Editor’s Note: Karen Andrews has transcribed parts of a Pittsfield Community Television interview of Dr. Mehernosh Kahn on Pittsfield Community Television (see below). He was interviewed by Rachel Branch and Jane Winn of the Berkshire Environmental Action Team. He talked about his assessment of the health and environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing (fracking), the process by which natural gas is extracted from deep within the earth. Because of his experiences as a physician in Pennsylvania, he has become a staunch opponent of the proposed Kinder-Morgan natural gas pipeline network that would transect the Berkshires and Massachusetts in order to bring natural gas from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania to the East Coast for export.
If for no other reason than to stop and see exactly where we are headed, I think we need to put a halt to all fracking activities going on in this country for at least a year. We need to take a little break. We are not well. We cannot think straight anymore. We are in a panic. We are on a path of not just self-destruction, but extinction. Fracking is just a bad, bad idea. Transporting its offspring is only enabling this insanity.
The silly thing is that if we did even half of what countries like Germany are doing to conserve and increase the efficiency of our energy infrastructure we wouldn’t even have to consider these nightmarish options. Our European counterpart created almost 2 million new jobs in alternative energy the last seven years while we were busy poisoning ourselves.
Destroying a pristine and healthy environment like the Berkshires to build unnecessary, oversized, pressurized pipelines to transport natural gas laced with lethal (and possibly radioactive) chemicals for home heating or to power our ridiculous excesses in electrical usage is just plain mental illness. We need a time-out.
If we need testimony about the health risks of fracking, listen to what Dr. Mehernosh Kahn, a family practice physician with Lenox Commons, part of Berkshire Health Systems, has to say. He fled his practice in Pennsylvania with his family because the state of Pennsylvania is allowing unimpeded drilling of the Marcellus Shale, resulting in thousands of fracking wells that are poisoning water supplies and endangering people’s health.
Dr. Mehernosh Khan is a board certified family physician and holds a doctorate in Naturopathic Medicine. He had been in practice in Pittsburgh, Pa., for the last 30 years but he recently moved, along with his wife, Karen, who is an artist and an evironmentalist, to Berkshire County. They decided to move after a lengthy and unsuccessful battle in Pennsylvania to enact a moratorium on gas fracking until all the health effects of this process could be evaluated. He and his wife have purchased a residence in Richmond where they live with their two cats.
Mehernosh Kahn: My front yard is part of the campaign to say no to fracked gas — I have a lawn sign saying that.
My wife and I are actually, I would say, environmental refugees from Pennsylvania. It’s almost two years since we moved from Pennsylvania. One of the reasons we moved is that there was real push by the state government in Pennsylvania to embrace fracking. As some of you know there is the Marcellus Shale, which is really in almost all of Pennsylvania and by the year 2020 they plan to have almost 100,000 natural gas wells drilled in that state.
So, as a physician and a person living in that environment it became very difficult to be dealing with these issues. Now we’re living in the Berkshires and it seems as if the fracked gas is following us with this pipeline issue. We refuse to move anymore. So this is it; we’re making a stand.
Rachel Branch: What was Act 13, a Pennsylvania law that addressed the oil and gas industry?
MK: There were two basic parts. Part one said that the municipalities could not say “boo” to these natural gas companies that came there. Meaning they could ignore all the zoning regulations; they could drill wherever and whenever they wanted; and basically communities couldn’t have a say in whatever normal regulations would have been implemented in a situation like this.
The second part was a bitter pill to swallow. That was a resolution that said that, as a physician, if you came to me and told me “I was exposed to these chemicals[used in the hydraulic fracturing process] and I need to know what’s going on” I have to sign a paper with the gas company saying that they would divulge to me the chemicals in the fluid but if I told anyone else, I could get sued by it. It was basically a gag order. I couldn’t tell you as a patient what were the chemicals in there and I couldn’t tell another physician, I couldn’t tell another specialist. So basically every time a physician or a specialist wanted to know, they would have to sign a piece of paper saying that they were not going to divulge any information that the gas company would provide. So that was one of the reasons I kind of finally had it. So I was one of the physicians who was part of the class action lawsuit — I was one of the physicians who signed on against Act 13. And we just heard a few months ago that Act 13 was deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania.
So that was sort of a small victory. It doesn’t make that much of a difference, but it was a victory. And it is one of reasons we felt and that I felt as a physician, I could not be practicing in this environment.
RB: I’m just amazed that something like this could possibly be passed, that would keep a physician from doing his or her work in caring for people.
MK: It is amazing. And it’s the only industry that’s protected by this kind of law. You know, if you worked in a steel mill and you were exposed to something, OSHA regulations would say basically yes, you were exposed to chemicals X ,Y and Z. But here, you could not get that information. Then I started seeing some of the impact of fracking that was going on there and I’d be happy to share that with you.
RB: Did you have patients who were affected?
MK: Yes. The first patients, interestingly enough, didn’t have physical ailments. They actually had emotional ailments. And the reason that was happening was that there was a small town named Mt. Pleasant — I had a few patients from that town, and they were presenting with a lot of anxiety, depression and emotional issues.
Mt. Pleasant was a town that had been fairly cohesive for a very long time but was being torn asunder by gas companies who were saying, “Look, we’ll give you this lease….we’ll pay for all this,” and then there were people who were opposing it, so these people who were living together for generations were actually fighting each other because of this whole situation. But I think the real impact was more in the northwest part of the state where the fracking had already been going on for a long period of time and a lot of the physicians in that area were really concerned with some of the things they were seeing.
So one of the things we put together was a resolution for the Pennsylvania Academy of Family Practice in Harrisburg to present to them that as physicians we need to, first, put a moratorium on the fracking until we know more about the health effects. Secondly, we needed to educate the people — and especially physicians — about the health effects of fracking. It turned out there was not much interest in that field and I was very disappointed by the outcome, although several physicians from the areas where there was fracking going on spoke up and said, “Look, we’re seeing these things already; why aren’t we doing something about it?”
RB: And physicians should not be in the position of having to pick and choose what health effects are important and where they’re coming from.
MK: Especially since we do not know what the health effects of these chemicals are, and now we know more about them. I’d be happy to show you some of the chemicals that go in the water. But I think there’s a bigger impact to all of this: Each fracking well, and I don’t think most people know this, takes about 2 million gallons of water. Each time you frack a well, it uses two million gallons. During the average life span of a well they would frack 10 times, so that’s 20 million gallons per well that’s been used up.
It was potable water. It’s not coming from the sea or places like that, and that water, when it comes back up, about 30 to 40 percent is now unusable water. It has a lot of chemicals in it. The sheer impact of fracking in places like Oklahoma is that there’s a water shortage already. And there’s a concern that how can we continue doing this when we don’t have water to do it anymore? It’s permanently taking the water out of the water tables and the aquifers. And there’s no good technology to clean that water up. Water treatment plants don’t have the capacity to handle that water.
One of things we’re seeing coming out of the soil and ground are things called NORMs — normally occurring radioactive material. These are chemicals like uranium which are coming out of the soil. They have a lot of gamma radiation coming out which is spiking in the areas where the wells are being made. We’re seeing it in Black Creek which is a tributary of the Allegheny River. We’re seeing high levels of radiation, and there’s no water treatment plant in existence that can to take radioactive material out of the water. We don’t know what the long-term effects are going to be on animal reproductive cycles, for instance, when this water is being used in the day-to-day environment.
And there’s no way to scrub these chemicals out of the gas itself that’s being transported all over the country, no matter what they say.
RB: So you’re talking about water being used in fracking, that’s also water that we drink. So that water’s not reusable.
MK: I have a story from one of my patients who was an avid fisherman. He was telling me that one day he went fishing in some forest somewhere and he saw this fracking water truck pull up and dump all the water in the stream. It’s illegal. And he saw all these dead fish floating by as he was sitting there. So there’s a lot of that.
Everybody needs to know about this. This has to be taken to the legislators so they stop this. But everyday people like me have to understand what this means, and there are a lot of scientific components to it that are very difficult to understand.
RB: Yes, and all of those loopholes in the Clean Air and Clean Water Act have to be closed. Before we go on I want to commend you for your article that appeared in the OpEd section of the Berkshire Eagle on July 12, “How Will Our Pipeline Movie Play Out?”
To listen to the entire interview with Mehernosh Kahn, Rachel Branch and Jane Winn, click here.