Marcellus Shale: Jeers to Your Health

By Nick Powell
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 6 | Posted Oct. 5, 2010

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Would you rather have clean energy or clean drinking water?

Your answer may depend on what side of the Marcellus Shale drilling debate you’re on. It’s either a job creator, a huge step toward ending our reliance on dirty energy and a cash cow of revenue, or it is a hazard that could have life-changing consequences for millions of people.

There are only a couple bits of information we can all really agree on: The Marcellus Shale is huge (an underground layer of sedimentary rock covering nearly the entire state of Pennsylvania and extending all the way down to Tennessee); and it contains copious amounts of natural gas (one scientist estimated that the shale reserves contain up to 500 trillion cubic feet of gas).

Here’s something else you should agree on: That drilling for said gas could lead to several different environmental disasters. (And probably will if we let this happen).

Evidence is building that drilling could be as dangerous as it is lucrative, primarily due to the drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing. “Hydrofracking” as it is known in drilling circles (yes, there are drilling circles), involves the pumping of “fracking fluid” into a well at pressures that force the shale to fracture. The natural gas is then extracted by injecting water, sand and other chemicals into the fractures under high pressure to release it.

The nature of these “chemicals” is what has many people up in arms. In a study of the effects of fracking fluid on drinking water, the EPA noted that most fracking fluids contain diesel fuel, which consists of a cocktail of toxic chemicals that can damage the liver, kidneys and central nervous system. Thirsty, anyone?

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation analyzed wastewater in several wells in the state and found insanely high levels of radium-226, thousands of times the limit that is safe to drink. Radium-226 is a highly radioactive chemical that can lead to lung and bone cancer, among other diseases. When you take into consideration that the Delaware River and Schuylkill River watersheds are both located near the Shale, these findings are even more alarming. The New York City DEP concluded that drilling the Shale “presents potential risks to public health and would be expected to compromise the City’s ability to protect the watershed and continued, cost-effective provision of a high purity water supply.” Wait, so why are we even arguing about this?

The township of Dimock, Pa., is a drilling hotspot in Northeast Pennsylvania, and now serves as a microcosm of the potential consequences of natural-gas drilling. Dimock, an impoverished town of 1,300 people in Susquehanna County, opened its doors to the Houston-based Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation in 2008. Cabot has since drilled 73 wells, according to its most recent annual report, and in 2009 came under fire from the state Department of Environmental Protection for allegedly contaminating 16 private wells in Dimock with methane. The DEP recently ordered Cabot to pay for an $11.5 million dollar water pipeline to service the homes whose water supply were contaminated.

In the fall of 2009, the same year that the contaminated water was found, as much as 8,000 gallons of fracking fluid was spilled, some of which trickled into a nearby creek in Dimock as a result of “failed pipe connections” from Cabot drilling sites. The fluids contained highly toxic chemicals and possible carcinogens (substances that cause cancer). The DEP fined Cabot a mere $56,650 for the three separate spills, pocket change for a company that reported a net income of $148.3 million in 2009.

Aside from the environmental and health ramifications of natural-gas drilling, the one topic that the public seems to be ignoring is how all of this natural gas would be delivered to Pennsylvania residents. In his testimony to City Council, Philadelphia Gas Works COO Craig White iterated that PGW has “not contracted with any supplier to purchase Marcellus Shale Gas in the past or in the future.” PGW currently purchases all its gas from the Gulf region, and White highlighted the lack of a pipeline from the Shale drilling sites as a major factor down the road.

Unfortunately, it is highly likely that the Marcellus Shale will be drilled for gas. Like Big Tobacco many years ago, the drilling companies have powerful lobbyists and the money to stimulate local economies that can encourage legislators to devalue the environmental and human health of their constituents. Even more troubling is the fact that these companies can hide under the cloak of “clean energy alternatives,” a disturbing subtext to an already contentious issue.

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Comments 1 - 6 of 6
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1. Anonymous said... on Oct 6, 2010 at 12:54PM

“This article (along with almost every other report on the subject) leaves out critical technical information with regard to the depth of the shale deposits and tends to go towards uneducated sensationalism.

The key issues here are whether or not the shale is located above or below the water table, and whether or not the drilling locations will go through a region that has a high probability of transferring liquids back to the water table.

If you do some research, you will find that all of the shale deposits that created contamination problems were located either above the water table or in the groundwater itself. These regions have an extremely high risk of contamination and should be avoided, as this specific chemical is very dense and will move downward. Drill below and all is well- the chemicals will not spread and will do no harm, and can be left or extracted.

If the shale deposit in your town is above the water table, fight like hell. Otherwise, it isn't bad.

- civil engineer”

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2. Nick said... on Oct 6, 2010 at 05:17PM

“So you're saying that it's a good thing to drill, just as long as we stay away from groundwater or water tables? You've pretty much confirmed the fear that the anti-drilling folks have. And if you know so much as a civil engineer, why doesn't a company like Cabot know the same, and why are they operating 73 wells in places like Dimock which, according to you is located above groundwater/water tables?

You may be right. Maybe it's only bad in towns like Dimock, the Shale is huge, after all. But if these companies can operate with no oversight and pick any spot to drill, who's to say that they're going to pick the area that's nowhere near groundwater?

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3. Anonymous said... on Oct 6, 2010 at 08:42PM

“I never expressed a personal opinion on whether or not areas should be drilled, or whether or not drilling is a good thing. Nor will I do so- it is bad practice to mix personal beliefs with technical commentary. In actuality, I could be on either side of the fence- or even apathetic.

What I did express is an educated technical opinion that if drilling occurs above the water table, that there is a exponentially higher risk of contamination. I also highlighted that most anti-drilling documentaries and analyses choose to highlight these cases only. When drilling occurs below the water table, the risk is almost nil if people follow correct procedures. That is all.

Without speculating too much it can be assumed that if companies were restricted on where they could drill, they would extract less- and realize less in terms of profit. If there are no laws against where to drill, do you think a company would bend over backwards to ensure the protection to the surrounding areas?


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4. Anonymous said... on Oct 6, 2010 at 09:06PM


From a purely analytical standpoint, what would really be interesting for most to see is a breakdown of problems reported versus extraction and related water table depth.

Potentially more interesting is whether or not legislation was in place that restricted drilling locations and depth in these areas. This would also add a lot of factual evidence to your case, and highlight another crucial issue that needs to be addressed. If you want to go big, see what (if any) lobbying groups have greased the wheels in areas where there is no legislation.

Do that and you may just have yourself an argument.

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5. Anonymous said... on Oct 9, 2010 at 06:13AM

“If you were to go to the local library in Montrose Pa, there are books dating back to around the 1800's stating that the water was bad then. There are alot of people that live in or around Dimock pa that can tell you they could light there water before the drilling even came. Iam a dimock resident living right in the center of all this.I have had my water tested and my water is fine. I will drink a glass of water right in front of anyone. Iam not picking sides with the gas company,I like to stay right in the middle.”

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6. Anonymous said... on Oct 9, 2010 at 04:12PM

“There are people in this world who choose to agree to disagree! Learn the facts. The facts don't lie! How do we as a country grow from experience? It isn't the blind leading the blind. Have faith in people trying to make a positive contribution to our society! Shame on all those debunkers for their "5 minutes of fame." Focus on promoting our future for generations to come. Without domestic energy we will rely on foreign sources who drill just like Americans! Lets be intelligent people! You don't have to be a rocket scientist. Just believe the facts and the truth shall set you free.”


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