Many rural communities in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia have been struggling for years under the “resource curse” of valuable natural resources like oil, gas and water long exploited by heavily-polluting industries. Economies based on coal mining and the steel industry were in decline, and people living in regions of the boom/bust cycle of resource extraction were needing jobs. That may be why the fracking industry was so quickly embraced from the beginning, even though the industry needed exemptions from important environmental regulations, such as the “Halliburton Loophole,” that no other industry in the US can have. This has led to massive pollution events and contamination of air and water in the regions in which the fracking industry has operated.
The Tri-state area sits atop the Utica and Marcellus Shale, some of the richest natural gas resources in the country. So, when the promise of “clean energy” and lots of new money in the form of fracking showed up, people leaned in. Fracking, the common name for hydraulic fracturing, is the use of a liquid, under pressure, to create cracks, or fractures, in rocks with oil and natural gas.
According to a 2010 American Petroleum Institute public relations report, “Natural gas production in the Marcellus Shale region — if developed — could create 280,000 new American jobs and add $6 billion in new tax revenues to local, state, and federal governments over the next decade.” The prospect was too attractive for many to turn down, even though most job estimates have turned out to be wild exaggerations. In the long run, fracking will cost more to the economies in which it operates in public health and environmental costs than the jobs and short-term revenue the industry provides.
“When they come into a community, they wave around jobs, but they ultimately ship much of the product overseas, leaving the pollution with us,” said Ohio resident Leatra Harper, who was worried from the start.
Harper knew that fracking requires vast amounts of water to extract shale gas and oil while producing almost the same amount of contaminated wastewater – wastewater that has to go somewhere. A Duke University study echoed her concerns: between 2005 and 2014, energy companies in the U.S. pumped nearly 250 billion gallons of water into fracking wells, generating about 210 billion gallons of wastewater.
“Water use and wastewater production are two of the chief environmental concerns voiced about hydraulic fracturing,” Avner Vengosh, professor of geochemistry and water quality at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, said in the study. Vengosh’s studies and that of others have revealed that frack waste contains radioactive elements which are improperly handled and disposed of because they are falsely labeled as non-hazardous due to the Halliburton Loophole and lax regulatory oversight by state and federal regulators.
“Along with this fracking-enabled rush have come troubling reports of fracking accidents: poisoned drinking water, polluted air, mysterious animal deaths, industrial disasters and explosions,” according to Earthjustice.org.
The mounting body of knowledge about the harms of fracking have been assembled by Physicians for Social Responsibility in the Compendium of Scientific, Medical and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking. Because of the lack of regulation from the outset, when the fracking industry came to Southeast Ohio where she lived, Harper founded the FreshWater Accountability Project (FWAP) in 2012. The grassroots non-profit is dedicated to protecting freshwater resources and raising awareness of threats from drilling operations, frack waste transportation, oil and gas pipelines, and landfills, to name a few.
When Warren, OH, partnered with Patriot Water Treatment to send frack waste through the town’s sewage treatment plant, Harper knew the numerous discharge violations needed to be addressed. The treated frack wastewater dumped into the Mahoning River would ultimately make its way to the drinking water supply of Beaver Falls, a downstream community in Pennsylvania. Harper knew Patriot’s discharge of pollutants like zinc, ammonia, and Total Dissolved Solids, which includes salts known to come from frack waste, were clearly violations of its discharge permit, violating the Clean Water Act. The regulators did not act on the numerous violations — so FWAP sued. In June of 2017, they filed in federal court and won. Warren stopped processing Patriot’s waste within weeks of the suit, protecting the water. Unfortunately, many more highly unregulated frack waste facilities proliferate in Ohio without adequate legislation, leading to regulatory loopholes and inadequate monitoring.
“Polluters are not being held accountable for their harms. It appears that profits have diluted the political will to address the many harms of fracking. It has become obvious the short-term gain will not be worth the long-term pain in the regions where the industry operates,” Harper said, adding that she’s not good at tip-toeing around politics and industry propaganda, especially since she has met so many people who have been harmed.
“This is an environmental justice issue,” Harper said. “The fracking industry exploits people who are desperate for jobs and compromises our political systems in regions where revenue is needed for schools and infrastructure.”
Alternatives to fracking with growth industries such as renewable energy, regenerative agriculture, and infrastructure improvements are available. Harper has been closely involved in developing a better vision for the valley initiative and is supportive of other organizations who are advocating for a more diversified, sustainable and healthy economic future for the regions long suffering from major polluters.
The Ohio River Valley has been especially exploited by the fracking industry, and it continues with industry efforts to save money by barging frack waste on rivers needed for drinking water into other states for disposal. Dr. Yuri Gorby, who works closely with FWAP, told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that “waste is currently only regulated as a hazardous material when it’s on the barge. When it comes into Ohio and West Virginia to be processed or sent to disposal wells, it is not classified as a hazardous waste. People in our region will pay the price in the form of unnecessary exposures to radioactive materials,” he said.
Fortunately, the US Coast Guard recently rescinded its approval to allow the barging of frack waste on rivers needed for drinking water, a big win for FWAP and other groups who have worked for years to oppose yet another attempt to dispose of frack waste more cheaply and easily.
Gorby and FWAP are deploying low-cost air monitors through a Thriving Earth Exchange program sponsored by the American Geophysical Union. The monitors are showing cause for alarm about polluting events affecting human health. For this reason, FWAP is advocating that additional air pollution permits should not be granted for a major polluter such as the proposed ethane cracker plant to be located in the Ohio River Valley.
“Ohio has been exploited by the fracking industry because of inadequate regulations and the lack of political will by some of our elected representatives that actually advocate for major polluters and greenhouse gas emitters like the cracker plant when they should be taking a closer look at the harms that are already done. Ohioans will have to pay a dear price for the boom/bust industry of fracking when it is time to cap the wells and abandon the waste disposal sites, and taxpayers will be on the hook again,” Harper said.
And it’s not just Ohio.
“Fracking pollutes, and plunders in the US wherever it operates,” said FWAP’s founder. Any short-term gain the industry brings with jobs and some revenue will not be worth the mess it will leave to clean up, if clean up will even be possible.”
Harper lives by her motto “Persistent, Consistent Resistance.”
“This is not an easy job,” she said, “but I work with the best people on a very important cause. It’s not just that fracking is harming the environment and public health, it is contributing many more downstream polluters like frack waste processors, contaminating our air and water, and contributing to climate change. Fracking needs to end, and we will not quit until it does, and the polluters are held accountable for their harms.”
Written by Kerri Mclean
VIDEO: Fractured: The Stress of Being Surrounded https://youtu.be/QcWZTiwcRx8
Air Pollution, Flooding, Water Contamination
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