News / USA

Rush to Extract Natural Gas Stirs Health Concerns

Pennsylvania's Marcellus Shale Reservoir holds largest US supply

June Chappel’s home in Washington, Pennsylvania, is surrounded by gas drilling: a waste containment pond behind her and gas tanks to the side.
June Chappel’s home in Washington, Pennsylvania, is surrounded by gas drilling: a waste containment pond behind her and gas tanks to the side.

Multimedia

Audio
Rosanne Skirble

The rush is on to tap new sources of domestic energy in the United States and the competition is especially fierce in Pennsylvania. The eastern state sits atop the Marcellus Shale, a 350-million-year-old rock formation, more than a kilometer underground, that holds the largest reservoir of natural gas in the United States.

Since 2005, Pennsylvania has issued 4,000 permits to extract the gas, with another 2,500 expected each year for the foreseeable future.  The growth is evident on back country roads where wells dot the farms, forests and fields across the state.

Fracking

But controversy surrounds how operators drill the gas. The process is called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking." Brian Grove, senior director of corporate development for Chesapeake Energy, the nation’s second largest gas company, says it has been used safely for decades.

"The United States has drilled over one million wells in the last 50 or 60 years.”  What’s new is the combination of horizontal and vertical drilling, allowing multiple fractures across large horizontal stretches from a single well-site.  

Chesapeake Energy is drilling this day on a hillside in northern Pennsylvania. It's converted this rural landscape into an industrial complex with a maze of interlocking pipes and an arsenal of pump trucks, water tanks and tractor-trailer containers of sand.

Grove has his eyes fixed on the towering rig. He says between 15 and 20 million liters of fracking fluid are pumped down the well hole at great pressure to crack shale that lies a kilometer underneath.

“Once that fracture happens, then we inject sand into the fluid. That sand and water will then follow the fracture network with the sand being lodged in place to keep those fractures open to allow gas to flow.”

Fracking Graphic

The fluid is pumped into the ground through steel pipes encased in multiple layers of cement. The cement collar ensures that, as the pipe passes through the relatively shallow groundwater zones, there is no accidental contamination of the drinking water.                                                      

Ninety-nine percent of the fracking fluid is water. The rest is sand and chemicals. Grove says the chemicals help reduce cracking and corrosion in the pipes and do not harm the environment.

“We have a laser-like focus on health and the environment in every job we do.You can never eliminate human error or mechanical failure from any system, whether drilling or any other business, but we try to do that from the design of our sites, to the design of our mechanical systems in the field. So even when you have a failure, it's not going to result in an actual environmental harm."

Health concerns

But a new report by the Environmental Protection Agency disputes those claims. Its preliminary results link hydraulic fracturing chemicals with private well contamination in Pavillion, Wyoming, a small ranching town. Residents there have long complained that their water made them sick.

Steve Hvodzovich, a grassroots organizer for Clean Water Action Pennsylvania, hears the same complaints from people who live near gas wells in his state, where the Department of Environmental Protection, or DEP, maintains what Hvodzovich regards as lax oversight.

“DEP (Department of Environmental Protection) is not required to be out on the site making sure that each stage of drilling is done properly and that people's health safety and the environment are being property protected," he says.

Twenty to 40 percent of the fracking fluids return to the surface as waste. Some Pennsylvania operators have begun to haul it to injection wells out of state, or recycle it for the next job. But Hvodzovich says storing it in waste ponds, or impoundments, is far more common.  

“Impoundments have the potential to evaporate, creating the release of volatile organic chemicals, which threaten people’s health, something animals get into. These things are filled to the very brim of a massive pit. So if you have heavy rains like we’ve had recently, those things wind up overflowing and the ground water and the soil is not being protected well.”

Hitting close to home

June Chappel knows this from experience. She stood by as a gas company began construction on seven wells and a waste pit the size of a football field on land next to her property in Washington County near Pittsburgh.

“I sort of got caught in a bad spot here," Chappel says. "It smelled like gasoline and kerosene. It made me very, very sick. It was three years of hell for us. That’s the only way I can explain it.”

Lee Fuller with the Independent Petroleum Association of America agrees the industry must manage all risks to public health and safety. But he doesn’t want to stall job growth or sacrifice energy security. He says Pennsylvania is a model for doing it right.   

“Where it has identified an issue, it’s revised the regulations," Fuller says. "We need to know more about the chemical? You put in disclosure requirements. You need to worry about how much water is being used? Change the water development requirements. That’s what Pennsylvania has done and it’s been very effective in not only evolving its regulatory requirements in making them more restrictive in general, but it also has kept the economic engine of developing the Marcellus.”

But there is no national standard to regulate the industry. Nor have baseline studies been done to determine how this growing industry is affecting water and air quality and what to do about it. Until those concerns are resolved, the controversy is certain to continue.

You May Like

British Fighters On Frontline of ISIS Information War

It’s estimated that several hundred British citizens are fighting for Islamic State alongside other foreign Jihadists More

Audio Hit Song Delivers Ebola Message in Liberia

'Ebola in Town' has danceable beat, while also delivering serious message about avoiding infection More

Video New Technology Gives Surgeons Unprecedented Views of Patients’ Bodies

Technology offers real-time, interactive, medical visualization and is multi-dimensional More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Native Bees May Help Save Cropsi
X
Deborah Block
August 22, 2014 12:23 AM
U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video Native Bees May Help Save Crops

U.S. President Barack Obama has called for a federal strategy to promote the health of bees that have been declining. The honeybee has been waning due to parasites, disease and pesticides. Wild bees may be used to take over their role as crop pollinators. Scientists first need to learn a lot more about wild bees, says biologist Sam Droege, who is pioneering the first national inventory on native bees. VOA’s Deborah Block went to his research laboratory in Beltsville, Maryland, to bring you more.
Video

Video US Defense Officials Plan for Long-Term Strategy to Contain Islamic State

U.S. defense officials say American air strikes in Iraq have helped deter Islamic State militants for the time being, but that a broad international effort is needed to defeat the extremists permanently. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned Thursday that the group formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL, is better organized, and financially and militarily stronger than any other known terrorist group. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video Drug-Resistant Malaria Spreads in Southeast Asia

On Thailand’s border with Myanmar, also known as Burma, a malaria research and treatment clinic is stepping up efforts to eliminate a drug-resistant form of the parasite - before it spreads abroad. Steve Sandford reports from Mae Sot, Thailand.
Video

Video Gaza Conflict, Hamas Popularity Challenge Abbas

The Palestinian unity government of Mahmoud Abbas has failed to convince Hamas to agree to Egyptian-negotiated terms with Israel on a Gaza cease-fire. VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports on what the Gaza conflict means for President Abbas, with whom U.S. officials have worked for years on a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Video

Video Nigeria's 'Nollywood' Movie Industry Rolls in High Gear

Twenty years after its birth in a video shop in Lagos, Nigeria's "Nollywood" is one of the most prolific film industries on earth. Despite low budgets and whirlwind production schedules, Nigerian films are wildly popular in Africa and industry professionals say they hope, in the future, their films will be as great in quality as they are in quantity. Heather Murdock has more for VOA from Lagos.
Video

Video UN Launches 'Biggest Aid Operation in 30 Years' in Iraq

The United Nations has launched what it describes as one of the biggest aid operations in 30 years in northern Iraq, as hundreds of thousands of refugees flee the extremist Sunni militant group calling itself the Islamic State. As Kurdish and Iraqi forces battle the Sunni insurgents, the fighting has forced more people to flee their homes. Kurdish authorities say the international community must act now to avert a humanitarian catastrophe. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London.
Video

Video Cambodian American Hip Hop Artist Sings of Personal Struggles

A growing underground movement of Cambodian American hip hop artists is rapping about the struggles of living in urban America. Most, if not all of them, are refugees or children of refugees who came to the United States from Cambodia to escape the Khmer Rouge genocide of the 1970s. Through their music, the artists hope to give voice to immigrants who have been struggling quietly for years. Elizabeth Lee reports from Long Beach, California.
Video

Video African Media Tries to Educate Public About Ebola

While the Ebola epidemic continues to claim lives in West Africa, information technology specialists, together with radio and TV reporters, are battling misinformation and prejudice about the disease - using social media to educate the public about the deadly virus. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid