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Fracking and Public Health


By Don O'Hagan
In recent years, hydraulic fracturing, or fracking has come under public debate as one of the most pressing public health issues.  The area impacted covers approximately 48,000 square miles in a geological formation called Marcellus Shale, located beneath the states of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, and Tennessee. Nearly 36 percent of the Delaware River Watershed is underlain by Marcellus Shale. Industrial and academic assessments estimate that trillions of cubic feet of natural gas could be recovered from the formation with tens of thousands of natural gas wells anticipated in the Delaware River Basin alone. The impacts to human health through water and air quality, recreation, and wildlife in treasured areas could be severe. 
 Source: The South East Texas Record
In June 2011, the New Jersey state Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation banning the use of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas exploration in New Jersey. The 33-1 vote came after Senator Joseph Kyrillos (R-Monmouth) unsuccessfully asked for a five-year moratorium instead of an outright ban. The legislation says fracking, which has been used in Pennsylvania, uses a variety of contaminating chemicals and materials that can suddenly and in an uncontrolled manner be introduced into the surface waters and ground water.
Shortly thereafter in August, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) released a draft of proposed regulations governing fracking. The rules would permanently ban fracking in the New York City watershed, located north of the city, and the Syracuse watershed. Aquifers in other parts of the state would also be off limits. 
In addition, a coalition of concerned nonprofit organizations jointly filed a lawsuit against the Army Corps of Engineers and the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) for their failure to comply with federal law by proposing gas drilling regulations without first conducting a full environmental review as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. The lawsuit charges that an analysis must be completed and environmental impacts understood before drilling moves forward in the Delaware River Basin. The coalition includes the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), Riverkeeper and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, represented by attorneys from each organization and the Columbia Environmental Law Clinic. The suit was filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, New York where the Army Corps office is located. 
In their most pronounced position on the subject to date, the EPA took to the air proposing federal regulations to reduce smog-forming pollutants released by the fast-spreading approach to gas drilling. If approved as currently written, the rules would amount to the first national standards for fracking of any kind. The agency sets guidelines when companies inject fluids underground for various purposes, but in 2005 Congress prohibited the EPA from doing so for fracking. Regulation has been left to the states, some of which compel companies to report what chemicals they use and have imposed tougher well-design standards. 
The new EPA proposal would limit the emissions released during many stages of natural gas production and explicitly targets the volatile organic compounds released in large quantities when wells are fracked. According to the EPA, drillers would have to use equipment that captures these gases, reducing emissions by nearly 95 percent. These proposed rules represent an important step by federal regulators amid growing controversy over fracking's safety. 
One thing is for sure, the public continues to press for equal voice in the debate with the politicians and the drillers. Civic organizations are rising up in defense of public health and the environment. Just last month, in the current Marcellus fracking debate epicenter of Albany, NY, 47 groups called on Governor Cuomo for a statewide fracking ban. These environmental groups and some legislators are asking for a longer public review of a New York State plan to permit a controversial method of natural gas extraction that combines hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling.
Stay tuned.
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