By John McFerrin
On September 8, 2012, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, and the Sierra Club (WV Chapter) sponsored a conference in Morgantown on Wellness and Water: Health Impacts of Fossil Fuel Extraction. About 100 people attended.
The conference was a combination of scientific presentations about health impacts and eyewitness accounts of what it is like to live near mining or drilling operations.
The keynote speaker was Wilma Surber. She is a scientist, with degrees in microbiology and chemistry and president of a company that does environmental testing.
After a brief overview of how hydraulic fracturing works, she dove into the heart of her presentation: what one is likely to find when testing air and water near drilling sites. She also discussed the health effects of exposure to these chemicals.
The information in the presentation was grim. She said that the Wastes generated by the exploration, development and production of crude oil and natural gas are “exempt” by Federal law from being regulated as hazardous waste. Yet 10 to 70% of the large volume waste and 40 to 60% of the toxic associated waste are Hazardous by analysis.
Her presentation included a listing of the contaminants that are present in what are known as “produced water” or “produced fluids.” This is the water that is present along with the gas and is brought to the surface as part of the producing the gas. They included organic chemicals, heavy metals, sulphur containing compounds, salt water minerals, and radioactive materials.
Although there is much contention among people and companies, she listed several items where there is agreement. She said that the oil and gas industry admits that there are spills and leaks which contaminate Surface water, ground water resources, soils, and air. The industry also admits that there are failures of casing and cementing that cause these impacts upon water, soil, and air. Casing is a series of metal pipes that extends from the surface to the producing formation. Cementing is the cement that is inserted between the casing and the rock it passes through. It is supposed to seal off the casing from the surrounding rock and any groundwater it might contain.
The industry stops short of admitting contamination of groundwater as a result of fracturing.
She also discussed surveys of health impacts felt by people who live close to gas wells or compressor stations. She presented a list of some forty two conditions which people had reported.
Her conclusion was that shale gas development has resulted in human health impacts to a large number of individuals living and working in the areas of shale development as well as large quantities of environmental damage and disruption
She further concluded that state regulatory programs are not adequate to regulate and control the rapidly developing shale technologies being implemented within the individual states.
In addition to the keynote speaker, the conference featured experts and academics Jill Kriesky, Ben Stout, and Michael Hendryx.
Dr. Kriesky, of the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, talked about the health impacts of hydraulic fracturing. She included discussion of a recent legislation that inhibits physicians from sharing information about possible health impacts of fracking. She recommended that there be more studies of potential impacts, implementation of air and water monitoring regulations at fracking sites, strong chemical disclosure regulations, and a health registry and public health education programs.
Mr. Stout talked about the importance of data collection. He recommended that anyone in a fracking area test their water daily for conductivity. If the water becomes contaminated there will be an immediate and dramatic increase in conductivity. He is also building a database of background water quality data. This makes it possible to know what the water was like before fracking.
Dr. Hendryx talked about the health impacts of mining, particularly mountaintop removal mining. He said that he has authored or co-authored more than twenty studies in peer reviewed journals that documented public health problems for people living near mining operations. He said that the health risks are greater for people living near the mines. This is true even after considering other health risks such as smoking, poverty, obesity, age, or access to health care. He called the epidemiological data of health impacts “overwhelming” and said that mountaintop mining should be stopped.
The most moving part of the conference was the descriptions of the problem by people who live near mining or drilling. Theirs were stories of ordinary people, just minding their own business, living their lives when they were intruded upon by drilling, mining, road dust, or a compressor station. They were of choking dust, noise that makes sleep impossible, and illnesses that they and their families had never had before.
If you missed the conference you can see most of it by going to http://www.youtube.com/watch?NR=1&v=vjDBCyf8Ypo&feature=endscreen. That takes you to one of the presentation as well as links to other presentations. Follow all the links and you will have seen the whole conference (minus introductions, question and answers, directions to the bathrooms, etc.)