Md. Considers Health, Environmental Risks of Shale Gas Drilling


This animation demonstrates the Fracking process.

WASHINGTON (November 22, 2011)—Critics have blamed hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," for environmental disturbances including landscape degradation, air pollution and groundwater contamination—conditions which may affect the health of surrounding areas. But the jury is still out on whether these claims are valid.

"We still see it as very early days of the process here. ... At this point, we're still collecting data," said Samuel Lesko, a Northeast Regional Cancer Institute physician who is exploring fracking's health impacts on Pennsylvanians. "We're trying to be very broad about it since we don't know what types of illnesses might be attributed to these activities."

Although the effects of fracking remain undefined, its threats are gaining credence as drilling creeps closer to Garrett and Allegany Counties.

Some Western Marylanders, such as All Earth Eco Tours owner Crede Calhoun II, worry hydrofracking will devastate the area's natural attractions and consequently ruin its ecotourism economy.

"I don't want to see it happen to what I would consider one of the most beautiful parts of Appalachia," said Calhoun, a Friendsville resident.

The Maryland General Assembly is preparing to continue debate over boring natural gas wells into a section of the Marcellus Shale Formation that nicks Maryland's panhandle. The shale layer is dotted with gas pockets, which can be accessed by drilling several thousand feet underground, burrowing horizontally and injecting the rock with a pressurized mixture of water and chemicals to release natural gas inside.

Deep shale runs along the Appalachian Mountains from southwest Virginia to New York. The formation holds about 84 trillion cubic feet of undiscovered, technically recoverable natural gas, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. An earlier assessment by the Energy Information Administration put the number at about 400 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, enough to provide about 15 years of national energy independence.

But only a small portion of that fuel lies beneath Western Maryland. Calhoun said he worries short-term drilling would permanently scar Garrett County's landscape and jeopardize its tourism market.

"It's only going to be 10 or 15 years of gas, so why sacrifice our entire economic future ... for just a little bit of gas?" he said.

Pennsylvania State University geologist Terry Engelder, a fracking advocate, said the process is economically sound and environmentally safe if natural gas companies take precautions against accidents, such as gas spills or methane leaks.

"At the end of the day, it is the positive impacts that natural gas presents globally—not just in the U.S.—that really make this a very, very important source of energy," Engelder said. "Maryland is going to have to weigh the negative with the positive. ... It's a matter of mankind just coming to balance between the risks and the rewards."

Residents near natural gas development operations blame the drilling process for various health problems, such as headaches, burning eyes, breathing problems and throat irritation. But it's hard to prove that fracking is at fault, said University of Colorado scientist Lisa McKenzie, who conducted a study on potential effects of natural gas drilling in Garfield County, Colo.

"Unfortunately, we don't have the data to say that that was caused by natural gas development," McKenzie said. "These residents were associating it, but we don't have the scientific data to back that up."

McKenzie's study was conducted prior to drilling, and she focused on health problems tied to air emissions around natural gas development sites. She found that residents near wells may have slightly higher risks of both cancer and non-cancerous conditions compared to those living farther from gas wells.

Problems aren't limited to people in proximity to fracking pads, however. Environmentalists and others have raised concerns about the effect on drinking water, stream and groundwater quality, as well as concerns related to heavy truck traffic, noise and loss of tourism.

EPA chief Lisa Jackson has said there is no proof linking fracking to water contamination.

"I'm not aware of any proven case where the fracking process itself has affected water, although there are investigations ongoing," Jackson said during a U.S. House Oversight Committee hearing in May.

The EPA is conducting a study of fracking's effect on drinking water and will give a preliminary assessment next year.

"There's a whole range of potential impacts that are being explored in other states, and I think it's important for us to move beyond the claims that industry has made—such as there's never been a proven instance of groundwater or aquifer contamination by hydrofracturing," said Paul Roberts, a citizen representative on Maryland's fracking commission. "If industry is serious about being a corporate citizen beyond 2011 ... then they have to drop goofiness like that."

Engelder said claims that deep wells contaminate groundwater from below are unsubstantiated - he said it's impossible for fracking fluids to seep upward into water tables through cracks from natural gas drilling.

"Water does not flow uphill," Engelder said. "What that means, then, is that water injected at great depth is not of concern."

However, Engelder recognized that surface water pollution is a serious issue and managing the flowback—a mixture of water and chemicals that gets pumped through the wells—when it returns to the surface is imperative.

"Water does flow downhill," he said. "Management of water at the surface is absolutely critical—managing spills, managing leaks, managing blowouts. ... This water might affect surface streams or it might leak into ground water."

The April 19 Chesapeake Energy blowout in Bradford County, Pa., for example, caused flowback water to spill into Susquehanna River feeder streams.

Calhoun said he worries fracking in Western Maryland could pose a similar threat to Potomac River tributary creeks in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. He thinks Garrett County's waters, such as the Savage River Reservoir, are too fragile to withstand the risk of chemical contamination.

Although natural gas companies are prohibited from dumping fracking flowback directly into waterways, no criteria exist for disposing it. The toxic wastewater is often shipped to water treatment facilities ill-equipped to decontaminate it, according to the EPA. However, the EPA announced Oct. 20 that it will develop national standards the mixture must meet before being sent to wastewater plants.

"Think about the value of our water over gas—to me it's more valuable," Calhoun said. "You can't drink gas."

Capital News Service's Greg Masters contributed to this report.

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