— Sooner or later, the toxic truth is going to end up on our doorsteps.
For most of its existence, the U.S. has relied heavily on fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas to generate energy. Over the past 20 years, focus shifted from coal to natural gas production, partly due to the low price of natural gas and increased efforts to regulate air emissions.
Recent technological advancements have also factored into this shift—obtaining natural gas is now easier than ever thanks to “fracking.” Developed in the late 1940s, hydraulic fracturing was not performed in earnest until the 1990s, when it was combined with horizontal drilling. Fracking is now performed in at least 21 states, including West Virginia, which sits atop the Marcellus Shale.
Fracking is so prevalent that the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) estimates it accounts for two-thirds of current U.S. natural gas production and over half of crude oil production, both of which have increased dramatically since 2000. As of last year, the U.S. had 300,000 fracking wells—a 92 percent increase from 2000 levels.
Fracking operations drill thousands of feet down to sedimentary rock, then sideways for at least a mile or more to obtain these buried treasures. Once horizontal drilling is complete, millions of gallons of chemically treated water are then pumped into the wells at extremely high pressures to crack the rock layers and release the desired resource.
“Fracking fluid” is pulled in high quantities from clean sources such as rivers and streams, then treated with sand and a chemical mixture to help extract resources, prevent well clogs, and limit microbial growth. Although hydraulically fractured wells are generally encased in concrete to prevent leakage into drinking water, concrete can crack under great strain, so this method isn’t foolproof.
Many chemical additives in fracking fluid are considered trade secrets, but this only increases concerns about related health effects. According to chemical disclosure registry FracFocus, ethylene glycol (Antifreeze), hydrochloric acid, and acetaldehyde are typically among those used in fracking operations. It’s not disclosed in this registry, but independent assessments have also encountered benzene (known to cause blood cancers like leukemia) and other endocrine disrupting chemicals at fracking locations. In 2015, the Environmental Protection Agency Office of Research and Development confirmed that fluids produced after fracking can contain benzene as well as heavy metals like lead or mercury.
Once blasted into a well, the chemical composition of fracking fluid changes as it interacts with whatever materials are located in the rock formations. This byproduct, known as “flowback,” generally cannot be recycled back into the environment, and has been referred to as “dead water.” The main alternative is to dump it. But the question is, where should you dump millions of gallons of water that can’t be reused?
According to Ronda Lehman, Chair of Jefferson County-based Blue Ridge Watershed Coalition, wastewater dumping is the biggest threat to public health and the environment, especially in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia. As a karst region, the Eastern Panhandle is exceptionally porous, and therefore, more at risk for water contamination and pollution than other areas.
Lehman notes that West Virginia currently boasts nearly 65,000 active oil and gas wells—each fracking well producing millions of gallons of fracking fluid that must be dumped.
Though drilling is not performed in the Eastern Panhandle at present, companies who perform fracking in other parts of Appalachia have been persistent in their efforts to dump flowback into landfills. Local governments can put regulations in place to prevent dumping; however, companies often hire lobbyists to persuade legislators to pass laws favoring the industry. In October 2014, the West Virginia Legislative Rule Making Committee hit back at such tactics when they unanimously moved to close a loophole in state law that would have allowed Marcellus Shale waste into the LCS Services Landfill in Hedgesville.
This issue has also been the subject of contention in Fayette County (WV) throughout 2016. In March, the County Commission filed an amended ordinance banning storage, disposal, or use of oil and natural gas waste. Just three months later, U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver Jr. struck down the ordinance, stating it conflicts with West Virginia state legislation. Copenhaver contends the state has primary responsibility for protecting the environment while local government and public or private organizations are limited to supporting West Virginia in this role. This shows that unless local governments are delegated more power by the state, they have little control over what can be dumped in their area and how it may affect their residents. Federal regulations offer even less protection as they are mostly limited to federally owned areas.
In addition to concerns about pollution, there are indications that fracking may induce earthquakes. Specific instances have been documented worldwide from Oklahoma to Canada to the UK. In fact, faults are often more desirable for fracking operations because they’re highly permeable areas that can be easily exploited to obtain gas. However, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) claims that wastewater injection, another form of fracking wastewater dumping, is actually the main culprit for induced earthquakes. After a particularly devastating 5.6-magnitude earthquake that struck the central U.S. this past September, the Oklahoma Corporation Commission ordered the shutdown of 37 disposal wells. If wastewater injection isn’t a viable option to get rid of waste, it’s likely that pressure will only increase on local landfills.
If fossil fuels are not renewable, and the process to obtain them causes so much damage, the question remains: Why do we continue to pursue such a shortsighted solution for our energy needs? NASA indicates that nuclear power and other renewables like solar, geothermal, wind, and water are much safer, more long-term options in comparison to fossil fuels. As a region, a state, and a nation, it’s imperative that we support efforts to develop sustainable energy solutions, and remain educated and vigilant of fossil-fuel companies looking to poison the Panhandle and/or our neighbors with toxic byproducts like flowback.
(Want to know more? Check out the movie GASLAND.)
AND DID YOU KNOW:
Fracking, on average, uses more than 28 times the water it did 15 years ago, gulping up to 9.6 million gallons of water per well (water that can’t ever be used again). —American Geophysical Union
— Sarah is a Georgia-born, Virginia-based freelance writer and government worker. Her favorite things in life are travel, books, food, dogs, foreign films, and ‘80s cover bands.