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The Missing Information on Fracking

J. Mijin Cha

Credit: Helen Slottje for ShaleshockNPR is currently running a series on the fracking boom that highlights the vast landscape of unanswered questions. Today’s story looks at the medical issues that are plaguing people living near fracking wells, including headaches, rashes and other symptoms. Of the many troubling aspects, doctors in these areas don’t know how to help people with these mysterious symptoms. The natural gas industry claims there is no evidence that drilling is causing health problems and the community profiled also has a metal smelting plant and old coal mines everywhere. Without a massive study, community members won’t know the source or magnitude of the problem.

The case study profiled on NPR highlights a number of issues. One, because cumulative impacts are not taken into consideration during the permitting process, communities end up with multiple polluting industries. In other words, each polluting industry is evaluated as if it were the only industry in a community and not by taking stock of all industries in the community. The result is that while each individual plant may not be creating an environmental burden, the cumulative impact of all the plants often result in significant environmental burdens. This flaw has long been highligted by environmental justice critiques of EPA procedures and makes it difficult, as in this case, to isolate what is causing the health problem.

At the same time, while it is true that there are several polluting industries in the community, the newness of the symptoms and health problems suggests that something toxic was recently introduced, like the new fracking wells. The negative environmental impact of fracking is well documented, from flammable tap water to contaminated groundwater supplies to earthquakes. Fracking uses a mix of chemicals, including ones that have proven to be toxic to animals and humans. And the problem is that we don't know what impact these chemicals are having. Federal rules for fracking have not been updated since 1988, which is long before the industry began using the high-volume fracking that is now so popular. States with high-volume fracking, like Wyoming, only began regulating the practice less than two years ago.