Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, is a process that involves pumping millions of gallons of water and chemicals into the ground in an effort to crack shale rock deep beneath the ground. Once the shale is cracked, vast resources of natural gas can be released and, ideally, harnessed for consumption.
The center of the controversy over fracking is the Marcellus Shale, a huge underground formation that stretches across the northeastern United States, ranging from central New York through northeastern and western Pennsylvania and farther west to West Virginia and eastern Ohio. Fracking advocates contend that it has enormous potential as a resource of natural gas.
Currently, New York has a moratorium on fracking while Pennsylvania does not, as Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York is awaiting information from the state Department of Environment Conservation before making a decision. This issue also packs a significant political punch, as Cuomo is believed to have his eye on national politics.
On one hand, the potentially immense supply of natural gas could provide jobs in rural regions and also pave the way for the energy independence. On the other hand, pumping chemicals into the ground and disrupting the environment could carry significant health risks.
Fracking supporters argue that environmental problems are the result of outdated practices and poorly managed projects. Opponents claim that the practice increases the risk of water contamination and air pollution.
- Stress on surface water and ground water supplies
- Contamination of underground sources of drinking water
- Adverse impacts from discharges into surface water
- Air pollution resulting from the release of volatile organic compounds, hazardous air pollutants and greenhouse gases.
The EPA has also established laws to ensure the safe disposal of wastewater from the sites, as well as regulations on air pollutants and disposal. However, these regulations merely seek to control the potential for disaster, but what of other practices that aren’t regulated?
In one of the most conclusive reports to date, researchers from the Colorado School of Public Health have linked the air pollutants produced by fracking to acute and chronic health problems, ranging from respiratory effects and eye irritation to an increased risk of cancer. The study, published in Science of the Total Environment, identified benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and xylene as EPA-classified air pollutants found in the air near fracking sites. These pollutants can produce adverse health effects, as well as concern that not all of the names of chemicals being pumped into the shale have been released to the public.
In an article in the Baltimore Sun, Karen Huffling, Director of Programs for the Alliance of Nurses for Health Environments, claimed that fracking has been linked to "cancer and kidney, liver and neurological damage." Though no evidence is provided, Huffling does have justification for medical concerns, as health care workers do not know what chemicals patients may have been exposed to, limiting treatment options and potentially exposing these workers to harmful chemicals.