Fracking: The Threat to Human Health

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by Jamison Maeda

For those who have never experienced an earthquake, let me describe what it’s like.

It’s loud. When the building you’re in, and everything inside of it moves, it is loud. There is no warning. No ominous clouds, no sirens. Suddenly the room you’re in begins to move. At first, your mind tries to understand the situation. What’s that noise? Is the desk shaking? Then you realize it’s an earthquake. Your instinct is to run out of the building. When the ground stops shaking, you wonder when the next one will hit. Next week? Next month? For the people of Oklahoma, the next one will be later that day.

Before 2009, the state of Oklahoma experienced an average of two earthquakes per year. Now they have two or three per day. Sometimes the earthquakes come in swarms. Oklahoma experienced more than 900 magnitude 3.0 earthquakes last year. Last week, a swarm of thirty-two earthquakes of magnitude 2.5 or greater occurred within a 19-hour period. The strongest quakes measured 4.7 on the Richter scale, which will shake windows and walls, and feels like a truck slamming into the building. Two of last week’s quakes, occurring less than a minute apart, damaged houses and caused power outages.

Oklahoma is experiencing these earthquakes because of “fracking.”

Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” is the injection of extremely pressurized water, sand, and chemicals into bedrock to unlock hydrocarbons, which are a combination of hydrogen and carbon (the chief component of petroleum and natural gas.)

Oklahoma state governor and pro-oil and gas industry Republican, Mary Fallin once denied a connection between fracking and Oklahoma’s earthquakes, though faced with indisputable evidence she now concedes that fracking is the cause. But instead of acting in the interest of her constituents, she simply encourages fracking companies to reduce the number of earthquakes they generate. She also signed into law a ban on Oklahomans from prohibiting fracking in their communities. The state of Texas also banned fracking bans, thus removing all authority in the matter from it’s citizens. The town of Denton, Texas (the town where fracking was invented,) voted to ban the practice of fracking due to the danger is poses to human health and safety. However the Texas state government overturned that ban and passed legislation preventing any future fracking bans in the state. This is an example of the provisions in the TTIP trade agreement which take decisions that affect corporate profit, or even potential profit, out of the hands of the citizens, and should serve as a warning to all of us.

Of course Oklahoma is not the only place suffering from the effects of fracking. Fracking related earthquakes have occurred in Blackpool in the UK, and Northern Germany. In California, some elementary students must remain indoors due to frequent noxious fumes from a fracking well less than 400 meters from their school. Drinking water in Pennsylvania contained so much methane from nearby fracking wells it was flammable. In Texas, a contaminated well exploded into a massive fireball, injuring a family including a 4-year old girl who lived 300 meters from a fracking well.

According to a recent study conducted by the Yale School of Public Health, fracking fluid and waste water contain hundreds of chemicals, including arsenic, formaldehyde, lead, mercury, and benzene which cause cancer. Fracking overwhelmingly takes place in poorer communities, those most at risk are nearby residents and the fracking industry workers themselves. These are the groups who continue to be underrepresented in the debate about whether or not fracking should be banned. Native American and Indigenous communities are also highly at risk because their issues seldom make headlines.

Oil and gas providers and the politicians who serve them assure us that the fracking process is safe, and deny that fracking or other oil and gas industry processes endanger our air quality or pollute our water. Meanwhile in California, a giant plume of methane gas has been spewing from the ground for months. Residents have become ill, and thousands have been evacuated. A state of emergency has been called for Los Angeles County. Environmental law activist Erin Brokovich calls the methane leak a “BP Spill on land,” referring to the Deep Horizon oil rig explosion which was up to now the largest environmental catastrophe in the US.

Scotland, France, Germany, and Bulgaria have banned fracking. Northern Ireland announced a ban on fracking that will only be reversed it the government is satisfied that sufficient evidence exists proving the fracking process is safe, putting the burden of proof on the industry itself for once. Most recently, Energy Minister Alex White announced that fracking will not be part of the energy plan for the Republic of Ireland. However the Irish government are still funding a tainted study by the Environmental Protection Agency which should be viewed with suspicion.

But the fight continues around the world as anti-fracking protesters still must confront large corporations and their political representatives with the message that our water, our communities, and our very lives are more important than their profit.