Fracking our Food Supply by Elizabeth Royte, November 28, 2012, The Nation
But there’s growing evidence that these two impulses, toward energy and food independence, may be at odds with each other. Tonight’s guests have heard about residential drinking wells tainted by fracking fluids in Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Colorado. They’ve read about lingering rashes, nosebleeds and respiratory trauma in oil-patch communities, which are mostly rural, undeveloped, and lacking in political influence and economic prospects. The trout nibblers in the winery sympathize with the suffering of those communities. But their main concern tonight is a more insidious matter: the potential for drilling and fracking operations to contaminate our food. The early evidence from heavily fracked regions, especially from ranchers, is not reassuring.
Jacki Schilke and her sixty cattle live in the top left corner of North Dakota, a windswept, golden-hued landscape in the heart of the Bakken Shale. Schilke’s neighbors love her black Angus beef, but she’s no longer sharing or eating it—not since fracking began on thirty-two oil and gas wells within three miles of her 160-acre ranch and five of her cows dropped dead. Schilke herself is in poor health. A handsome 53-year-old with a faded blond ponytail and direct blue eyes, she often feels lightheaded when she ventures outside. She limps and has chronic pain in her lungs, as well as rashes that have lingered for a year. Once, a visit to the barn ended with respiratory distress and a trip to the emergency room. Schilke also has back pain linked with overworked kidneys, and on some mornings she urinates a stream of blood. Ambient air testing by a certified environmental consultant detected elevated levels of benzene, methane, chloroform, butane, propane, toluene and xylene—compounds associated with drilling and fracking, and also with cancers, birth defects and organ damage. Her well tested high for sulfates, chromium, chloride and strontium; her blood tested positive for acetone, plus the heavy metals arsenic (linked with skin lesions, cancers and cardiovascular disease) and germanium (linked with muscle weakness and skin rashes). Both she and her husband, who works in oilfield services, have recently lost crowns and fillings from their teeth; tooth loss is associated with radiation poisoning and high selenium levels, also found in the Schilkes’ water.
State health and agriculture officials acknowledged Schilke’s air and water tests but told her she had nothing to worry about. Her doctors, however, diagnosed her with neurotoxic damage and constricted airways. “I realized that this place is killing me and my cattle,” Schilke says. She began using inhalers and a nebulizer, switched to bottled water, and quit eating her own beef and the vegetables from her garden. (Schilke sells her cattle only to buyers who will finish raising them outside the shale area, where she presumes that any chemical contamination will clear after a few months.) “My health improved,” Schilke says, “but I thought, ‘Oh my God, what are we doing to this land?’”
Earlier this year, Michelle Bamberger, an Ithaca veterinarian, and Robert Oswald, a professor of molecular medicine at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, published the first (and, so far, only) peer-reviewed report to suggest a link between fracking and illness in food animals. The authors compiled case studies of twenty-four farmers in six shale-gas states whose livestock experienced neurological, reproductive and acute gastrointestinal problems. Exposed either accidentally or incidentally to fracking chemicals in the water or air, scores of animals have died. The death toll is insignificant when measured against the nation’s livestock population (some 97 million beef cattle go to market each year), but environmental advocates believe these animals constitute an early warning. Exposed animals “are making their way into the food system, and it’s very worrisome to us,” Bamberger says. “They live in areas that have tested positive for air, water and soil contamination. Some of these chemicals could appear in milk and meat products made from these animals.”
In addition to the cases documented by Bamberger, hair testing of sick cattle that grazed around well pads in New Mexico found petroleum residues in fifty-four of fifty-six animals. In North Dakota, wind-borne fly ash, which is used to solidify the waste from drilling holes and contains heavy metals, settled over a farm: one cow, which either inhaled or ingested the caustic dust, died, and a stock pond was contaminated with arsenic at double the accepted level for drinking water. Cattle that die on the farm don’t make it into the nation’s food system. (Though they’re often rendered to make animal feed for chickens and pigs—yet another cause for concern.) But herd mates that appear healthy, despite being exposed to the same compounds, do: farmers aren’t required to prove their livestock are free of fracking contaminants before middlemen purchase them. Bamberger and Oswald consider these animals sentinels for human health. “They’re outdoors all day long, so they’re constantly exposed to air, soil and groundwater, with no break to go to work or the supermarket,” Bamberger says. “And they have more frequent reproductive cycles, so we can see toxic effects much sooner than with humans.”
Although energy companies don’t make a habit of telling potential lease signers about the environmental risks they might face, the Securities and Exchange Commission requires them to inform potential investors. In a 2008 filing, Cabot Industries cited “well site blowouts, cratering and explosions; equipment failures; uncontrolled flows of natural gas, oil or well fluids; fires; formations with abnormal pressures; pollution and other environmental risks.” In 2011, oil companies in North Dakota reported more than 1,000 accidental releases of oil, drilling wastewater or other fluids, with many more releases likely unreported. Between 2008 and 2011, drilling companies in Pennsylvania reported 2,392 violations of law that posed a direct threat to the environment and safety of communities.
“We’re upwind of the drill rigs here,” Schilke says. “They’re high enough to miss some of the road dust, and they’ve got good water.” Ever since a heater-treater unit, which separates oil, gas and brine, blew out on a drill pad a half-mile upwind of Schilke’s ranch, her own creek has been clogged with scummy growth, and it regularly burps up methane. “No one can tell me what’s going on,” she says. But since the blowout, her creek has failed to freeze, despite temperatures of forty below. (Testing found sulfate levels of 4,000 parts per million: the EPA’s health goal for sulfate is 250 parts per million.)
Schilke’s troubles began in the summer of 2010, when a crew working at this site continued to force drilling fluid down a well that had sprung a leak. Soon, Schilke’s cattle were limping, with swollen legs and infections. Cows quit producing milk for their calves; they lost from sixty to eighty pounds in a week; and their tails mysteriously dropped off. (Lab rats exposed to the carcinogen 2-butoxyethanol, a solvent used in fracking, have lost their tails, but a similar connection with cattle hasn’t been shown. In people, breathing, touching or consuming enough of the chemical can lead to pulmonary edema and coma.) An inveterate label reader who obsessively tracks her animals’ nutritional intake, Schilke couldn’t figure out what was wrong. Neither could local veterinarians. She nursed individual cows for weeks and, with much sorrow, put a $5,000 bull out of its misery with a bullet. Upon examination, the animal’s liver was found to be full of tunnels and its lungs congested with pneumonia. Before the year was out, five cows had died, in addition to several cats and two dogs. (A feline autopsy came back inconclusive, but subsequent hair testing of cows, cats and dogs revealed sulfate levels high enough to cause polio in cattle.) Inside Schilke’s house today, where the china cabinets are kept empty for fear of a shattering drill-site explosion, nearly a dozen cats sneeze and cough, some with their heads tilted at a creepy angle.
Before the drilling started, two cars a day traveled down Schilke’s gravel road. Now, it’s 300 trucks hauling sand, fresh water, wastewater, chemicals, drill cuttings and drilling equipment. Most of the tankers are placarded for hazardous or radioactive material. Drilling and fracking a single well requires 2,000 truck trips, and each pass of a vehicle sends a cyclone of dust and exhaust fumes into the air. Mailbox numbers are obliterated, conversations are choked off, and animals die of “dust pneumonia.” (More formally known as bovine respiratory disease, the illness is associated with viral, fungal and bacterial infection.) Ordinarily, Schilke hauls her calves to auction when they’re eight months old. “Buyers come from everywhere for Dakota cows,” she says. The animals are then raised on pasture or in feedlots until they are big enough for slaughter. No longer Schilke cattle, they’re soon part of the commodity food system: anonymous steaks and chops on supermarket shelves. Now, Schilke is diffident about selling her animals. “I could get good money for these steers,” she says, cocking her head toward a pair of sleek adolescents. “They seem to be in very good shape and should have been butchered. But I won’t sell them because I don’t know if they’re OK.”
Nor does anyone else. By design, secrecy shrouds the hydrofracking process, casting a shadow that extends over consumers’ right to know if their food is safe. … If scientists and citizens can’t find out precisely what is in drilling or fracking fluids or air emissions at any given time, it’s difficult to test whether any contaminants have migrated into the water, soil or food—and whether they can harm humans. It gets even more complicated: without information on the interactions between these chemicals and others already existing in the environment, an animal’s cause of death, Bamberger says, “is anyone’s guess.”
Thanks to public pressure, several states have started to tighten regulations on the cement casings used to line wells, and the Obama administration recently required energy companies to disclose, on the industry-sponsored website fracfocus .org, the fracking chemicals used on public land. (States regulate fracking on private land and set different requirements.) Still, information about quantities and concentrations of the chemicals remains secret, as do compounds considered proprietary. Further, no state requires a company to disclose its ingredients until a fracking job is complete. At that point, it’s easy to blame the presence of toxins in groundwater on a landowner’s use of pesticides, fertilizers or even farm equipment.
The relatively small number of animals reported sick or dead invites the question: If oil and gas operations are so risky, why aren’t there more cases? There likely are, but few scientists are looking for them. (“Who’s got the money to study this?” Colborn asks rhetorically.) Rural vets won’t speak up for fear of retaliation. And farmers aren’t talking for myriad reasons: some receive royalty checks from the energy companies (either by choice or because the previous landowner leased their farm’s mineral rights); some have signed nondisclosure agreements after receiving a financial settlement; and some are in active litigation. Some farmers fear retribution from community members with leases; others don’t want to fall afoul of “food disparagement” laws or get sued by an oil company for defamation (as happened with one Texan after video of his flame-spouting garden hose was posted on the Internet. The oil company won; the homeowner is appealing).
However, some institutions that specialize in risk have started to connect the dots. Nationwide Mutual Insurance, which sells agricultural insurance, recently announced that it would not cover damages related to fracking. Rabobank, the world’s largest agricultural bank, reportedly no longer sells mortgages to farmers with gas leases. And in the boldest move yet by a government official, Christopher Portier, director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called for studies that “include all the ways people can be exposed, such as through air, water, soil, plants and animals.” While the EPA is in the midst of a $1.9 million study of fracking’s impact on water, no government agency has taken up Portier’s challenge to study plants and animals.
Besides clean air, farmers need clean water—lots of it. But some farmers now find themselves competing with energy companies for this increasingly precious resource. At water auctions in Colorado, the oil and gas industry has paid utilities up to twenty times the price that farmers typically pay. In Wyoming, ranchers have switched from raising beef to selling their water. Unwilling to risk her animals’ health to creek water that’s possibly tainted, Schilke spent $4,000 last summer hauling safe water from town to her ranch. “I’d wait in line for hours,” she says, “usually behind tanker trucks buying water to frack wells.” [Emphasis added]
Fracked Beef: It’s What’s for Dinner? by Sydney Brownstone, November 29, 2012, Mother Jones
From a tainted water supply in Wyoming totoxic air pollution in Colorado, there are concerns aplenty about the public health effects of hydraulic fracturing. While many communities investigate what we drink and breathe for answers, one new report from The Nation and the Food & Environment Reporting Network highlights a key yet overlooked complication—fracking chemicals could affect our food. For the cover story in the magazine’s December issue, journalist and author Elizabeth Royte visited a North Dakotan cattle farmer living smack in the middle of the Bakken oil boom. The rancher, Jacki Schilke, decided to largely stop selling her cows for Black Angus beef after several died or started displaying mysterious symptoms, like rapid weight loss or tails that would simply drop off. Schilke, Royte writes, is surrounded by 32 fracked oil and gas wells within three miles of her 160-acre ranch. The author continues: Ambient air testing by a certified environmental consultant detected elevated levels of benzene, methane, chloroform, butane, propane, toluene and xylene—compounds associated with drilling and fracking, and also with cancers, birth defects and organ damage. Her well tested high for sulfates, chromium, chloride and strontium; her blood tested positive for acetone, plus the heavy metals arsenic (linked with skin lesions, cancers and cardiovascular disease) and germanium (linked with muscle weakness and skin rashes). Both she and her husband, who works in oilfield services, have recently lost crowns and fillings from their teeth; tooth loss is associated with radiation poisoning and high selenium levels, also found in the Schilkes’ water. According to Royte, the state’s health and agriculture officials told Schilke this wasn’t cause for concern. Another state air quality official told OnEarth magazine that in investigating Schilke’s health complaint, tests never revealed pollutants above “normal background” levels. Of course, it doesn’t help Schilke that there’s scarce research into the connection between food and fracking. [Emphasis added]
[Refer also to: National Farmer’s Union Demands Moratorium on frac’ing
North Dakota Turns Blind Eye to Dumping of Fracking Waste in Waterways and Farmland, Releases of drilling and fracking waste, which is often laced with carcinogenic chemicals, have wiped out aquatic life in streams and wetlands