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The Flaming Faucet

By PAM BERNS
Our country’s recent exploration and development of natural gas has many benefits. But the greatest is our break from overdependence on petroleum from Mideast countries. We have relied too long on fossil fuels from countries whose rulers despise us. We have been engaged in wars in countries where access to oil has played a large part. Thanks to efforts to expand exploration into hydraulic fracturing of natural gas (“fracking”), we may be able to supply the needs of Americans for another 100 years. No doubt, this is good news. But sustainable energy development—conservation, solar, wind—must be our top priority or our grandchildren’s grandchildren will be in the same pickle.

In the “fracking” process, water, chemicals and sand are injected into shale, and the fissures caused by the pressure unleash the natural gas. Unfortunately, the chemicals that natural gas companies inject into the ground are considered trade secrets and citizens living in these areas are exposed to dangerous chemicals which create tainted wastewater that later needs to be disposed of. Sometimes the millions of gallons of toxic wastewater are injected under great pressure back into the ground; some scientists are concerned that the pressure can cause minor earthquakes. Another system for disposal of dirty wastewater is to hold it in large basins and eventually bring it to water treatment plants. We are talking about millions of gallons of wastewater per well. Aquifers are at risk if wastewater is not contained.

According to Mother Jones, some of those living in communities where fracking is being done are exposed to 1500 times the maximum amount of benzine suggested, and people showering are told to turn on a fan to get rid of the fumes. It turns out that in WWII, some extermination camps experimented by killing people with benzine injections, according to The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide by Robert Jay Lifton.
   
In Josh Fox’s 2010 “Gasland”—a film that follows the lives of families who had sold their rights to natural gas companies—a man who had sold his rights showed Fox how polluted his drinking water was. He turned on the spigot in the kitchen sink and lit a match under the running water. The “water” started on fire. The “flaming faucet” scene has received a great deal of press. But the message couldn’t be more clear. The water was polluted. No person nor animal should be drinking water that is flammable. It is difficult to make the assumption that fracking had nothing to do with the pollution. In 2012 Fox was not permitted to film a House committee hearing about fracking and was arrested at the behest of Republicans.
   
In Dimock, PA, residents feared their water was contaminated from fracking after Fox filmed scenes in their community. The Environmental Protection Agency didn’t find it contaminated, but will resample four wells that had shown contamination in the past, according to the Chicago Tribune. There was previous evidence of methane pollution, but methane can occur in nature, so the cause of pollution may be hard to prove. The EPA found contamination in numerous wells but said the levels of bacteria, arsenic, sodium, chromium and methane would not require action.
   
Under the Energy Policy Act of 2005, oil and gas producers are exempt for certain requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act and CERCLA (superfund act). The act has a loophole that exempts companies that drill for natural gas from disclosing the chemicals used in their fracking operations that would usually be required under federal clean water laws. This loophole has been nicknamed the “Halliburton Loophole” because of Dick Cheney’s influence in passing the loophole, according to Renee Kosnik in “The Oil and Gas Industry’s Exclusions and Exemptions to Major Environmental Statutes” in Earthwork’s Oil and Gas Accountability Project www.ogap.org.
   
However, the act provided that no drilling for gas or oil may be done in or underneath the Great Lakes. It also directed the Secretary of the Interior to do a programmatic environmental impact statement for a commercial leasing program for oil shale and tar sands resources on public lands with an emphasis on the most geologically prospective lands within Colorado, Utah and Wyoming. In Wyoming, the EPA found high levels of carcinogens in groundwater wells attributed to fracking.
   
According to the Chicago Tribune, Illinois is on track to permit fracking. However, Southern Illinois is situated on the New Madrid Fault—spurring concern about seismic instability and the possibility that earthquakes could result as a result of fracking, as Ohio and Wyoming found out. The New Madrid Seismic Zone encompasses Illinois and runs south down the Mississippi River. According to Jay Feldman, a French missionary recorded an earthquake on the NMSZ on Christmas in 1699. And according to the USGS, there was an earthquake along the fault line in Arkansas in 1811 and 1812, and one in 1895 in Missouri. There are mixed views on how vulnerable Chicago is to another series of quakes along that fault. But structures like the Hancock Building, Willis Tower and most of the highrises on Chicago’s lakefront must not be exposed to the possibility of quakes. The density of our population around Chicago and our stunning highrise architecture make it imperative that we avoid mining for natural gas near the fault.
   
In Illinois, our representatives are enacting restrictive rules concerning fracking. Restrictions and taxes may make mining natural gas too much trouble for the mining companies. These regulations are only common sense and do not go far enough. The chemical mixtures the mining companies use require that their secret recipes be disclosed at the time in the event of an emergency. That is too late. We should be able to know exactly what chemicals are going to be injected into our environment and thus may affect our health, before they are permitted to frack in our communities.

Published: August 19, 2012
Issue: Fall 2012 Issue