The Precautionary Principle requires it to protect public health and the environment
Even if political environment is not favorable, the public deserves the debate that will result
By Dr. Arthur M. Sherwood and Michael M. Barrick
LENOIR, N.C. – In 2014, then-North Carolina Governor Patrick McCrory, a Republican, signed legislation passed by the GOP-controlled General Assembly that eliminated a moratorium on fracking in North Carolina. What first caught our attention about this legislation was its lack of transparency. It contains provisions that make it illegal to disclose to the public information about the chemicals used in the fracking process. This is outrageous. These are not North Carolina values. So, we call upon Governor Roy Cooper to put legislation before the North Carolina General Assembly (NCGA) that would reinstate the moratorium on fracking in North Carolina.
We are writing this based upon our experience as healthcare professionals. We have concluded that the evidence about the public health and environmental risks caused by fracking make a moratorium the safest route.
This belief is rooted not only in science. It is rooted also in our shared faith. As Christians (with quite different backgrounds, experiences and views), we believe it is clear that we are required to show concern for the most vulnerable among us. However, it is important to note that Christianity does not hold a monopoly on preferential treatment for the poor and vulnerable; it is also a value of countless faith traditions.
While fracking is currently not occurring in North Carolina, we support a moratorium on fracking now because geologists have identified at least five potential fields for fracking in the state. A moratorium is consistent with the Precautionary Principle and the position held by numerous governors, public health experts, scientists, environmentalists, journalists, and – most importantly – the people most impacted by fracking and related pipeline construction.
The Precautionary Principle
The Science & Environmental Health Network says about the Precautionary Principle: “When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. The process of applying the precautionary principle must be open, informed and democratic and must include potentially affected parties. It must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.”
Therefore, our support is born out of an understanding of the impact of fracking upon our neighbors in the shale fields of northern and central Appalachia, as well as the pain that will be felt by families in North Carolina who would have their land seized or safety compromised through the misuse of eminent domain. This issue clearly requires effective leadership. We are confident that Governor Cooper can and will provide such leadership. We are under no delusion that the NCGA will do all it can to stifle Cooper’s efforts. Nevertheless, supporting a moratorium on fracking is consistent with the principles of the Democratic Party to protect our most vulnerable citizens. It is also consistent with North Carolina values. Anyone who can remember before 2010 will remember that North Carolina’s political leaders often found ways to work together. So, let us at least have the debate.
Finally, it is essential to note that a moratorium remains in place only so long as the burden of proof has not been met. Should the industry, as some point in the future, demonstrate that fracking does not pose a threat to public health and the environment, the moratorium could be lifted.
What is fracking?
Fracking is a slang word for hydraulic fracturing, the process of injecting a fluid consisting of water, sand and chemicals at high pressure into shale. This fractures the rock, releasing natural gas, which is then extracted. In West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania the Marcellus shale, a layer of rock 3,500 – 8,000 feet below the surface, is the object of fracking. The vertical depth of the formation is about 150 feet. Whether recovered or left behind, the frack fluid presents problems. The wastewater contains not only the chemicals added to the water, but also leaving minerals and radioactive materials recovered as part of the extraction process.
Fracking and pipeline construction are inexorably linked. Without fracking, there is no need for a pipeline. With fracking, all of the risks associated with pipeline construction serve only to aggravate the impact of the process. Presently, four companies seek to construct two 42” pipelines from North Central West Virginia to carry the gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale. The longest, the 600-mile Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) would terminate in Robeson County, N.C. In the process, it would cross through seven other North Carolina counties – Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson and Cumberland.
Along the way to North Carolina, it is mapped to go through three national forests and some of the highest peaks of the Allegheny Front. Even industry officials have expressed doubts about this route. Alluding to one of its southern “alternate” routes, a Dominion Energy official wrote, “Of great significance is the jumbled arrangement of ridgetops south and east of Thorny Flat. The mountain ridges in this area . . . consist of a jumbled mass of peaks and ridge tops. Trying to cross this terrain with a 42-inch pipeline results in a combination of steep side slope traverses and up and down approaches to ridgetops, requiring heavy equipment winching on both sides of the ridge from a narrow staging area on top. . . . Slope restoration and stabilization would . . . be difficult to achieve…”
The companies seeking approval to build the ACP have harassed land owners wishing to protect their land from the devastation that would be caused by the ACP construction, not to mention the potential danger it poses for those living alongside of it. Having learned of what the people along the proposed ACP route have endured in West Virginia and Virginia, it is clear that the people of North Carolina need political leaders who will defend them. The ACP can only be built after approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). The U.S. Forest Service is also involved and recently told the companies they would have to redraw the proposed ACP route because of damage it posed to the environment in several national forests in West Virginia and Virginia.
Fracking Impacts and Risks
Dead and injured workers (here and here), explosions on fracking pads (here), dead and injured motorists (here and here), destroyed wells and streams (here), dead livestock (here) and sickened residents (here) are just some of the public health and safety risks associated with fracking. Indeed, the list is rather long. The negative by-products of fracking include:
- Public Health Issues
- Water Use and Contamination
- Air Pollution
- Waste Disposal
- Site Development and Well Pad Activity
- Misuse of Eminent Domain
- Climate Change
- Traffic Congestion
- Potential Earthquakes
- Industry Instability
Public Health Issues alone are Reason Enough to Adopt the Precautionary Principle
According to the Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, “We conclude that exposure to ozone, PM, silica dust, benzene, and formaldehyde is linked to adverse respiratory health effects, particularly in infants and children. However, the scientific literature examining the direct impact of shale gas and oil development on children is just starting to emerge. In the absence of direct evidence on levels of exposure and adverse health outcomes among infants and children due to UOG air pollution, our focus on key air pollutants and the vulnerability of children serves to identify potential health risks as well as to promote additional research in this area.” Adverse health impacts have also been discovered by numerous public health officials and researchers ranging from Syracuse University in New York, Duke University in North Carolina and West Virginia University.
Indeed, these independent researchers have identified more than 330 chemicals used in fracking fluid that are harmful to people: major systems and organs are compromised, leading to heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, cancer and more. This affects workers and residents.
Public Health Issues alone offer us numerous textbook examples of why the Precautionary Principle must be employed and a moratorium placed on fracking. Until epidemiological studies can catch up with the people in affected communities – and it will be some time because such studies are severely underfunded – then we owe it to our children and all people potentially vulnerable to the impact of fracking. Only by adopting the Precautionary Principle can this be assured.
As we learn from the list above, there are plenty of other reasons to support a moratorium on fracking.
Water use & contamination
The impact upon our water supplies is beyond concerning. Each well requires at least five million gallons of water to mix with the sand and chemicals used in the fracking process. That water often comes from public sources – streams, creeks, rivers and even reservoirs. First, there is a fairness issue to consider, as private companies operating for profit are essentially hijacking the most precious of earth’s resources. Additionally, the potential of drought should cause us to have a conservationist approach to water use. Furthermore, reduced stream and river volumes adversely impact aquatic life.
Negative impacts upon watersheds include muddy streams from gas operations runoff; spilled drill brine fluids; streams, springs and rivers contaminated by drill waste; erosion and sedimentation of streams; spilled and dumped drill mud or cuttings; and, disposal problems.
According to the Damascus Citizens, “New York State found levels of radium-226 that were up to 260 times the legal release limit when they treated wastewater from six gas wells in Schuyler County. The Marcellus shell contains uranium, which produces radioactive carbon gas. The radon will be piped to homes in cities along with the natural gas collected from fracking.” Workers, too, driving the radioactive waste to landfills, as well as those working in the landfills, are being exposed to radium-226. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, “ … radium-226 is stored mainly in the bone, and it produces abnormal changes in the bone marrow, including anemia and leukemia, cancers of the bone, and paranasal sinuses.”
The silica dust which pours out of fracking sites in large clouds through the processing of sand are clear health hazards. These silica dust clouds have been associated with tuberculosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, kidney disease and autoimmune disease. The fracking process releases carbon dioxide, methane, nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and benzene, among other pollutants.
Of the five million gallons of water that is used at a fracking site, as much as three million or so is left over for disposal. Presently, the industry has few regulations to guide their disposal and because of a decision by Congress to exempt the industry from the Clean Water Act, the exact content and composition of the fracking fluid is considered proprietary. This means that local emergency response, public health, and environmental protection workers cannot develop appropriate and complete emergency response plans. In addition, once the wastewater is disposed of, whether on site or at an undisclosed location, it then mixes with the earth’s hidden threats, such as arsenic, mercury, heavy metals and radioactive materials. All of this can then leach into ground and surface water supplies.
Site Development and Well Pad Activity
For those working and living near fracking pads, the hazards are many. Explosions, fires and blowouts and well pads in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and elsewhere have killed and injured numerous workers in the last several years and endangered nearby residents, many of whom have had to repeatedly evacuate their homes.
Site preparation involves an invasion of huge earth-moving equipment, all burning diesel fuel. Literally hundreds of trucks hauling stone go back and forth. Others are ever-present, working to prepare the well pad, access roads and holding ponds. Well pad activity inundates a community with congestion, as well as noise, air and water pollution. Activity on a completed pad includes the running of drill rig diesel engines, auxiliary pumps, generator sets and other equipment – all day, every day. Once drilling is complete, up to a dozen frack pumps are run daily, each with about 2,000 horsepower. Also, several dozen to a hundred trucks a day deliver sand. Meanwhile, fine silica dust is blown into the air while transferring the sand to holding containers.
Flaring, a method of releasing pressure, sometimes brightens the night sky for weeks. Raw gas is flared into the air, combined with the leftover down-hole chemicals in the well. Emissions from well sites will continue for decades.
Finally, there are the compressor stations. They typically have over 30,000 horsepower of compressor engines. Some people living close to them have characterized the sound as a never-ending jet engine sitting on a runway next to their home.Misuse of Eminent Domain
From the beginning, say landowners, the energy companies have bullied their way onto people’s land, generally through threatening the use of eminent domain. This is true for both fracking operations and pipeline development. Indeed, numerous lawsuits have been filed by energy extraction companies against landowners who have refused access to their land for pipeline surveys even before the pipelines have been approved. In response, many landowners have sued energy companies for misuse of eminent domain. Because state laws vary, the outcomes of lawsuits and court cases in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and elsewhere will likely be a hodgepodge of decisions.
This we know – our residents should not have their land taken and home sites disturbed simply to benefit the shareholders of private corporations.
According to Jake Hays and Adam Law, M.D., writing for the Environmental Health Policy Institute of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), “In the atmosphere, methane contributes to global climate change, which in turn affects human health in a number of ways, including heat waves, extreme weather events, flooding, water contamination, sea level rise, expansion of insect ranges and populations, worsening air quality, crop damage, and social instability and conflict.” Also, the fracking process itself releases greenhouse gases directly into the atmosphere. In fact, methane from fracking traps nearly 90 times as much heat than carbon dioxide, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In short, fracking is aggravating climate change.
Bill Hughes of Wetzel County, W.Va. has witnessed, first hand, the impacts of fracking for roughly a decade now. According to Hughes, the problems with traffic congestion are many, including: damaged, dusty and muddy roads; broken electrical and phone lines; blocked roads and delays; dangerous big trucks; escorts and trucks driving left of center; signs and bridges damaged; large truck caravans; permanent loss of pasture, timber and farm land; and, increased demand on and delay of emergency services.
In Oklahoma, which is also a “land-rush” state because of fracking, an unprecedented level of earthquakes is being experienced. Historically, the state would experience about only two earthquakes annually of at least 3.0 magnitude. However, in 2014, the state experienced 567 such quakes. According to the Washington Post, “Scientists implicated the oil and gas industry – in particular the deep wastewater disposal wells that have been linked to a dramatic increase in seismic activity across the central United States.” Also according to the Post article, “Both the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Oklahoma Geological Survey have confirmed a connection between the recent oil and gas boom and a sharp uptick in seismic activity in Texas, Colorado, Arkansas, and Ohio, as well as Oklahoma.”
In Western North Carolina, we have seen the dangers of a mono-economy. When the furniture and textile companies abandoned the people and communities that built them to maximize profits, workers were left without options. Not only were the unemployed not able to find work, our young people, seeing what was happening to their parents, began looking for opportunities elsewhere. In short, reliance upon a mono-economy, whether is furniture or fracking, harms individuals and communities.
The fracking industry is not as stable as it would have the public believe. Like any industry, the gas extraction business is not immune from market forces – most of which are beyond its control. So, a gas field worker can find himself in a home with a $1,500 monthly rent payment – or mortgage – and no paycheck to cover it, when forces far beyond his control put him on the unemployment line.
Hence, our community and political leaders must work to create a diversified economy in every region of the state, not just our metropolitan areas. We certainly can’t afford to make the mistake of other states and compromise public health and the environment for what is, at best, a boom-and-bust economy.
Hays and Law of the Environmental Health Policy Institute of Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), argue, “…the entire lifecycle of unconventional shale gas extraction is potentially polluting. This includes everything from clearing the land for the gas well pad, to initial hydraulic fracturing, subsequent recompletions, and the final capping of the well years or decades later after it is no longer productive.”
Jill Kriesky, who has a doctorate in economics, authored the essay, “Socioeconomic Change and Human Stress Associated with Shale Gas Extraction” for PSR. Sharing a personal experience, she wrote, “Spending a few hours in towns in the active Marcellus Shale drilling region of Pennsylvania provides even a casual observer with sights and sounds of undeniable community change. Thousands of diesel-powered trucks carrying water, chemicals, and equipment to and from drilling sites roar through towns and rural landscapes, creating traffic jams and degrading already poor-quality road surfaces. Local hotel, temporary industry-built ‘man camps,’ and restaurants are filled with an influx of drilling teams from Texas, Oklahoma, and other points south and west, here only long enough to drill and frac, then move on to another site. A visitor who spends a little more time chatting with social service providers, town leaders, and long-time residents will hear about additional stressors that lie below the surface. Homelessness is on the rise among those who have long struggled near the economic margins, and are now forced from inexpensive housing by landlords seeking higher rents from gas workers.”
In 2005, Vice President Dick Cheney got federal exemptions for oil and gas drilling from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the Community Right-to-Know law, and others. These exemptions are known as the Halliburton Loopholes – for Haliburton, the company Cheney served as CEO.
What the facts show – and what Kriesky and thousands of other residents, researchers and reporters have observed – is that with current technology, with the dangerous, misapplied Dominion Theory guiding energy company officials and the lack of regulatory oversight, the only option before us is to place a moratorium on fracking.
A physician learns early in her training to “First, do no harm.” Certainly, that is the same principle that should guide elected officials. In the case of fracking, it is clear that we must employ the Precautionary Principle. Failure to do so is an abdication of political leadership.
In the ecological encyclical, “On Care for Our Common Home,” Pope Francis asked, “What would induce anyone, at this stage, to hold on to power only to be remembered for their inability to take action when it was urgent and necessary to do so?” Regardless of one’s faith or views about Pope Francis, there is no denying that he has presented us with a most fundamental question about leadership.
How will North Carolina’s leaders answer it?
© Michael M. Barrick, 2016-17
On Twitter: @lenoirvoice
About the Authors
Dr. Arthur M. Sherwood earned his Ph.D. in biomedical engineering from Duke University in 1970. He has devoted his career to helping veterans and others with spinal cord injuries maximize their ability to function independently. He has also been very active in the Baptist faith, having served as a Trustee at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for 10 years, and staying active in a local congregation wherever his vocation has taken him.
Michael Barrick has a post-graduate Certificate in Community Preparedness and Disaster Management from the University of North Carolina Gillings School of Global Public Health. He has served as Safety Office and Disaster Preparedness coordinator at two hospitals and has also put together numerous local, regional and state exercises and programs. He is also an experienced investigative journalist. He spent more than two years reporting on fracking in West Virginia. His understanding of Catholic teaching on social justice informs much of his writing.