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Toxic Slime: The Human, Animal and Environmental Costs of Fracking

The scenario is this. You turn on your tap and instead of water emerging, there is fire. Water on fire. Or, to be precise, water laced with gas, which can easily catch fire or explode. This happens with fracking, people are telling us, and there are countless YouTube videos to provide the visuals. It’s a nightmare scenario that is hard to get your head around. So should we be worried?

What Is It?

Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, which involves drilling holes deep into dense shale rocks that contain natural gas. The gas is distributed throughout the rock, so in order to extract it, heavy machinery is required to drill into the rock, then into the shale beds which break apart in layers. Next, liquid is required to fracture the rock using immense pressure – as much as 4 jet engines can give it. This liquid is 99.5 per cent water (and 0.5 per cent no-one-knows-what-exactly) and 3 million gallons of water are required for this operation. Through this process, gas is released through the cracks created in the rocks, and siphoned off with pipes.

What’s The Problem?

Another frightening consequence we are told to worry about is earthquakes, because seismic activity can be impacted by fracking. In 2011 highly unusual tremors in Lancashire in the UK were attributed to local fracking, and mainstream news headlines ran titles like Drilling for gas caused earthquake which rocked Lancashire’. Watch out for the sensational hyperbole. Are these potentially dangerous, but incredibly rare, issues really all there is to worry about when it comes to fracking?

Although seismic activity is not to be dismissed altogether, the tremors induced by fracking in Lancashire are not the main thing to worry about. Equally, while the videos of water catching fire are real, these instances occur only on homesteads or farmsteads in the U.S. where local wells are contaminated. That scenario does not, therefore, apply to general water usage across America.

Environmental Impact

However, there are issues to be aware of. Aside from the mass water usage involved in the fracking process, there is also the aftermath to deal with. When the pumps finish cracking the rocks and begin to release pressure, much of the compressed liquid comes back up and has to be transported to a pit until it can be dealt with. This mildly radioactive, toxic residue may have been safe when buried in the Earth, but it is not when it sinks into soil and local water channels. This mixture of sand, water and chemicals can also be highly saline, and many companies have been accused of poor disposal of this dangerous waste that results from fracking.

In addition, many shale deposits are buried under aquifers are sensitive to damage from the drilling process, and the concrete sheets that surround them often break. Fracking these deposits can release toxic chemicals into the aquifers and cause methane leaks on a large scale; enough to cause fires and explosions. While corporate giants who seek to benefit from the profits of fracking our planet claim that regulations can sort the dangerous fracking sites from the less dangerous ones, Cuadrilla in the UK is a company that has drilled only a few wells so far yet has already broken the terms of its planning permission. Unbelievably, there is little or no regulation of how many gas wells a company decides to frack in one region, and when pressed for answers many corporations have not been able to state how many they are fracking at one time.

Whichever way you look at it, taking hydrocarbons out of the ground and burning them increases global emissions. CEO of Bloomberg New Energy Finance Michael Liebreich has calculated it would take at least 2,400 fracked wells to offset North Sea declines. There is also evidence that the carbon impact of fracking is far higher than has previously been discussed; recent studies show that methane leakage from fracking is worryingly high, as much as 4 per cent at a plant in Denver and 9 per cent in Utah.

Fracking is carbon heavy in other ways too. It requires the use of vast quantities of water, which can deplete local ecosystems. Few people seem to be asking where this vast quantity of water comes from. Fracking sites also require road construction to transport drilling equipment, pipes, pump trucks and tanks to drilling areas. According to the film Gasland, for each well, 400-600 tanker trucks are mobilised in order to transport the hydraulic fracture water to the site. 20-25 truckloads are required for hydraulic fracture sand, and 200-300 truckloads for flowback water removal. The toxic slime left behind by the fracking process which the industry calls ‘produced water’ or ‘flowback water’ sits in a pit while it awaits collection and during this time there is the risk that it will seep back into the ground. No one can really say how much does, but what is known is how dangerous this toxic slime is.

Human Impact

The toxic mixture that fracking creates is recognised as a hazard to human health, as it contains a cocktail of chemicals that are known to cause certain types of cancer in humans. At least 596 chemicals are used in fracking, but the corporations that use them are not required by law to disclose them all – somewhat conveniently, they are treated as ‘trade secrets’. Some independent research has been done, however, and a typical concoction of toxic slime has been found to include chemicals such as methanol, naphthalene, lead, hydrochloric acid, glutaraldehyde which has been linked to breathing difficulties, asthma, and skin rashes, N,N-dimethyl formamide which can cause birth defects and cancer, and ethylene glycol which is certainly lethal.

Fracking creates cemetery-like areas that are so vast they can be seen from the moon. Extraction sites are often located under people’s homes. Some sites are in national parks. People and animals have to be displaced in order to build gas rigs, pipelines and roads to complete the process. Infrastructure has to be built in order to deal with the aftermath of the process, offsite. The toxic waste that has to be transported away from the site and dealt with elsewhere has to travel through people’s living quarters, where they might rear animals or grow vegetables, and local air and water pollution risks from this undertaking are high.

There is no doubt that gas rigs required for fracking purposes spoil the previously picturesque enjoyed by local residents, but people have no say in the way the local land is used. Profit decides. Take a look at these pictures and then consider whether you prefer fracking sites over wind turbines. The storage units are also eyes sores that blot local landscapes. This is Jonah Gas Fields in Sublette County, Wyoming, which is one of the largest gas sites in the US. Although low-level ozone is normally associated with fumes from automobile exhausts, fracking generates so much of it that Sublette County has ozone levels on a par with Los Angeles, despite the fact that there are less than 9,000 residents living in the county.

Some people argue in favour of fracking rigs because, they say, it creates jobs. However, these jobs come with high risks. In many cases, the dangerous, leftover residue is sprayed by employees into the air, to evaporate in the heat, which releases many dangerous pollutants into the air and has been linked to causing acid rain. Evaporation sprayers are not told what they are spraying or dealing with (that would mean disclosing ‘trade secrets’), so although the corporations involved provide them with jobs, it is questionable whether these jobs are worth human exposure to harmful and, in some cases lethal, chemicals.

There’s also the potential impact on our food supply to worry about. Emily Wurgh of Food and Water Watch said that ‘The dangers of fracking to the food supply are not something that’s been investigated very much’. Wurgh has tried and failed to get members of Congress to request studies into the impact of fracking on agriculture.

Animal Impact

There’s no question that local habitats are being destroyed by the fracking industry, but other animals are being impacted too. In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 cattle that came into contact with toxic residue from fracking which showed concentrations of barium, chlorine, magnesium, potassium, and radioactive strontium. In Louisiana, 16 cows that drank fluid from a well that had been fracked began foaming and bleeding at the mouth, then dropped dead.

In 2012, 500 gallons of drilling mud contaminated an Appalachian stream in Pennsylvania. The Dunkard Creek spill occurred when the company had been drilling under the creek for a pipeline. The impact on aquatic wildlife  was tremendous. The 14 species of freshwater mussels residing in the river completely died out. At least 2,000 fish washed ashore, dead and covered in mucus and strange growths. After a brief investigation, golden algae was blamed for the catastrophe, but the report did not take into account the fact that this algae cannot survive naturally in freshwater; it requires ‘high conductivity’,  ie a saline environment, in order to thrive. As mentioned earlier, the toxic mixture created by fracking tends to be highly saline. Dan Cincotta, the biologist who discovered the Creek deaths, had studied Dunkard Creek over 30 years and analysed thousands of water samples. Speaking of Pennsylvania where gas wells and fracking sites are rife, Cincotta says that ‘All the streams around are much higher in conductivity than they used to be’.

Who’s To Blame?

You might ask how something so ecologically damaging and hazardous to human and animal health is taking place on large scales across the U.S. with little objection. As ever, lobbying has played its part well. The Guardian’s energy editor, Terry Macalister, says: ‘In 20 years, I’ve never come across such heavy lobbying than I have for shale gas. It’s a pity renewables can’t get that financial muscle.’

In 2005, Dick Cheney, who was Halliburton’s CEO prior to his stint as Vice President, fought for and achieved a clause that has become known as The Halliburton Loophole. This loophole specifically exempts fracking from regulations by the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, and Environmental Protection Agency regulations. In addition to this, corporations do not have to disclose specific information about fracking sites or processes, which means that there is no assessment of potential risks relating to the process or the areas that are chosen to be fracked.

Public pressure relating to the safety of drinking water has come from a group of Americans who argue that full disclosure of chemicals used in the fracking process should be mandatory, since the energy companies claim that they are safe. The EPA is currently undertaking a large-scale study of the industry, but the full report will not be available until 2014. In the meantime, energy companies continue to frack and endanger our planet.

But also, it is worth mentioning here that in many ways humans are responsible for the Ecocide caused by fracking, for our dependence on gas, and for supporting these companies with our dollars. Some people state that buying foreign oil funds terrorists, however closer to home there are Eco-terrorists creating planetary harm on a vast scale, through fracking.

What Can You Do About It?

There is some good news. Due to the dangerous implications of fracking, there is widespread support for banning the process throughout the world. In 2012, Vermont became the first US state to outlaw hydraulic fracturing. There is a moratorium in place on fracking in Quebec, Canada. France banned fracking  in 2007 in response to public pressure. A number of protests occurred in Bulgaria after the government’s decision to grant an approval for corporate research the possibilities of shale gas extraction in the country, and the Bulgarian government banned hydraulic fracturing technology after a nationwide protest in 2012. Yoko Ono and her son Sean Lennon are part of the the anti-fracking movement in New York, and they have founded Artists Against Fracking as part of their campaign.

  • In one essential way, we can take the power away from these companies. Boycott them when you can. Switch to a green energy supplier. Vote with your dollar. Drive less. Start lift-sharing and car-pooling. Stop supporting non-renewables by paying for dirty energy, as much as possible.
  • Add your voice to this movement. Write letters, organise local meetings, hold actions, and challenge companies that invest in fracking.
  • Do your research. Watch and share Josh Fox’s documentary Gasland. Arrange free viewings on campuses, in local communities, in green groups. Frack Off is a campaign body with a thorough list on their website of the bad guys involved in fracking, and Dirty Energy Money is also a useful site.
  • By tackling our oil addition, we can help to heal our planet. So take a breather. Sing along to this song. And remember, we can beat this thing.