Fracking’s Air Pollution: Disgusting, Toxic and Legal

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This massive fracking well is ~15 acres and is located at the top of a flattened mountain in Doddridge County, W.V. Trucks get to well by driving up a narrow 2 mile country road lined with about 40 homes.

“What’s that smell?”

I asked that question when I caught a whiff of metallic gas while standing in Lyndia’s front yard.  Her house is four hours west of Baltimore in West Union, a town in Doddridge County, West Virginia. Ten active fracking wells sit within one mile of her home.

Doddridge County is a hot spot in our country’s fracking boom. I visited the fracking fields there last June to learn first-hand what it’s like to be a “fracking neighbor.” I define fracking neighbor as someone who lives near a natural gas hydrofracturing, a.k.a. fracking, well. According to the Wall Street Journal, 15.3 million people live within one mile of a fracking well. In only nine years, five percent of Americans are now fracking neighbors, and that’s because 100,000 fracking wells have been drilled across 31 states. 

You may find it surprising that many fracking neighbors aren’t getting rich off our country’s big natural gas boom. Most happen to just live close to fracking and many of the homeowners with fracking wells on their property don’t even own the mineral rights to the gas below because of the split estate. A split estate is an estate where property rights are split between two parties.  About 70 percent of West Virginia residential properties are split estates where one party owns the surface land and another owns the rights to the income from any oil, gas or coal from below surface.

In Maryland, even though 125,000 acres has been leased to gas drillers, there are no active fracking wells, yet. Maryland held off fracking during O’Malley’s tenure though he just approved fracking with regulations. Maryland’s governor-elect Hogan is big time pro-fracking and, environmentalists are worried he will relax any standards left by O’Malley.

Lyndia’s fracking story below is a classic example of what most fracking neighbors live with every day.  Her story highlights fracking’s lack of regulation, the lack of governmental help and the rampant air pollution and its health issues. What may also shock you is the toxic air pollution she breathes each day is perfectly legal. 

After I smelled fracking’s “perfume” and spent just one day in West Virginia’s fracking fields, I asked myself repeatedly, “What would I do if this were happening in my town?”

Visiting fracking fields with West Virginia Host Farms

Miles underground, from New York to North Carolina, runs the massive Marcellus Shale natural gas shale basin. The basin now accounts for 30 percent of the U.S. gas boom. Western Maryland sits atop the Marcellus Shale as do West Virginia with 3,300 fracking wells drilled and Pennsylvania with 6,500 wells drilled.

As fracking engulfed Doddridge County, West Virginia in 2010, problems began to surface: well blow outs, chemicals spills, horrendous truck traffic, water contamination and stinky air pollution.

Water buffaloes (drinking H2O replacement) are widespread in fracking fields of Doddridge County, W.V. Needed when fracking  contaminates drinking water wells. Homeowners sign non-disclosures and can't report contamination.
Water buffaloes (drinking H2O replacement) are widespread in fracking fields of Doddridge County, W.V. Needed when fracking contaminates drinking water wells. Homeowners sign non-disclosures and can’t report contamination.

West Virginia Host Farms was created in response to the fracking damage, and the volunteer group offers tours for journalists, scientists, the environmental community and government officials to get up close and personal to fracking. It’s tough to find the many wells by just driving around the beautiful country roads. 

My guide, Lyndia, is a West Virginia Host Farms’ volunteer. We drove all over  Doddridge County on a summer day in June 2014. We visited compressor stations, drilling sites and also counted the many water buffaloes supplying homeowners with drinking water (hint: contaminated water) I made this home movie of my day in the fracking fields. 

Since 2010, ten fracking wells have been drilled at the top of Lyndia’s country road.  Her home is the first home off the highway, and so many trucks drive by her house that a flagger directs traffic in front of her house. Lyndia earns no income from fracking, as a fracking neighbor.

There are 17,422 smelly things in the air

The same time fracking and its trucks descended on Lyndia’s street, her neighbors leased their empty land to gas drillers for a large condensate tank. The tank sits 75 feet from Lyndia’s front yard, and its purpose is to collect and separate any liquids from the gases and then vent some into the air. Yes, you read that correctly. Condensate tanks are designed to vent unprocessed methane, hydrocarbons, carcinogenic volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and possible radioactive chemicals and all the other crap from miles below directly into the air. Lyndia soon started smelling odd smells, often at night, and suspected the tank.

This condensate tank, located on her neighbor’s property, sits 75 feet from Lyndia’s home. The tank collects up to 5,000 gallons of hydrocarbon liquids and vents toxins into the air, usually at night.

When Lyndia took her 12-year-old grandson to the pediatrician to get help for bronchitis, the doctor asked how long her grandson had suffered from asthma. He’d never had asthma. She mentioned that they lived close to fracking, and that she was aware that kids near fracking were complaining of asthma.  Once she mentioned fracking, the doctor grew quiet and said he was probably mistaken about the asthma. 

Her grandson’s school bus stop sits 40 feet from the condensate tank. 

Her worry drove her to enlist the non-profit Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPA-EHP). This non-profit sprung into existence to provide health care and support for people living near gas extraction. SWPA-EHP conducted a Speck Air test to monitor the fine air particulates in Lyndia’s home. This particulate pollution (ozone, smog, exhaust and drilling air pollution) is so small (2 microns, one strand of hair is 60) that the fine particulates can pass through people’s throats and noses and penetrate deep inside lung tissues.

Over one month, Lyndia’s air pollution monitoring reported air particulate counts exceeding the healthy maximum of 2,000 particles 27 times. Most high readings came late at night.  Lyndia’s highest reading was 17,422 pollution particles on April 9, 2014 at 9:31 p.m. The report coded the reading, “very unhealthy.”

Looking for help, Lyndia began an odyssey of calling and writing West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP.)

She and her family also decided that her grandson should move back to Seattle. He no longer has any asthma-like symptoms.

Thar she blows!

Another reason Lyndia dialed DEP is that she knew her gas well had blown during one of the first fracking jobs. Fracking actually fractures the shale when gas drillers shoot chemicals, millions of gallons of drinking water and sand under crazy pressure down into the well and explode the shale rock in order for the gas trapped in the rock to bubble up to the surface.

Located about 50 feet from her home, the 1960s-era “free” gas well had been supplying gas to her home.  For decades, oil and gas companies have provided locals with free gas from the older “conventional” natural gas wells. It was a sweet deal and explains why many West Virginians had, and some still have, positive feelings toward gas drilling. These old conventional wells dot West Virginia like stars in the sky. Many are abandoned, some unplugged and sometimes the well’s owner isn’t known, as in Lyndia’s case. It’s a bit of a mess. 

In 2010, during one of the area’s first fracking jobs, Lyndia heard a loud hissing sound from her old gas well. Lyndia and many of her neighbors share a mile-long gas line, and her neighbors’ conventional gas wells also blew out.   

Lyndia and her neighbors’ wells had “communicated” underground; old conventional wells were somehow “talking” with the new fracking wells. Fracking’s horizontal explosions can cause fissures underground that can radiate out up to two miles. These exploding fissures can smack into an old gas well pipe, crack it, and the two wells are then linked. The Environmental Working Group’s excellent report “Cracks in the Facade” documents this phenomena where “fugitive emissions” migrate from the fracking well cracks back up old gas wells to the surface. 

Watch this in action as Lyndia’s rickety well continuously vents global warming methane and toxins directly into the air, her home and our climate. Here’s a version where a film crew bagged the venting gas and then filmed the gas plume with a fancy FLIR camera to gauge the gas emission’s flow.

Filmed with a Flir gas imaging camera, the continuous fugitive emissions can be seen. This old well "communicated", or linked up with new fracking well. Courtesy: Frank Sinan
Filmed with a Flir gas imaging camera, the continuous fugitive emissions can be seen. This old well “communicated”, or linked up with new fracking well. Courtesy: Frank Finan

Fugitive emissions: fracking’s common criminal

The gas smell I smelled at Lyndia’s home is emblematic of a much bigger problem: fracking’s unhealthy and prevalent fugitive emissions. 

From A to Z, fracking for natural gas and oil has many points of methane leakage. It’s a dirty process.  You can see the burning or flaring off of methane in a well’s initial stage, but like Lyndia’s old gas well, most of fracking’s pipes, tanks, trucks and well leakage is invisible.

Even the EPA has a simple web page outlining the scope of the problem.  Texas’s Commission on Environmental Quality reported that over 90 percent of condensate tanks filmed for its report leaked methane.

The industry has been dragging its heels in addressing fracking’s known air pollution because it’s uber-expensive to find and cork all the leaks in a fragmented system across the country.  Plus, there’s no legal foot-in-the-back to fix the leaks because the oil and gas industry is exempted from the Clean Air Act. Regulations are state-based, and states like West Virginia heavily rely on oil and gas taxes (16 percent of state tax collections), so their regulations are lax. Lyndia’s air pollution is legal. 

(If you are curious about the legal exemptions afforded to oil and gas, click here for a piece I wrote.)

Fracking’s air pollution is making people sick

I could smell the emissions from both Lyndia’s old gas well and condensate tank, and it didn’t take a scientist to figure out it can’t be good to breath that stuff. 

Loads of scientific research exists about the severity of the air pollution and its negative health impact on humans. The best research explaining exactly what Lyndia is breathing each day was conducted just north of her town by Dr. David Brown for the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (SWPA-EHP.)  His research highlights that human exposure is episodic and can be severe as the equipment vents during the evenings.  Health issues include nervous system reactions, cardiac symptoms, eye and throat irritation and asthma-like symptoms.

Longer term consequences are beginning to surface. New and alarming research reveals that women living near heavily fracked areas have higher rates of miscarriages and infertility and there is an increase in babies born with birth defects.  Many of the compounds found in fugitive emissions are cancer-causing (bolded), and here’s a short list of what Lyndia is breathing: methane, ethane, barium, arsenic, aldehydes, the BTEX volatile organic compounds benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene and zylene, radium and radioactive products, formaldehydes, carbon monoxide, glycols and silica dust. There are more chemicals, too, but I think you get the point.

When Dr. Brown recently shared his health study on a recent Collaborative on Health and the Environment conference call, he ended his session with a chilling set of points: People living near fracking are exposed to toxins, and the toxins are making people sick. Citizens need to understand that state, local and federal agencies are in no position to help. People need to take precautions to monitor their own health and clean their air with recommended $500 HEPA air filters.

In short, 15 million fracking neighbors are breathing in toxic and polluted air, getting sick, and they’re on their own.

Will oil and gas ever be regulated?

Recent federal bills introduced to regulate oil and gas have never made it out of committee. The Obama administration has been focusing on oil and natural gas air pollution in the context of climate change, not fracking.  Methane pollution is 86 times more potent than CO₂. When you include fracking’s fugitive emissions, natural gas matches coal’s emissions.   

In 2012, under the Clean Air Act, new EPA rules dictated that new fracking wells must capture 95 percent of the volatile organic compounds (not methane) emitted during what’s called the completion stage. The pollution standards also applied to new condensate tanks, but older tanks, like Lyndia’s, will continue to legally emit the unhealthy gas and chemicals.  In 2013, this regulation was watered down. If an operator can prove a piece of equipment spews fewer than four tons a year, no pollution controls are required. Owners report on their own equipment? Really?

Addressing the fugitive methane emissions directly, in March 2014 the White House published this Climate Action Plan report. This plan directed the EPA to study and make recommendations to reduce methane emissions from landfills, coal, agriculture and oil and gas.

As expected, natural gas eschews any regulation. In September 2014, Jeff Eshelman, a Sr. V.P. for the Independent Petroleum Association of America’s summed up the industry’s stance: “As usual, these [environmental] groups seem to ignore that not only are methane emissions from gas production low, but also they have dramatically decreased as gas production has soared.”

The personal toll of fracking – Lyndia’s progress

For many of us living outside of fracking areas, if we smelled gas or had a nearby gas well blow, we’d call our local utility company and it would be fixed quickly.  Utility companies in populated areas take gas leaks very seriously because of potential explosions. 

Readers who live near fracking areas are probably laughing about now because this isn’t what happens when you live in fracking areas. Citizens with fracking complaints are in for a brutal ride.  Just watch the hundreds of videos and read the thousands of articles the Pennsylvania Alliance for Clean Water and Air has published on the List of the Harmed. The List of the Harmed is the only source documenting  fracking damage complaints, and as of this posting there are 7,156 complaints.  A consistent gripe is that there’s no “official” help. Most citizens are left calling the offending gas company directly. It’s heartbreaking to review the stories, and this human element is always left out of the fracking spin.

Lyndia has received no help so far.

To make a very long story short, in three years Lyndia has been in constant contact with W.V. DEP. Nothing has been fixed. The condensate tank continuously spews harmful toxins and the old gas well leaks 24/7. 

She did get the fancy $500 air filter, and thank heavens, because just this month the condensate tank blew out when a part froze.  Toxic liquids blew out of the tank and covered a 60 by 100 square foot area. The gas company responsible for the tank had crews and backhoes digging out the soil. Everyone was so worried about explosions that fire trucks stayed away. Lyndia turned her home’s power off and would not start her car until the gas dispersed. 

When I asked Lyndia what she wanted people to know, she said, “Everyday people are totally left on their own. No one has helped, and the last W.V. DEP person I talked to once again asked me to start the documentation over from square one. I constantly worry about what’s coming.” As she spoke about how much she loved West Virginia, she began to cry.

“I love it here. I’m 67-years-old, and my family has lived here for generations. How can this be right? We played by the rules, and the gas drillers have no rules. It’s important for people to wake up, and unfortunately they won’t until it shows up at their own back door, which is too late. After all, how could it really be this bad?”

Oceans between

The gas industry and the groups who demand fracking regulations are far apart. But people like Lyndia, and so many fracking neighbors, are caught squarely in the middle and live fracking’s harm daily. 

The rest of us often get a rosy view of fracking. When media giants like The Wall Street Journal write about fracking as one of the best examples of the free market society, we give credit to fracking for low gasoline prices and are led to believe that fracking is a safe practice. I think stories like Lyndia’s will increase as the U.S. quickly moves to export fracked gas to higher-priced foreign markets. Sixty-five percent of U.S. natural gas exports are expected to come from additional fracking. As our country places its energy bet on fracking, it’s important to know its downsides and not just focus on the positive economic numbers.

For me personally, as I spent the day seeing fracking first-hand, I just got mad. That deep, almost resigned anger in your gut when you know something isn’t right, fair, reasonable, responsible and logical. Lyndia and the Hagy family, who I previously wrote about, simply find themselves harmed by fracking because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. I feel a profound sense of sadness watching this situation as people within an industry make the choice to knowingly inflict harm on others to make money. In my book, it’s a far cry from the golden rule.

Fracking drillers give talk at schools about natural gas' benefits. Lyndia's grandson was given this CPR kit in school at one such talk.
Fracking drillers give talks at schools about natural gas’ benefits. Lyndia’s grandson was given this CPR kit in school at one such talk.

Laurel Peltier
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Laurel Peltier

Laurel writes the environmental GreenLaurel column every other Thursday in the Baltimore Fishbowl. A graduate of UVA's MBA program, she spends her time with her family and making "all things green" interesting.
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10 COMMENTS

  1. All too true. The industry is a moral quagmire from top to bottom. Everything from truck drivers dumping fracking waste in streams and stealing water from hydrants in public water systems at the bottom to spreading drilling waste water on roads and making drivers work 20 hours and more at the next level to the $8 million dollar suit in Doddridge County against a company for withholding royalty payments and their lying to investors about how long the wells last at the top levels. A bunch of superannuated 13 year olds who weren’t brought up right.

    • Anne- Thanks for your email and I do wish I had finished this article and had the opportunity to have it published before the election. I didn’t hold this story intentionally and I’m learning that sometimes articles get pushed back and this one hit in December. O’Malley could still follow Cuomo if he wanted?

  2. excellent article! i learned so much. i am grateful i don’t live anywhere near a fracking community, and i’m horrified and saddened to hear what others have to experience in their daily lives.

  3. Please, Marylanders, if the realities depicted in this article trouble you, consider forwarding it, with a personal note, to your delegation in the Maryland General Assembly. They are our only hope to save western Maryland families and resources from destruction by fracking. You might also remind them that New York state wisely banned this scourge for the very concerns documented in this excellent article.

    Our local western Maryland delegation dismisses these health and safety concerns and can think only of the purported riches promised to them (and a handful of large landowners) by the gas industry. Those of us living in the targeted areas are utterly lack representation.

    It’s like being tied to the train tracks. Fracking is barreling down on beautiful western Maryland, in a train driven by a blindfolded governor.

  4. Laurel here and I had an update. Obama did announce rules to reduce fugitive methane emissions from natural gas components. It is a positive to have any regulations to address the methane leakage.

    The new ruling’s caveat is that the new standards would apply only to new wells. All of the fracking, as well as conventional (old-styled,) gas wells are grandfathered as is. As currently proposed, all of the equipment in place today would continue to emit methane, legally.

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