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As Regulators Weigh Drilling in Marcellus Shale, EPA Opens Public Hearings on Health and Environmental Impact of Hydraulic Fracturing
The Environmental Protection Agency has begun public hearings in Binghamton, New York on hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," a controversial technique that mining companies use to extract natural gas from rock formations thousands of feet underground. The hearings are part of a broad investigation by the EPA into the human health and environmental effects of fracking. We speak to Josh Fox, director of the Sundance award-winning documentary Gasland, which opens in theaters across the country this Wednesday, and ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, who has written extensively about natural gas drilling.
New York Democratic Congressman Maurice Hinchey urged the EPA Monday to regulate the practice, pointing to numerous reports of water contamination related to hydraulic fracturing in states across the country. He’s one of the authors of the so-called FRAC Act in Congress that would regulate natural gas drilling. Supporters of gas drilling, including the Independent Oil and Gas Association and the African American Chamber of Commerce, noted that drilling could bring tens of thousands of badly needed jobs to the area.
The hearings are part of a broad investigation by the EPA into the human health and environmental effects of fracking. The agency has sent letters to nine companies that employ the process, asking them to disclose the chemical composition of fracking fluids used. The agency also asked for information data on standard operating procedures at hydraulic fracturing sites and a list of sites where companies have carried out the process.
For more on the public hearings upstate as well as the nationwide impacts of gas drilling, I’m joined here in New York by two guests. Josh Fox is the director of the Sundance award-winning Gasland, which opens in theaters across the country this Wednesday. He was at Monday’s public hearing. We’re also joined by ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten, who has written extensively about natural gas drilling.
Welcome you both to Democracy Now!
JOSH FOX: Thank you.
ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: Thank you.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Josh, what happened at the hearing?
JOSH FOX: Well, at the hearing, we saw—I think it was probably a couple of hundred citizens come out and weigh in about what they thought should happen in the EPA scoping study. The EPA has been asked to study hydraulic fracturing by Congress over the next two years. And what they’ve done is they set up several public comment sessions: one in—I think it was in Dallas, and one in Denver and one of Pennsylvania, and this was the last one in New York. There’s another opportunity to testify on September 15th, which is Wednesday. And you saw people come out voicing their concerns. You also saw people come from Pennsylvania who had firsthand experience in this problem, and some rather astounding information came out, I think, yesterday about new results from water contamination in Dimock. So it was actually—there was a rally, there were protests, and there was a lot of testimony. It was actually really exciting.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what was some of that astounding information from Pennsylvania?
JOSH FOX: Well, one of the residents in Dimock who had not disconnected her water supply, Victoria Switzer, came out, and she had found confirmed fracking fluids in her water, including propylene glycol and glycol ethers, and two undisclosed contaminants. This hasn’t come out so far that the actual fracking fluid was in people’s water in Dimock. They had drilling muds in their water, they had gas in their water, but this, to me, was really a shocking moment.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Abrahm, you’ve been covering this. You’re one of the experts in the journalist community on fracking. Give us a quick summary of what the process is and what the concerns are about it.
ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: Hydraulic fracturing enables gas companies to access a deeply buried reserve that’s trapped thousands of feet underground, like tiny little bubbles frozen in rock. And the fracturing is essentially to stimulate that rock. And they pump, in the case of East Marcellus Shale, millions of gallons of a fluid mixture, that’s chemicals and water and sand, down there under enormous pressure, and it literally fractures the rock and releases all those little bubbles of gas so they can flow back up and be produced. The question is, what happens to all of those chemicals as they’re being mixed on the ground, when they get pumped underground, and when they’re taken back out as waste as a byproduct from the drilling?
JUAN GONZALEZ: And what has happened in some of the areas, especially out west, that you have reported on?
ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: Well, anecdotally, as you travel around the country, you see consistent patterns of contamination. People have methane in their drinking water. People are able to light their tap water on fire. Numerous folks that I met with had their wells explode. There are contaminants in drinking water wells in some places, and there have been hundreds, thousands of spills involving fracture fluid or fracture fluid waste that have left benzene and other carcinogenic contaminants in streams, in small lakes and in drinking water supplies.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Josh, in New York state, especially here in New York City, there’s huge concern because so much of the New York City drinking water comes from upstate and has always been known as an extremely clean water supply for the people of New York City.
JOSH FOX: Well, for New York City, it’s the largest unfiltered water supply in the world. And I wanted to draw attention to what’s actually happening in New York. New York State Senate passed a moratorium bill at the eleventh—actually, it was at 2:00 in the morning. The Assembly had gone out of session. This was in, I think, the beginning of August. And this is the only state government or significant government that’s moving towards passing a moratorium. And the pressure is right now on Sheldon Silver to bring that bill to the floor in the Assembly and on Governor Paterson to sign it. It would be the first time that something like that has happened. And I think all eyes are on New York right now.
And there were a lot of calls for that at the EPA hearings yesterday about the moratorium bill in the Assembly, but also to ask the EPA to step in now to start regulating this process now, even before their study, because what I’ve seen in touring with the film all over the country—and as I’m sure we’ll get more this week in New York—is that people are incredibly concerned, and there are contamination stories, and there is a frustration that there hasn’t been enough science, that this detective mission, which is taking place in so many places around the country, especially in Pavilion, Wyoming, and in independent citizens investigating like in Dimock, that there is the need for this federal investigation to speed up and to stop the suffering that’s been going on around the country. So that’s—there were a lot of calls for that.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Josh, let’s turn to a clip from your documentary Gasland about the chemicals used in fracking. This clip features Dr. Theo Colborn.
DR. THEO COLBORN: We’ve begun to look at what’s being used to drill a well—data that the government should be collecting, but isn’t collecting. We’ve been able to get our hands on some of that.
NARRATOR: Because of the exemptions, fracking chemicals are considered proprietary, like the special sauce for a Big Mac or the secret formula for Coca-Cola. The only reason we know anything about the fracking chemicals is because of the work of Theo Colborn. By chasing down trucks, combing through material safety data sheets, and collecting samples, Theo has identified 596 different chemicals in 900 chemical products.
DR. THEO COLBORN: Every environmental law we wrote to protect public health is ignored. But the neurological effects are very insidious.
VICTIM 1: Three years ago, I started getting really dizzy.
DR. THEO COLBORN: At first, you may just have headaches. Then, the next thing, you might have ringing in your ears.
VICTIM 1: I thought I had an inner ear infection, and I went to my doctor. And she’s kind of, "Your ears are clean."
DR. THEO COLBORN: Or you may be a little disoriented, or you may feel a little dizzy.
VICTIM 1: So they sent me down for a CAT scan.
DR. THEO COLBORN: But eventually, you may feel what is called peripheral neuropathy. And when you get to this stage, you have irreversible brain damage.
VICTIM 1: Over the last four years, I have these lesions in my brain. Don’t know where they came from.
DR. THEO COLBORN: You may begin to get swelling.
VICTIM 2: I hurt everywhere in my body—my legs, my feet. Everywhere.
DR. THEO COLBORN: Your extremities, especially the arms and the legs.
VICTIM 3: I couldn’t move. I couldn’t reach my face to eat.
DR. THEO COLBORN: And never know where the pain is going to be. The pain can be excruciating.
JUAN GONZALEZ: A clip from Josh Fox’s film Gasland. Josh, the issue of the chemicals and the reluctance of the industry to divulge what it’s using?
JOSH FOX: Yeah, well, this is the big detective story here. I mean, it’s very hard to test for something that you don’t know what—if you don’t know what it is. The EPA has actually had to invent tests to find chemicals of a certain chemical class in Pavilion, Wyoming, where results have just come out that there are these fracking chemicals in people’s water wells. It’s been very frustrating that the industry actually is not required to disclose what they’re injecting in the ground, because of the exemptions of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005. And that’s part of what the FRAC Act would do. The other part of the FRAC Act would bring hydraulic fracturing under EPA permitting. So there is this investigation, this hunt for the chemicals in groundwater, even when they’re not being disclosed as to exactly what those chemicals are. But you’re still finding them turning up. And this is why it was so significant that this came out yesterday at the EPA in Dimock. And I think that was planned to be a kind of opening moment of Victoria Switzer’s testimony yesterday.
JUAN GONZALEZ: And Abrahm Lustgarten, are you seeing in the EPA under Obama a new willingness to investigate this issue of fracking, and especially the issue of the unwillingness of the industry to divulge the chemicals it’s using?
ABRAHM LUSTGARTEN: Absolutely. There’s a fresh willingness on the part of the Obama administration to investigate what’s happening with fracturing. The study that they’re undertaking nationally now is the first since they published a 2004 literature review, which was never a complete scientific study. It’s the first time the federal government would really investigate all the causes and possible effects of the fracturing process from a life cycle standpoint. The research that they’re undertaking in Wyoming at this point is a separate process, actually, and it’s also extremely significant, because it’s a local endeavor to investigate local complaints of water contamination there. It’s not clear yet. The EPA has been very careful to say whether the contamination they’re finding in Pavilion, Wyoming, is due to drilling. But everybody seems to think that that’s what they’ll ultimately arrive at, and there are, at this point, some very surprising consistencies. And the EPA is pursuing both of those pretty aggressively.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I’d like to turn to another clip from your film. This is one of Representative Diana DeGette of Colorado at a hearing.
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: Out west, we’ve had a lot of experiences with different kinds of mining techniques that have caused human health risks and severe environmental damage. Now, Mr. John, you say that hydraulic fracturing absolutely does not pose a threat to drinking water. So if that’s true, why would you object to the disclosure of the chemicals used in the fracking process under the Safe Drinking Water Act?
MIKE JOHN: As I mentioned earlier, the information packets that we provide to the—provide to the—
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: No. Why would you object? If it’s perfectly safe, why would you object to disclosure of the chemicals that are used?
MIKE JOHN: What I was saying was that we have disclosed today and prior to the hearing—
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: Which chemicals are used?
MIKE JOHN: Yes, Ma’am.
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: In each process?
MIKE JOHN: They’re listed in a frack fact sheet that’s been provided by Chesapeake—
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: Well, so, in that case, you would have no objection to my bill.
MIKE JOHN: We’ve supplied that information as part of our—
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: So would you have an objection to my bill then, since you’ve already supplied that information?
MIKE JOHN: I’m not personally familiar with your bill, ma’am.
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: It makes chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing subject to the reporting requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
MIKE JOHN: As stated earlier, we believe that the current regulatory framework—
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: Yes or no?
MIKE JOHN: We believe the current regulatory framework—
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: So, yes, you would object to my bill, because you don’t think we would need to report it under the Safe Drinking Water Act, even though you say the chemicals are safe. Correct?
MIKE JOHN: Correct.
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: OK, how about you, Mr. Kell? Are you saying that hydraulic fracturing fluids cannot possibly be to blame for water contamination seen in cases across the country?
SCOTT KELL: Allegations that were presented through certain media outlets relative to six specific states. We did not survey all states that have oil and gas activity, and therefore would not make the statement that no one has ever—
REP. DIANA DeGETTE: OK, thank you very much, Mr. Chairman.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Another clip from the documentary Gasland. Josh, your reaction, obviously, for that part of the film? But also, I wanted to ask you about a bulletin put out by the Pennsylvania Department of Homeland Security that some critics say is casting aspersions on the critics of this drilling as possible criminals and threatens to stifle open debate. Could you talk about that criticism, which actually mentions your film?
JOSH FOX: Yeah, this is in the memo—the Homeland Security memo about environmental extremists?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Yes.
JOSH FOX: Which I think is way out of line. I mean, this movement, as I’ve seen it across the country, and as I’ve hundreds of thousands of people come out on this, literally, because we’ve been touring every day to different places—and those are very peaceful, nonviolent, not the bottle-throwing crowd, exactly. I think they’re listing that in an FBI memo because we were doing this outdoor screening tour. At the same time, it’s disturbing that the Pennsylvania Homeland Security, or whoever it was that posted this memo, accidentally sent it to an activist, alerting them to the fact that they were going to look into this or investigate this. And, you know, to me, it’s unfortunate.
I think what’s happening here is that you have citizens who have been so frustrated by the lack of investigation of this that you actually had people doing the science themselves, doing the—compiling their own research, following around Halliburton trucks to see where they’re illegally dumping waste fluid. And if the EPA is the new sheriff in town and this is the Wild West, we should be deputized. That’s what I think. Rather than treat the environmental movement as—or the concerned citizens movement as extremists, deputize them so that the information can come across more readily by the people who are gathering on the ground, who are simply trying to figure out what is being—what they’re being exposed to in their own neighborhoods.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, we’re going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to continue obviously to cover this story. Abrahm Lustgarten has been with us, a reporter at ProPublica. Josh Fox is the director of Gasland. It won the Special Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, and it opens in theaters nationwide starting September 15th.