Reports show need for caution on NC fracking

December 19, 2013 

Those who want to open North Carolina to hydraulic fracturing dismiss health and safety concerns about the process as unfounded or greatly exaggerated. Now new reports indicate that two of those concerns – water polluted with dangerous chemicals and earthquakes – may be real hazards from the process commonly called fracking – the injecting of liquid at high pressure to break underground shale rock and release natural gas.

A new study published in the journal Endocrinology found that water samples collected at fracking sites in Colorado showed elevated levels of dangerous chemicals linked to birth defects, infertility and cancer. The elevated levels were also found in the Colorado River, possibly due to runoff from spills.

“With fracking on the rise, populations may face greater health risks from increased endocrine-disrupting chemical exposure,” senior author Susan Nagel, who investigates the health effects of estrogen at the University of Missouri School of Medicine, told the Los Angeles Times.

Energy industry advocates dismissed the study as “inflammatory,” but Nagel said the findings merit close consideration. “I’m not an alarmist about this, but it is something the country should take seriously,” she said.

Meanwhile, a report in The New York Times last week focused on a rise in earthquakes in Oklahoma. Experts think the seismic activity may be related to the industry practice of disposing of billions of gallons of wastewater by injecting it deep underground. Seismologists think the wastewater could cause slippage along fault lines resulting in tremors. Oklahoma has more than 4,000 disposal wells that may be adding earthquakes as a hazard in a state where they were once rare.

The Times wrote of the increase: “Oklahoma has never been known as earthquake country, with a yearly average of about 50 tremors, almost all of them minor. But in the past three years, the state has had thousands of quakes. This year has been the most active, with more than 2,600 so far, including 87 last week.”

Chemicals and earthquakes are important considerations as North Carolina prepares to welcome fracking in central parts of the state with the gas-rich epicenter in Lee County. The N.C. Mining and Energy Commission is drawing up regulations to prevent environmental harm by the new industry. A debate has arisen over whether companies should be required to disclose all the chemicals they use in fracking liquid or if they can shield some chemicals from public view under a “trade secrets” clause. The companies say disclosing the chemical mixes would be onerous, but others argue that the public has a right to know what’s going into the ground. A vote on chemical disclosure is scheduled for January.

Opponents of fracking have also focused on earthquake risks since the activity could take place near North Carolina fault lines. It’s unclear whether any fracking in North Carolina will use deep-well injection – the suspected cause of the earth tremors in Oklahoma and other states – as a disposal system here, but so far Mining and Energy commissioners seem united against allowing the practice.

The final decision on waste disposal, chemical disclosure and all other safety-related rules is up to the state legislature, which could rubber-stamp or override the Mining and Energy Commission’s recommendations.

Shale gas exploration has revolutionized natural gas production in the United States, and natural gas is expected to overtake coal as the nation’s main fuel for power plants. It has been an economic boon to high-intensity fracking states such as North Dakota and Pennsylvania, and it has contributed to the nation’s energy independence. But it is also a relatively new form of gas extraction and one in which the long-term hazards may not be clear for years to come. The state’s Mining and Energy Commission should err on the side of disclosure and caution as it writes the rules for North Carolina.

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