Three experts talked about the economic benefits, potential public health concerns and environmental concerns hydraulic fracturing raises among northeast Ohio residents.
The environmental non-profit group Green Alliance sponsored an informative panel presentation on hydraulic fracturing Tuesday, Feb. 28 from 7 to 9 p.m.
Panelists included Dr. Jeffery Dick, geologist/hydrologist from Youngstown State University, Samantha Malone, communication specialist and PhD student in public health from the University of Pittsburgh and Dr. Theodore Voneida, a neurobiologist from Northeastern Ohio College of Medicine.
The presentation began with Dr. Jeffery Dick, the chair of the department of geology and environmental science at Youngstown State University. Dick talked mainly about Utica shale which is prevalent in Ohio.
Estimates deduce that the Utica shale in Ohio alone could contain up to 15 trillion cubic feet of natural gas as well as up to 5.5 billion barrels of oil underlying the shale seam. Currently, there are ten different drilling companies operating in Ohio throughout eighteen counties, with Stark County being one of the highest density drilled areas in the state.
“It [the Utica] has the potential to be a much more profitable oil and gas play than the Marcellus; it could easily become one of the largest plays in the country if not the world, but that’s yet to be seen,” said Dick.
Dick explained the environmental concerns that come with the drilling and fracking process as well as issues concerning injection wells, such as the recently recurring earthquakes in Youngstown.
“There’s been a lot of speculation that injection wells cause earthquakes. They can trigger earthquakes and I think that’s clearly the case here in Youngstown, but keep in mind that that’s one well and that the other 180 or so are operating quite nicely and it’s actually the best management practice for taking care of these hazardous materials. There generally is very little correlation between where you find earthquakes and where you find injection taking place,” said Dick.
The second panelist, Samantha Malone, communication specialist for FracTracker.org and PhD student in public health from the University of Pittsburgh, talked about the potential public health concerns associated with hydraulic fracturing, which typically depends on how well the process is done.
Public health concerns associated with drilling include but are not limited to water and air quality issues, emergency preparedness, and community impacts. Still, there is currently a lack of public health information as far as horizontal hydraulic fracturing is concerned since the process is relatively new.
“If you drill for natural gas in the way that it was intended, in the ideal design, most likely you would not see many public health impacts at all, but because there’s a lot of water required, there’s a lot of seepage and leaks that come from the compressor stations, the frack ponds were originally poorly lined or not lined in some cases, that can create pathways of exposure,” said Malone.
“The epidemiology data, or the population-wide health data on whether or not drilling causes cancer―causes anything―is just not available. We do not have long-term health studies that have been conducted that sufficiently show a correlation. What we have been able to collect real data on are the community―the smaller level impacts―and I’m talking social health burdens, road infrastructure degradation, and the fact that if your water is contaminated, that is a potential cost burden as well, and it’s stressful,” said Malone.
Working for an organization that deals primarily with data, Malone recommends finding ways to accurately record data.
“Right now we’re in the process of collecting data for Ohio. This is a major issue that I think should be addressed prior to any really intense drilling, to get electronic data systems in place to manage data because if you don’t have a good idea of what’s occurring, there’s no way for you to address any problems or really take action unless you know exactly what’s happening,” said Malone.
The last panelist, Dr. Theodore Voneida, the founding chair and professor emeritus of neurobiology at Northeastern Ohio University’s College of Medicine, spoke on behalf of the environment.
One of Voneida’s biggest concerns was the large volumes of wastewater laden with chemicals that occurs as a result of horizontal hydraulic fracturing.
“The Youngstown wells had injections totaling 15 million gallons of Pennsylvania wastewater last year. Ohio is accepting this wastewater because as of May 2011, toxic wastewater was no longer accepted at Pennsylvania sewage treatment plants. Furthermore, we are now negotiating with New York State to accept their toxic wastewater as well. I’m concerned that Ohio may just become a dumping ground for gas wells’ toxic waste,” said Voneida.
Voneida then explained the scope of horizontal well drilling operations in Ohio. Presently, Chesapeake Energy alone holds drilling leases for 3.6 million acres in Ohio.
“Chesapeake in one of the most frequently fined companies. In February of this year, Chesapeake was fined $1.1 million by the state of Pennsylvania for fracturing a major aquifer and another $88,000 for destroying the wells of 15 families,” said Voneida.
Voneida repeatedly referenced a recently published paper entitled Impacts of Gas Drilling on Human and Animal Health written by two Cornell University researchers. Voneida explained several of the recommended reforms for future drilling operations mentioned in the paper, putting emphasis on the suggestion of outlawing the use of non-disclosure policies which are commonly included in gas company leases.
“Non-disclosure policies should not be allowed. I never tell a farmer not to lease; that’s their business. If they can get good money for leasing, fine. What I do say is get an attorney―that’s extremely important―and get your water tested,” said Voneida.
Other recommendations Voneida mentioned were to expand the EPA study of hydraulic fracturing to include air quality impacts and to conduct complete testing of air and water prior to drilling and at regular intervals after drilling has commenced.
The three panelists then took questions from the audience, an assortment of Mount Union faculty, staff, and students, landowners, farmers, local politicians, and concerned citizens.
Sophomore physics major Jen Reed, who worked as a security guard for Chesapeake Energy the majority of last year, defended the drilling company after it received criticism from several audience members.
“The policies and safety procedures that they have on-site about trucks that are coming in and out―anyone that comes in and out―the vehicles have to be manually inspected three times by the security guards and Chesapeake officials before entering site and before leaving site to make sure that it’s not leaking. It’s really rigid; they’re really careful about what goes on, but accidents do happen,” said Reed.
However, Tiffany Gravlee, co-chair of Green Alliance, commissioner for the Green Commission for the city of Alliance, and a community member on Mount Union’s Sustainability Committee, expressed concern over the supposed environmental and health implications associated with fracking.
“Honestly, it scares me to death because I think there’s so much we don’t understand yet,” said Gravlee.
Gravlee also expressed concern over the accelerated rate at which fracking operations are currently being conducted in Ohio.
“I’m concerned that the companies are trying to get as much accomplished as they can before the EPA’s study comes out. I do wish that we would have been able to put a moratorium on the process until we have all the facts because I’m not necessarily against trying to get natural gas, but if you do it quickly and not carefully enough then you do run risks, and if our town loses its water, what do we do? We don’t have a lot of options,” said Gravlee.
The bottom line, as all three panelists repeatedly mentioned, is that residents near drilling operations should get their water tested by a government official before and after drilling commences and have an experienced lawyer at the ready.