicals including benzene and toluene. Fracking wastewater also contains naturally occurring metals and salts, including arsenic, barium, chromium, lead, strontium and radioactive materials such as radium. These substances pose risks for acute and chronic health impacts, from dizziness to rashes to cancer.
Fracking creates health-threatening air pollution.
- Fracking produces a variety of pollutants that contribute to local and regional air pollution problems. Volatile compounds in natural gas formations and diesel engine exhaust contribute to soot and smog pollution, which reduces lung function among healthy people, triggers asthma attacks, and has been linked to increases in school absences, hospital visits and premature death.
- Fracking also creates hazardous air pollutants, which have been linked to cancer and other serious health effects. Studies have found elevated levels of benzene, toluene and other gases in the air of communities within a half mile of a well site or associated infrastructure. Toxic emissions can come from the well site itself, from natural gas compressor stations, from the production of fracturing fluid, or from flaring off excess gas.
States and local governments should halt fracking operations.
- As there is currently no proof that drilling companies will operate without contaminating our drinking water, threatening our safety, damaging our forests and parks, and polluting our air, state and local governments should stop further fracking operations.
- New York and Maryland should maintain their existing moratoria on fracking and ban the practice altogether.
- Federal law exempts gas extraction and aspects of wastewater disposal from regulation under key elements of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. The federal government should apply the nation’s core public health and environmental laws to gas extraction just as it would regulate any potential threat to public health or the environment. In particular, wastewater from fracking should be regulated under the same rules that apply to hazardous waste produced by other industries.
* In this report, when we refer to the impacts of “fracking,” we include impacts resulting from all of the activities needed to bring a well into production using hydraulic fracturing, to operate that well, and to deliver the gas or oil produced from that well to market. The oil and gas industry often uses a more restrictive definition of “fracking” that includes only the actual moment in the extraction process when rock is fractured – a definition that obscures the broad changes to environmental, health and community conditions that result from the use of fracking in oil and gas extraction.
Associate Director and Senior Policy Analyst, Frontier Group
Elizabeth Ridlington is associate director and senior policy analyst with Frontier Group. She focuses primarily on global warming, toxics, health care and clean vehicles, and has written dozens of reports on these and other subjects. Elizabeth graduated with honors from Harvard with a degree in government. She joined Frontier Group in 2002. She lives in Northern California with her husband and son.
Senior Director, Clean Water for America Campaign and Senior Attorney, Environment America Research & Policy Center