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Fracking causes extensive environmental, health, safety harms, new study warns

Studies consistently show that fracking and associated infrastructure leak more methane than previously estimated, and that rising methane levels are now driving adverse climate impacts.

In December, acclaimed biologist and anti-fracking activist Sandra Steingraber visited the Berkshires and spoke about the health and climate impacts of fracked gas and pipelines. Now, Steingraber and other health professionals have issued a stark warning that unconventional oil and gas drilling is causing serious health and safety hazards.

On Tuesday (March 13), the Concerned Health Professionals of New York and the Physicians for Social Responsibility released a comprehensive assessment of the risks associated with natural gas infrastructure and hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”

This hydrofracturing operation in Pennsylvania is adjacent to the Monongahela River and above an aquifer that are both endangered.

According to the “Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking, Fifth Edition,” fracking “poses significant threats to air, water, health, public safety, climate stability, seismic stability, community cohesion, and long-term economic vitality.” The report compiles over 1,300 scientific studies as well as investigative research from journalists and government agencies, providing brief summaries of the findings. Among the harms detailed are air and water pollution, public health effects and safety hazards, noise and light pollution, earthquakes, radioactive releases, exacerbation of climate change, threats to agriculture and soil quality, risks from fracking infrastructure, etc.

“What impressed us, as we reviewed and compiled the data, is just how extensive the impacts from drilling and fracking processes are,” said Steingraber, co-founder of Concerned Health Professionals of New York. “Spikes in toxic air pollution accompany fracking wherever it goes. Drinking water is destroyed. Earthquakes are triggered. Abandoned wells leak. Pipelines explode. Climate-killing methane escapes from every component part. And nearby residents are suffering health problems consistent with their exposures – including newborn infants.”

The tendrils of hydrofracturing natural gas wells spread out on the Upper Green River Valley of Wyoming.

According to the report, public health concerns include low infant birth weight and preterm birth, respiratory impacts such as asthma, increased cancer risk, and occupational health and safety problems.

“All of the health impacts of methane gas are worrisome. Many of these health risks are borne heavily by people living near extraction wells, with scientific research showing an increased risk of respiratory disease, childhood cancer, and adverse pregnancy outcomes,” said Regina LaRocque, M.D., M.P.H., of Greater Boston Physicians for Social Responsibility.

Fracking waste water is often stored in open waste pits such as these, near Summit, Pennsylvania. Leaks from pits can contaminate drinking water supplies.


Another concern is contamination of drinking water and groundwater from fracking and disposal of wastewater. “Repudiating industry claims of risk-free fracking, studies from across the United States present irrefutable evidence that groundwater contamination occurs as a result of fracking activities,” the Compendium states. Wastewater disposal presents a particular problem without adequate solutions, as the wastewater is laced with toxins. Tennessee Gas Pipeline Company faced a disposal problem after hydrostatic testing of its Connecticut Expansion projectpipeline last fall resulted in over 500,000 gallons of contaminated water.

That pipeline, part of which runs through Otis State Forest, ignited intense local opposition including over 100 arrests of protestors. Many activists cited climate concerns as justification for their direct action against the pipeline. “To go further down the road of fossil fuel use is a gross violation of public safety,” Dennis Carr, one of those arrested for trespassing, stated during a September hearing in Southern Berkshire District Court.

The Compendium points to climate change as yet another risk associated with fracking. Methane, the main component of fracked gas, is a much more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. When methane escapes into the atmosphere through leaks and venting, it exacerbates the destabilization of our climate system. Studies consistently show that fracking and associated infrastructure leak more methane than previously estimated, and that rising methane levels are now driving adverse climate impacts.


A map depicting the natural gas pipelines traversing Massachusetts.

“Methane poses risks to people in Massachusetts, where we have an extensive system of pipelines that leak gas and associated pollutants. Methane is also an especially potent greenhouse gas, and an important contributor to climate change,” said LaRocque. “Here in Boston, we are already experiencing the effects of climate change, with extreme weather events and rising sea levels. The Lancet Commission on Climate and Health has called climate change the greatest public health threat of our time.”

“As physicians, we need to make people aware that extracting and burning fossil fuels has immediate health risks,” she added. “We need to encourage policymakers to help us make a rapid transition to non-polluting, renewable sources of energy.”


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