Air pollution caused by fracking may contribute to acute and chronic health problems for people living near (within a half mile) of natural gas drilling sites, according to a new study from the Colorado School of Public Health. Air pollutants around the drilling sites were measured at five times federal standards, adding to the argument for a stricter requirement for how far gas wells should be drilled from residential areas.
The study, which was based on three years of monitoring at sites in western Colorado's Garfield County, found potentially toxic petroleum hydrocarbons in the air near the gas wells, including benzene, a known carcinogen, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene. Exposure to such chemicals have neurological and/or respiratory effects, according to the study.
The Denver Post quotes lead author of the study Lisa McKenzie saying, "We are seeing indications that oil and gas operations can release chemicals that can be harmful to residents."
And she emphasized the significance of the study's findings: "Our data show that it is important to include air pollution in the national dialogue on natural-gas development that has focused largely on water."
Looking to the EPA for Help
While it's true the national discussion about the environmental impacts of fracking has focused primarily on water, the EPA appears to be doing everything it can to avoid actually blaming water contamination on fracking operations. The agency said last week that it found no evidence linking fracking with contamination of groundwater in the small town of Dimock, Pennsylvania, where families had feared that drilling had polluted their wells.
But as ProPublica explains, that's not the whole story—far from it:
what the agency didn’t say – at least, not publicly – is that the water samples contained dangerous quantities of methane gas, a finding that confirmed some of the agency’s initial concerns and the complaints raised by Dimock residents since 2009.
The test results also showed the group of wells contained dozens of other contaminants, including low levels of chemicals known to cause cancer and heavy metals that exceed the agency’s “trigger level” and could lead to illness if consumed over an extended period of time. The EPA’s assurances suggest that the substances detected do not violate specific drinking water standards, but no such standards exist for some of the contaminants and some experts said the agency should have acknowledged that they were detected at all.
EPA withheld water test summaries from the press and the public when it made its announcement last week, even as they implied in a statement that Dimock’s water had been given a clean bill of health. Josh Fox and Water Defense procured the tests directly from six of the affected families, who are all in litigation with Cabot Oil and Gas. Five families who are also in litigation with Cabot have not yet received their test results from the EPA, although initial media reports implied that the 11 families who received test results were the same infamous 11 families in litigation. Five of the families who have thus far received their results are not currently suing Cabot.
All six of the results obtained by Gasland/Water Defense contained at least one serious health concern, either from chemicals present or methane levels. In four of the six summaries obtained by Gasland/Water Defense, methane levels exceeded the 7 mg/l actionable threshold necessary for mitigation under Pennsylvania law—the standard previously cited by former Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection Commissioner John Hanger to justify the construction of a water pipeline for the residents of Carter Road. One of the test results showed methane levels seven times the PA limit.
And chemist Ron Bishop, who reviewed the test summaries, concluded: “Any suggestion that water from these wells is safe for domestic use would be preliminary or inappropriate.”