America’s Fracking Gold Rush Portends the Greatest Environmental Disaster of a Generation

America’s Fracking Gold Rush Portends the Greatest Environmental Disaster of a Generation by Denise Grollmus, September 20, 2012, Miami New Times
But it wasn’t long before Mayer received another surprise — this one less pleasant. One morning he turned on his kitchen sink. Instead of water, the tap hissed with gas. Mayer grabbed his lighter and held it to the faucet. It burst into flames. Though Fortuna had yet to drill on his property, the company was already at work six miles to the west. Mayer called the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to file a complaint in January 2009. His case was assigned to an investigator, though no one came out to investigate. “[Our] staff concluded that the gas in Mr. Mayer’s well was naturally occurring and that no investigation was warranted for several reasons,” says Emily DeSantis, an agency spokeswoman. Not only was Mayer’s residence more than a mile away from the nearest drilling, DeSantis says, but also “naturally occurring methane is commonplace throughout the state.” Mayer knew better, of course. His water hadn’t become flammable until Fortuna began drilling nearby. More than three years later, he can make every faucet in his house dance with flames. He can’t drink from his own tap. Sometimes the gas pressure builds up so much that it blasts coffee cups from his hands while he does the dishes. Still, he was less upset by the contamination than he was about not making money from it. About the time Mayer signed his lease, then-Gov. David Paterson watched as drilling devastated neighboring Pennsylvania, where thousands of contamination complaints have been filed. In one incident near Pittsburgh, toxic wastewater ended up in the Monogahela River, leaving 850,000 residents without drinkable water. So Paterson banned fracking in New York.

The first wells sprouted in 2000. But the onslaught wouldn’t begin until 2004, when the Bush administration ruled that fracking “posed no threat to drinking water.” Bush’s scientists would later be discredited, of course.

Sharon Wilson is often dismissed as an anti-fracking loony. … She writes of people who report that their children are passing out in the shower due to gas leaks in their water supply. Others discover their farm animals are losing hair or dying after drinking from contaminated streams. People from around Texas and as far away as Colorado, Wyoming, and Pennsylvania began contacting her with horror stories of their own, begging Wilson to post home videos of their own flaming faucets and dying animals. Steven Lipsky was among them. He was just another Texas homeowner with a flaming faucet. But he also had something else: confirmation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that fracking had left his water laced with benzene, capable of causing cancer and birth defects. The danger had forced his family to evacuate their home. After Wilson posted video of his combustible faucet, Lipsky sued Range Resources for poisoning his water. He also asked the Texas Railroad Commission, which oversees environmental issues in the state, to back the feds’ finding. But Range Resources knew that if Lipsky won, thousands of homeowners would set upon the industry, seeking restitution for poisoned land. So it hired the best scientists money could buy — in this case, Harvard and MIT grads as well as Halliburton’s experts. Then it took its case to a Railroad Commission already stacked in its favor. As the Dallas Observer detailed, nearly every member hearing the case had a financial interest in Range or one of its subsidiaries. Even Ethical Corporation’s Entine, who is critical of anti-fracking arguments, admits that “the Railroad Commission is totally corrupt.” Expectedly, it ruled that the EPA was wrong, asserting that the gas was naturally occurring. The ruling caused the feds to backpedal. In the end, Lipsky not only lost his case, but also was countersued by Range, claiming he was part of a conspiracy to defame the company by providing a “misleading” video and falsehoods to the media. Wilson was named as a co-conspirator. … “It’s such bullshit,” she says. “All [Lipsky] did is send me a video, and it was over a month after the EPA made their ruling. Like most of the blog, I’m just linking to stuff that’s already out there. This is how insane and aggressive this company is… Industry can go on and say never once has there been a case where it has been proven, blah, blah, blah. But on the ground, we know better. We know that when they frack, our water gets contaminated.

Where the science of fracking is concerned, engineer Tony Ingraffea and geologist Terry Engelder agree on almost everything except this: “Tony thinks fracking should stop, and I don’t,” says Engelder, a Penn State geologist credited with discovering the state’s potential for fracking. “I believe that economic health has to come before environmental health is worked out. Tony is arguing for environmental health at any cost.” … But while environmental regulators continue to see no evil, Cornell University engineer Tony Ingraffea is just as vigorous in warning of the dangers. “Four years later, the industry is still trying to figure out what to do with their crap,” he says. “Bad things happened. And bad things continue to happen.” His biggest beef is with the industry’s misinformation campaign. Despite all evidence to the contrary, gas companies claim it’s impossible for fracking fluid to come in contact with drinking water. “They are simply telling downright lies because they think people are stupid, but this is really street-smart stuff,” he says. … Ingraffea sees it as part of a pattern where the industry buys off the country’s most prestigious universities “like MIT to do pseudo-science.” Meanwhile, the Natural Gas Alliance, an industry lobbying group, shelled out $80 million to Hill and Knowlton Strategies, the same PR firm used by Big Tobacco to argue there was no link between smoking and cancer. “The whole goal is to put a little seed of doubt in people’s minds,” Ingraffea says. “And for those who believe that they can get rich from leasing their land, there is a willing suspension of disbelief. But the real question is: How many bad things can go wrong right in front of your eyes before you finally accept the truth that this stuff is nasty and extremely dangerous?”

While the gas industry is busy paying scientists and politicians to minimize the risks of fracking, it’s also greatly exaggerating its economic potential. Like most opponents, Deborah Rogers didn’t pay much attention to the boom until Chesapeake was about to drill a well only 100 feet from her property. After working in finance for years, she quit her job in 2003 to open an artisanal cheese-making operation on land she’d inherited in Fort Worth. Instead of signing away her property to one of the many land men knocking on her door, she decided to attend a chamber of commerce luncheon where Chesapeake CEO McClendon boasted of the economic benefits of fracking. “So I went home and looked into it and discovered that some of these companies had enormous amounts of debt,” Rogers says. “It was more likely that they were drilling to meet debt service rather than for profitability.”… Not only do the companies overestimate earnings to landowners, but they are also able to borrow huge sums of money against these exaggerated estimates. “After a decade of fracking, we’re beginning to be able to show that, without a doubt, this was simply a very well-orchestrated public relations campaign,” Rogers says. “There is gas there, but is there as much as they said? No. Are we gonna see the economic stability they promised? The answer is no.” … In the end, Rogers says, the money these wells actually produce isn’t enough to offset the cost of land rendered worthless thanks to contamination. In essence, the industry is creating thousands of mini Superfund sites, leaving someone else to deal with the ruin. [Emphasis added]

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