THE BUZZ 3: Fracking Fright

By on November 8, 2016

From Pavillion to the Bridger Teton, a recent study serves as a reminder that people and land may be in jeopardy from hydraulic fracturing.

(Photo: Earth Justice)

(Photo: Earth Justice)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Pavillion, Wyoming—a town of 236 people about 150 miles east of Jackson, has been a center of gas production since the 1950s. Today the area is host to major hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a process in which water and chemicals are injected underground to draw out gas and oil from rock formations. A recent study examining the health of Pavillion residents may serve as a cautionary tale for other places in Wyoming—and across the country—where fracking is becoming more prevalent. The study also raises concerns about Bridger Teton National Forest land leases that could end up in the hands of oil and gas companies.

Ten years ago, Pavillion’s citizens smelled gas in the air, and discerned a strange taste in their water. Then came the health problems. John Fenton, a farmer in Pavillion, said his family has experienced “phantom odors, rashes, hair loss, neurological problems, epileptic seizures,” and more.

In response to complaints made by Fenton and others, scientists Dominic DiGiulio and Robert Jackson completed a study on the impact of fracking on those in Pavillion.

Their findings were condemning. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a fracking well should be drilled to a depth of one to two miles (or more than 5,000 feet) below the surface. Some of the wells in Pavillion were drilled to just 700 feet. Shallow wells can expose groundwater to dozens of chemicals.

Dr. Devra Davis, a local epidemiologist on the National Toxicology Program Board of Scientific Counselors, studies the toxicology of environmental contamination. Sometimes people realize groundwater has been contaminated when they find bloated, dead cows, or wildlife that has drank the water, she said. Depending on the temperature, water can outgas, or release toxins into the air, she noted, which can create pollution and smelly air. “There have been episodes of smog in Wyoming worse than Los Angeles,” Davis noted, from “blowouts that take place due to explosions.”

The health impacts Davis has researched affecting people near fracking sites include “respiratory problems, blood disorders, cognitive issues, and cancer and nervous system disorders.”

The potential for health exposure depends on the “nature of the extraction,” Davis said.

However, when fracking operations adhere to regulations, like drilling below one mile, the process is supposedly safer.

Endangered land

The issue of leasing land is highly contentious in the Bridger-Teton National Forest. In 2004, the Forest Service authorized leasing of 44,720 acres, allowing the BLM to lease these parcels to oil and gas companies. Since then, there has been a near-constant tug of war, wherein leasing is suspended for certain periods, or bidders buy out parcels to eliminate the possibility of oil and gas development. In 2011, the Forest Service withdrew its decision to ban leasing of the currently available land, 39,490 acres on 30 parcels.

At this moment, Casper-based True Oil LLC is fighting for the rights to lease these parcels and to drill 13 wells in Bridger-Teton National Forest. The final decision to allow or disallow oil and gas production on Forest Service land should be released before 2017. According to the most recent environmental impact statement from the Forest Service, they are leaning toward withdrawing consent to lease the parcels, but the final decision is yet to be determined.

Allowing the leasing would endanger what the Wilderness Society calls “the largest intact ecosystem in the 48 states,” with almost 1.2 million acres of designated wilderness.

Fracking opponents say the industry has a dubious history of adhering to precautionary regulations, and the United States’ growing dependence on fracking has discouraged lawmmakers’ thorough examination of its consequences. The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported in May that fracking provides two-thirds of U.S. natural gas production.

In 2005 the Energy Policy Act exempted fracking from the Safe Drinking Water Act, which sets standards for safe drinking water. This “Haliburton Loophole” explains why dangerous levels of chemicals have been found in drinking water in towns near fracking sites across the country, from California and Texas to Pennslyvania.

A recent study from the Yale School of Public Health tested 1,177 water pollutants and 143 air pollutants released in the fracking process, and found that 55 of these chemicals could be deemed “known, probable, or possible human carcinogens.”

In Pavillion, highly toxic chemicals were in the air, some at levels up to 7,000 times the amount standardized by the EPA. In addition, they found a total of 16 chemicals in the urine of those who participated in their study. “Fraccidents” have happened elsewhere too: in 2008 a Rock Springs rancher was hospitalized in 2008 after drinking water from his faucet. Later, benzene was discovered at twelve times the allowable level. Oxy, an oil company, had been running an illegal pit for nearly 10 years.

Still, Wyoming is a leader in fracking regulation. In 2013, the state passed some of the country’s strongest rules about water testing near drilling sites, though the EPA does not require it. The challenge in Wyoming is that so much of the land is public. “We have the blessing of great natural resources and the challenge of managing them well,” Davis said. Protecting human and environmental health will be a fight despite forward-thinking legislation. “It’s one thing to pass a law, but it’s another thing to enforce it,” she added.

Enduring activism

A group of citizens from Laramie recently organized to hold decision makers accountable for this responsible management. On November 1, people gathered in Cheyenne for the third time to protest the BLM leasing more than 32,000 acres of public land to oil and gas companies, some for just $2 an acre. Unitarian Universalist Reverend Jacqueline Ziegler is a member of the group. When they gathered in Cheyenne, Ziegler was told, “It was the first time anybody had been to an auction of BLM land to protest.”

They attend the auctions to “stand in silent witness and protest” of what they worry is dangerous to future generations and a livable planet. Though at one rally they did unfurl a banner inside the auction room, and yelled out “Keep it in the ground” and “Don’t lease our public land.”

Environmentalists have also worked to protect the land and water in the Jackson Hole area. From 2009 to 2012, activists fought to prevent an oil company, Plains Exploration and Production, from fracking near the Hoback River. According to the nonprofit American Rivers, the oil company had leased 58,000 acres near the headwaters of the Hoback to drill up to 136 wells.

The Trust for Public Land, in concert with groups like Citizens for the Wyoming Range, based in Sublette County, raised $8.75 million to buyout the oil company’s leases. Per the Wyoming Range Legacy Act, the Hoback Basin is now protected forever.

Saving the Hoback Basin was a triumph, but it was costly. American Rivers wrote that the lesson to learn is that “The time to stop oil and gas drilling on public lands … is during the forest planning process, before any leases are granted.” Once oil companies hold leases, it is difficult to buy them back. PJH

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