In the letter “Natural gas provides a better life,” which appeared in the Jan. 23 edition of the Observer-Reporter, Steve Duran implies that objections to shale gas extraction are superficial, selfish and baseless. According to Duran, people object because they don’t like noise, their truck is going to get dusty or they don’t like the bright lights or the big trucks on the road.
If Duran would do as he himself urged and look at the facts, he’d see that drilling and slickwater horizontal hydraulic fracturing for shale gas is not “pretty safe” and that every item on his list contributes to the damage.
High noise levels cause an increase in stress hormones, which leads to high blood pressure and increased risk of cardiovascular disease. It also suppresses the immune system. Studies have shown effects on learning in school children. Noise impacts wildlife as well, interfering with animal-to-animal communication, predator and prey detection, and navigation and migration.
Dust associated with fracking may come from dried flowback fluids that in many places are sprayed as de-icing brine on roads. In addition to high levels of sodium and calcium, frack flowback fluids can also contain cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene, formaldehyde, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and dozens of other chemicals which can harm eyes, skin, liver, kidneys, the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal tract, the cardiovascular system, and the central nervous system. Particularly insidious are the endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which at extremely low levels can alter development, reproduction, metabolism, and behavior in humans and wildlife.
Other frack-related dust comes from the enormous amounts of silica sand that is used to hold open cracks in the fracked shale. Inhalation of silica dust can lead to inflammation and scarring of the lungs, which makes the sufferer more susceptible to lung infections by bacteria and fungi. This silicosis is irreversible and has no cure.
Light pollution disrupts the circadian day/night rhythms of humans and other mammals as well as birds, amphibians, reptiles, and insects. In humans, excessive light at night can contribute to sleep disorders, depression, and increased risk for breast cancer. Light pollution alters plant development as well, affecting a variety of events including root growth, shoot growth, and bud break and flowering. Light pollution even contributes to air pollution by preventing the buildup of chemicals that help to neutralize nitrogen oxides that contribute to smog.
Big diesel trucks can make as many as 1,000 trips per well during the drilling and fracking process. The exhaust from these trucks is a major health hazard. Particulate matter irritates eyes, nose, throat, and lungs, and contributes to respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. Nitrogen oxides promote ground-level ozone, linked to headache, asthma and other lung diseases. Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons contribute to lung cancer.
Duran didn’t even mention the more-familiar hazards; contamination of millions of gallons of freshwater each time a well is fracked; spills and leaks which pollute water, soil, and air; evaporation of toxic chemicals from flowback holding ponds; deliberate dumping of frack flowback water into streams and rivers; escape of methane from wells, which contributes to global warming; destruction of farmland and forests and the resulting increase in invasive species, including agricultural pests. None of this is only for a short period of time.
Since the 1970s, U.S. farm policy has been heavily influenced by the chemical and fossil fuel industries. The result has favored get-big-or-get-out industrialized agriculture, leading to the demise of millions of family farms. If Duran takes a closer look, he’ll see that the fossil fuel industry, which he has embraced as the answer to a life of hard work with little to show for it, has not only played a major role in making family farming much less profitable than it used to be, but also is damaging the soil, water and air upon which his livelihood depends.
DeBerry is an associate professor in the biology department at Washington & Jefferson College.