Marcellus basics discussed at Mt. Lebanon Library

Published Oct 16, 2013 at 11:38 am (Updated Oct 16, 2013 at 11:38 am)

Although the Marcellus Shale industry has been going strong in the region for more than five years, there are still some people who have little knowledge on the subject. To clarify fact from fiction in regards to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters (LWV) recently presented “The Straight Scoop on Shale” at the Mt. Lebanon Public Library.

“I hadn’t really thought about it before,” said Beth Ungar of Upper St. Clair, who was one of nearly 30 people in attendance.

“I came to learn more about the topic,” said Lainey Becker of Mt. Lebanon. “I’m concerned about it health and safety wise.”

Suzanne Stamatoa of Mt. Lebanon agreed she attended the presentation to learn about the effects of fracking on water.

“Water is a big issue and what they’re putting in it,” she said. Stamatoa, who is a member of the Mt. Lebanon Environmental Team said she’s also concerned about air quality. “It really affects all of us,” she said.

“I’m here for information. I know little bits. That’s why I’m here – for information,” added Jim DelBianco of Mt. Lebanon.

The discussion was presented by LWV members Heather Harr, Heather Wechter, Debbie Larson and Vera Bonet.

“We’re here to offer thoughtful, fact-based discussions on the process of gas development,” said Wechter, who resides in Mt. Lebanon. The league is also publishing guides and other literature on the topic of Marcellus shale.

During the talk, Larson presented a short video on the process of drilling and fracking a gas well. The process involves drilling about 6,000 feet straight into the ground. Then, a hole is drilled horizontally another 1,000 to 3,000 feet. Steel casing is fed into the entire length of the well. Then, a perforated pipe gun is sent into the well that shoots an electric current by wire, thus creating small holes through the casing and cement. Water and a mixture of chemicals are then use to fracture the shale and release the gas trapped inside.

According to Larson, about 20 percent of the fluids return to the surface and that fluid or brine is treated and stored in deep injection wells, which are often located in Ohio. Some of the brine can be used for road salt.

Harr added, chemicals in fracking fluid can leach into the water supplies through leaks and spillage from trucks and can also evaporate from wastewater ponds. Also, chemicals can also escape into the air from well heads and from the flaring of the well.

Bonet then talked about the potential health affects associated with Marcellus shale. “Figuring out what is going on is very complicated,” she said. “It’s hard to predict harm from operations without knowing the concentrations of the specific chemicals used.”

Therefore, Bonet said researchers have had to rely mostly on “anecdotal or survey evidence.” These are stories people have told about what has happened to them while either living by or working at a drill site.

Bonet said survey evidence is “not necessarily reliable” and that scientific-based studies need to be conducted on large groups of people using a control group.

Harr then discussed some of the chemicals that may be used in fracking fluid and their potential health effects. For example, formaldehyde is used and exposure can come through inhalation or ingestion. Formaldehyde exposure is linked to respiratory irritation and some cancers.

Then there are the NORMs, or naturally occurring radioactive materials, said Harr. The NORMs are found in the “flow back” or wastewater portion of the fracking fluid. NORMs include uranium, radium and radon.

Other chemicals used in the fluid include benzene, phenol, toluene. These are also endocrine disruptors. They have been known to have an effect on hormones in both men and women.

Harr talked about both short-term and long-term health effects that have been reported by survey groups. Headaches, burning eyes, rashes, nose and throat irritation and increased risk of certain cancers are some of the short-term effects. Potential long-term impacts can be kidney damage, neurological damage, immune system suppression and respiratory problems. Harr said though, “Hydraulic fracturing has not been going on long enough to look at the long-term effects.”

Harr added that the research that has been done on fracking is usually based on “occasional exposure in adult males,” and limited research has been done on the effects of fracking in women and children. She said the research that has been done is based on limited exposure and not on a constant basis, such as people living adjacent to a site.

Symptoms reported in children include severe headaches, nosebleeds, vomiting, asthma and rashes. Harr noted that the symptoms are self-reported.

Not much research has been done on pregnant women but there has been some low birth weight and still births in animals such as cows. A study on the connection between low birth weight and fracking is currently being conducted by researchers at Cornell University.

There is also research being done on six counties in Texas where drilling has been happening for many years. Evidence is demonstrating an increased risk of breast cancer.

“It’s not proof, but it is an argument,” Harr said.

The noise associated with hydraulic fracturing can also be harmful and can be at sounds of between 80 and 90 dBA. At 30 dBA, sleep begins to be affected. People can experience psychological impacts from constantly hearing loud noises, including stress, anxiety, tension and depression.

Harr said that the industry should begin the process of adopting best practices to reduce potential exposures and accidents and improve safety and effectiveness at drilling sites. Some ideas for best practices include a better way of dealing with wastewater and building thicker casings in the wells to prevent accidents.

Harr added that there needs to be more research and documentation done and that companies should be required to list the chemicals used in fracturing fluid. Knowing the chemical compounds used can help doctors determine if an illness is a result of exposure. A best practice for physicians could be to have a question regarding shale gas on forms filled out prior to a patient visit.

Those concerned about hydraulic fracturing and the chemicals used should tell their doctor if they live by or have been exposed to a drilling site. Harr added tests on the water and air should be done both before and after drilling begins.

Harr suggested citizens contact their legislators to let them know their thoughts and concerns regarding Marcellus Shale and fracking and to interact with the local health department.

For further information on the LWV’s Straight Scoop on Shale, visit www.shale.palwv.org or call 1-800-617-4253.

The LWV will be sponsoring a conference on the topic of drilling on Nov. 23 at the Heinz History Center. Speakers will include Dr. Michelle Bamberger and Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, both of Cornell University.

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