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

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    Factions Shift as Civilians Die in Syrian War

    Scenario likely only to further confuse military situation on ground and potentially worsen humanitarian crisis that already has grown to epic proportions

    Presidential Hopefuls Woo Minorities, Evangelicals

    Four GOP candidates to speak at forum at Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina

    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.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.