By LeAnn R. Ralph
TOWN OF HOWARD — Here in West Central Wisconsin, over the past four years, frac sand operations have increased to almost 150 sand mines.
But what is the sand used for? Where does it go? How does the process it is used for affect the environment? People? Animals?
Michelle Bamberger, a veterinarian, and Robert Oswald, a member of the faculty at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, in the Department of Molecular Medicine at the School of Veterinary Medicine, spoke about their new book, “The Real Cost of Fracking” at the Howard Town Hall October 28.
The subtitle of the book is “How America’s Shale Gas Boom is Threatening Our Families, Pets, Food.”
Oswald studies toxins and how they affect the nervous system.
When people use the term “fracking,” they tend to think of one step in the process, and much of the time they tend to think of only the hydraulic fracturing used to extract more oil or natural gas, Oswald said.
The hydraulic fracturing process uses a number of different steps, starting with the mining of silica sand, and it is important to consider the whole process, he said.
The book written by Oswald and Bamberger, published by Beacon Press in August, contains five case studies of people and their animals who live near natural gas wells in the eastern part of the United States.
Bamberger said they had originally wanted to include 20 case studies but that the publisher wanted a shorter book rather than a longer book.
Other aspects of the hydraulic fracturing process include truck traffic (both at the frac sand mines and at the hydraulic fracturing sites); drilling; hydraulic fracturing; impoundments where millions of gallons of fluid are stored that include water, sand and chemicals; condensate tanks; flaring to burn off the natural gas; compressor stations; processing plants; and natural gas lines.
The states of New York and Pennsylvania have a long history of drilling for oil and natural gas, going back to the 1800s, and there are many old, unused wells, Oswald said.
Most of the old wells that are no longer used have never been properly plugged and abandoned, he said.
Oswald and Bamberger said they had never seen the frac sand mining areas in Wisconsin until they visited the state October 28.
The industrialization of the rural landscape with the frac sand mines is remarkably similar to the industrialization of the rural landscape in areas where there are oil and natural gas wells, Bamberger noted.
While one sand mine or natural gas well might not have much of an impact on an area, it is the cumulative impact of many operations that could affect human and animal health, the environment, the local economy and the local social structure, Bamberger said.
Crystalline silica, very tiny particles of sand, is a carcinogen and can also cause lung, heart and kidney disease as well as silicosis, Bamberger said.
“The air issues are huge,” she said.
Water issues also are a concern.
Hydraulic fracturing uses five million gallons of water per well for one cycle of fracking, Bamberger said.
If the water is recycled, each time it is used, it becomes more toxic because the chemicals used in the process become more and more concentrated, she said.
Polyacrylamide is used as a flocculent in frac sand mining to settle out the fine particles of sand.
Polyacrylamide is not toxic, but the problem is that polyacrylamide can break down into acrylamide, and acrylamide is highly toxic, Bamberger said.
Acrylamide is toxic at .5 parts per billion, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency has set a limit of zero, she said.
So how could acrylamide be a problem for people in this area of Wisconsin if they are not physically handling waste sand from the sand mines?
Bamberger said she talked with Deb Dix of the state Department of Natural Resources who said that some sand mine companies are allowing dairy farmers to use waste sand for cattle bedding.
Waste sand from the mining operations is supposed to be used in the reclamation process.
Sand, in and of itself, is good bedding for cattle if the particles are large enough to allow the sand to drain properly, Bamberger said.
Dix said that using waste sand for cattle bedding is not a permitted use, she said.
If the polyacrylamide used to wash the sand breaks down to acrylamide, then the cows could become contaminated with acrylamide, the acrylamide could become toxic to the cow, and then acrylamide becomes a food safety issue, Bamberger said.
Hydraulic fracturing uses a combination of mostly water and sand to “prop” open the fissures in the natural gas wells, along with one percent of some kind of chemical that the companies are allowed to keep secret for proprietary purposes, Oswald said.
People in the industry say it is “only” one percent chemicals, so what could it possibly harm at that low a concentration, he said.
The problem is that some chemicals only need a concentration of .0016 percent to have an effect on estrogen receptors, for example, said Oswald, whose area of expertise is the effect of toxins on the nervous system.
“When they say ‘only’ one percent, one percent would be an incredibly high concentration (of a chemical) … for a biologist, one percent is an enormous concentration,” he said.
Millions upon millions of gallons of wastewater come out of the ground after hydraulic fracturing, but where does that water go, Oswald said.
The wastewater can be treated at wastewater treatment plants; it can be recycled; the water can be pumped down into injection wells; it can be spread on roads; and it can be used for water softener pellets, he said.
The wastewater from the hydraulic fracturing process can be contaminated with a variety of substances, such as bacteria and heavy metals, Oswald said.
When the fracking fluid is pumped down injection wells, it has been known to cause earthquakes in the surrounding area. Oklahoma and Arkansas, not typically states that see a lot of seismic activity, have experienced a 100-fold increase in earthquakes since hydraulic fracturing has been going on, he said.
Wastewater from fracking was spread on a forest in Virginia, and the entire forest died, Oswald said.
The manufacturers of the water softener pellets say their product is 97 percent pure, he said.
Oswald said he wonders what makes up the other three percent in the water softener pellets.
Decisions about the hydraulic fracturing process should be based on science, but unfortunately, there is not much scientific data on the health impacts of high volume hydraulic fracturing, Oswald said.
Many homeowners or landowners cannot afford the testing that would prove the problem was caused by fracking, he said.
Several case studies in “The Real Cost of Fracking” focus on families and communities with water that has become so contaminated since hydraulic fracturing started that the water is not safe to drink.
The burden of proof falls to the people who are impacted and not to the companies, Oswald said.
If companies do settle with landowners, the companies insist on nondisclosure agreements and insist that all of the records be sealed, he said.
The problem with sealing records is that it prevents analysis of the case by researchers and public health officials, Oswald said.
Nondisclosure agreements should not be legal when it comes to public health issues, he said.
Hjordis Olson, a member of the audience, noted that the book says gag orders are placed on doctors who have seen clusters of kidney cancer or lung cancer in hydraulic fracturing areas so that the doctors are not allowed to speak publicly about what they are observing in their area.
Kathy Stahl, another member of the audience, wondered about research that has been conducted on crystalline silica and its effects on companion animals and farm animals.
Bamberger said she would like to see a health analysis of people, farm animals and companion animals living close to frac sand mines compared with an analysis of people and animals living a distance away, perhaps five miles.
Are there increased respiratory problems among humans (bronchitis or asthma); are there increased respiratory problems with farm animals and pets; are there other health problems, such as reproductive issues? she asked.
“If there is no impact, great. But if people and animals, compared to others, are sick, then we have a problem,” Bamberger said.
“We need to find solutions to solve our energy needs and live a good life,” Oswald said.
Regarding renewable energy, people will often say they are opposed to solar panels because of the government subsidies, he noted.
But the oil and gas industry is highly subsidized. In 2011, the oil and gas industry was subsidized $2 trillion worldwide, Oswald said.
The oil and gas subsidies “dwarf” renewable energy subsidies, he said.