Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a means of drilling for natural gas and oil deep underground. The procedure opens cracks into the layers of shale rock and releases the trapped, natural gas so it can flow out. Along with the gas, “production” or “flowback” water comes back up. This contains naturally occurring radioactive waste, as well as salt and heavy metals. These are treated or disposed of. This has raised huge health concerns among environmental and health care groups; it is also déjà vu.
Seventy years ago strip mining started in the hills of the Southeastern United States and production accelerated in the 1960s and 1970s. Strip mining is the opposite of drilling. It is done in long, narrow strips removing trees and bushes by bulldozers, drilling multiple small holes into rock above coal or minerals, planting explosives, and blasting. The devastation to land and people’s health has been immense. Many studies link living near strip mining to higher incidents of disease, birth defects, and even death. Yet, those agencies that issue permits for mining say that the protection of human health is “not their job.”
Illnesses from fracking include both chronic and acute conditions such as headaches, dizziness, nausea, rashes, and nose bleeds due to environmental effects of air pollution (release of toxic gases), groundwater contamination, climate change, and impact on crops and wildlife. Physicians have said that this is just the beginning of negative health reports; they will increase in severity. Catherine Thomasson, MD, Director of Physicians for Social Responsibility says that generation of oil and electricity should not be poisonous.
The déjà vu for fracking vis-à-vis strip mining is the disparate attention to health concerns of the businesses and of the people living in the area. On Thursday Environment America Research & Policy Center served as a conduit for letters from health professionals to President Obama and state governors calling for a public health state of emergency. The issue was that fracking should be discontinued due to overwhelming evidence of its dangers for public health.
As public awareness rises regarding the environmental impact and the effect on health, the concern significantly rises as well. Fracking now accounts for 40 percent of domestic gas production and 30 percent of oil production. Recently, scientists have discovered a heightened rate of birth defects in babies living near areas of multiple oil and gas wells.
The types of illnesses from air contaminants include carcinogenic, as well as those that damage the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. As with strip mining, the health risk is greatest for those living in closest proximity to the fracking wells. Despite these major concerns fracking, like strip mining, is exempt from federal and state laws surrounding the environmental and public health. Natural gas companies are, in fact, exempt from environmental laws that ensure clean drinking water, clean air, liability, and compensation. In Pennsylvania there is even a restriction on health care providers; there is a “gag order” which prohibits them from discussing the chemicals their patients may have been exposed to.
The connection and déjà vu between fracking and strip mining is that there is destruction of the land and there are no laws protecting the environment, nor is there visible concern by the companies in charge about the effect on people’s health or livelihoods.
By Fern Remedi-Brown