Sunday, September 30, 2012

Should your kitchen faucet catch on fire?

In the picture “Sherry Vargson, who leased the mineral rights under her Pennsylvania farm to an energy company, demonstrates that methane has leached into her well by lighting the water in her kitchen sink on fire.” Thus the American Medical News for September 3, 2012.
Energy companies in Pennsylvania and New York states, and elsewhere in the US use a process called “fracking" (induced hydraulic fracturing) to drill for natural gas.
Fracking is a delicate operation. One drills down and down to about 9000 feet to where the gas is in the shale. Then the operators pump a mixture of saline water and other chemicals down under high pressure. These chemicals the drillers treat as proprietary and therefore hide what they are. The water and chemicals break up (“fracture”) the shale, the gas comes up the pipe. But so does the water pumped down earlier, which the gas company then must dispose of safely.
That's problem number 1. How to dispose of large quantities of unhealthy water without injuring natural resources or human beings.
Problem number 2 is a really big one: is fracking safe? The industry says that, yes, of course it is a perfectly safe method for making more natural gas available. But many critics tell stories of private wells being polluted by chemicals. The drillers allege that contamination of drinking water occurs only where the drilling goes wrong in some way. For the person sickened by polluted water that is cold comfort.
Physicians report cases from different parts of the country of patients with serious skin rashes and bleeding sores, kidney failure, low platelet levels, and other serious illnesses. The patients often have their own wells located near natural gas drilling sites and their symptoms disappear—in some cases—when they stop drinking from their wells. And then there is Sherry Vargson whose drinking water will catch fire if you hold a match to it.
It does not seem unreasonable to suspect that the drillers are not speaking the truth when they claim that fracking is clean and safe. There are enough cases that suggest that fracking pollutes drinking water.
Problem number 3.  Energy companies are planning to use fracking to drill for natural gas near the Delaware River, which supplies half of all the drinking water for New York City and all of it for Philadelphia. If fracking pollutes private wells, is it safe for the clean water supplies of New York City and Philadelphia?
            Problem number 4. Drillers are secretive about the chemicals they use. That is a serious problem for the physician trying to treat patients sicked by fracking because the drillers refuse to tell them what chemicals are involved in the patients' problem.
Some states have passed laws making it mandatory for drillers to tell what chemicals are involved to the physician treating a fracking victim. But before the physicians receive this information, they need to sign a confidentiality agreement. If they need to consult with another specialist about a case, they cannot share the information they received from the drillers. (American Medical News for September 3, 2012.)
Problem number 5. Fracking is a new technique involving multiple substances whose long term health effects are unknown.
Should we, perhaps, go slow and check it all out first? Should we, perhaps, use the resources involved in fracking and in curing its victims to find ways of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels?
Should we perhaps stop and think about what we are doing?
As long as the free-market enthusiasts are on the loose, there is no chance of that. Pity our children and grandchildren.