The Health Risks of Hydraulic Fracturing

After last week’s presentation by industry and regulators, yesterday’s panel discussion focused on the health risks of hydraulic fracturing.  It was sorely needed, as the previous discussants were averse to speaking about risk -something to be expected of corporate representatives, but truly shocking from regulators.

Tom LaPoint, a professor in the biology department here at UNT, emphasized that risks are relative.  While he argued there is moderate risk of surface water contamination from hyrdraulic fracturing, he downplayed groundwater risks.  As someone inclined to be skeptical of such claims, I have to say he made a good case that if the cement well casing (the pressure of which can be measured) holds, the risk of groundwater contamination is extremely low.  Perhaps I diverge from his perspective in how much I trust the regulatory agencies of Texas to properly inspect well casings as well as my evaluation of the difficulty of proper cement jobs thousands of feet below the surface.  The Denton Record-Chronicle had an excellent article on this.

However, LaPoint mainly set out to contrast the risks of hydraulic fracturing to those of coal-fired power plants and automobiles – he made an extremely strong case that they are far far more dangerous. So in a sense, the outrage directed at hydraulic fracturing would be better directed at those sources of pollution. Even incremental progress in regulation in those areas would have positive effects on public heath orders of magnitude greater than better regulation of hydraulic fracturing. A strong point.

Alisa Rich, a toxicologist, took a more activist approach to her presentation.  She shared the fact that she had been sued by petrochemical corporations for contacting the EPA to alert them to an emergency situation, an experience that appeared to affect her greatly (understandably so).  She mostly discussed the carcinogenic effects of benzene and the neurotoxic effects of carbon disulfide, the two primary airborne pollutants from hydraulic fracturing.  She heavily criticized the monitoring regime of the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) on the basis of her own research, one aspect of which I found particularly fascinating.

In Rich’s case study of Dish, a town near Denton (in the heart of Gasland), she monitored benzene and carbon disulfide in two concentric perimeters around drill sites. Amazingly, she found them in higher concentrations in the outer perimeters, the opposite of what common sense might dictate. I wish the reasons had been fleshed out a bit further in the Q&A, but it seemed that heat rising from the drill site displaced air-borne pollutants, forcing them farther away. This ought to have major regulatory implications concerning zoning restrictions and monitoring regimes, but I don’t think it’s been incorporated into law in any way as of yet.

It was refreshing to hear from two passionate scientists who had the public interest at heart. When their opinions diverged on certain issues, it made the audience think for themselves. What a contrast to the prior week’s self-promotional speakers!

This entry was posted in Accountability, Environmental policy, Open Access, Public Pedagogy, Science and technology ramifications, Sustainability, Risk Management, & Long-Term Security. Bookmark the permalink.

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