Groundbreaking Study Finds Cancer-Causing Air Pollution Near Fracking Sites
The air quality near fracking sites and other gas and oil operations may not be safe to breathe, according to a new study Air Concentrations of Volatile Compounds Near Oil and Gas Production: A Community-Based Exploratory Study, published today in the journal Environmental Health.
"Horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing, and other drilling and well stimulation technologies are now used widely in the United States and increasingly in other countries," the report stated. "They enable increases in oil and gas production, but there has been inadequate attention to human health impacts."
And the analysis of the air samples gathered in Arkansas, Colorado, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wyoming near oil and gas facilities, including fracking sites, found that those impacts could be considerable. They found numerous toxic chemicals that can cause a host of health problems including asthma, headaches and birth defects—in some cases in amounts hundreds of times higher than what is considered safe. It found levels of eight volatile chemicals that exceeded federal guidelines for health-based risk, especially benzene, formaldehyde and hydrogen sulfate.
The study cites five reasons why the health impacts of oil and gas extraction and processing operations haven't been more widely studied: more focus on threats to water supplies, limited state air quality monitoring networks, a still-evolving understanding of how certain oil and gas production processes contribute to air quality, variations in emissions and their concentrations, and research that overlooks impacts of importance to residents.
The new study addresses the latter concern in its groundbreaking use of a community-based process to choose the sampling locations—areas where residents believe they are suffering from the impacts of nearby oil and gas operations. In addition, the study examined locations representing all phases of these operations, not just one step in the process. Twelve community organizations in six states participated in gathering air quality samples, and their results were released in a companion report Warning Signs: Toxic Air Pollution at Oil and Gas Development Sites.
“The citizens in these communities were experiencing health problems that they believe are linked to the oil and gas production near their homes,” said the study's lead author David Carpenter and director of the Institute of Health and the Environment at New York State University at Albany. “Chemical exposure is insidious and cumulative, and so it may take years to really understand the magnitude of impacts on people’s health from oil and gas development.”
Community members were trained in the use of the same devices used by government agencies that do air quality monitoring. They took their samples at times when people were showing symptoms of illness, smelled strange odors, or saw activities at the sites. The samples were sent to an independent lab for analysis.
One example cited was the new K&H facility in Athens County, Ohio, with 11 large tanks venting volatile organic compounds and hydrocarbons 24 hours a day less than a quarter mile from a residential neighborhood. Issues like that have led to the rise of a strong anti-fracking movement in the southeast Ohio county which sits on the Utica shale play.
"I have personally stood in the front yard of one of K&H's neighbors and experienced light-headedness and sore throat in as little as one-half hour of exposure," said Heather Cantino, a member of the Athens County Fracking Action Network. "These are the same symptoms of toxic hydrocarbon exposure that I have felt standing near injection well sites. It breaks my heart to think about the illnesses possibly in store for these neighbors and for their children, whom I watched playing with their puppy in their front yard. The state's allowing these toxic emissions with NO monitoring whatsoever is immoral and should certainly be illegal."
Monitoring in Wyoming, where oil and gas drilling have been going on for decades, revealed the most extreme result: levels of hydrogen sulfide, a potent nerve toxin, were 660 times higher than the federal health standard.
“Our families have serious health conditions, livestock and pets are sick and dying, and property values have plummeted," said Deb Thomas, a resident of rural farming and ranching community of Clark, Wyoming. "That the contamination has reached this level—legally!—is a shameful disgrace. This air monitoring data should be a warning to everyone, including for people living places where it’s still possible to prevent this contamination. This industry isn’t just fracking for oil and gas...it’s fracturing communities and our lives.”
“Wyoming is the ‘canary in the mine,’" said Athens County resident Sandra Sleight-Brennan. “When you look at the plans that industry has for Ohio—more tanks, more drilling, more pipelines and more barges full of waste being imported, we’d be insane if we didn’t look closely at what has happened in Wyoming. Here in Ohio we have an opportunity, with this new peer-reviewed study, to see the warning signs and learn from them before Ohio becomes the nation’s dumping ground."
Ohio does not monitor emissions from fracking operations.
“This experience shows how important it is for communities to be directly involved in monitoring the air they breathe," said Denny Larson, whose nonprofit organization Global Community Monitor trained the residents who participated in the monitoring. "They know their communities better than anyone, and combination of scientific data and personal experiences can help government agencies that are supposed to be protecting our health, to do their job.”
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Researchers at UC-Riverside are investigating how barley, a key ingredient in beer, survives in such a wide variety of climates with hopes of learning what exactly makes it so resilient across climates.
Barley was first grown domestically in Southwest Asia about 10,000 year ago and is grown around the world, from Egypt to Minnesota.
Barley's prime growing regions have shifted northward in recent decades as global temperatures have risen due to climate change caused by human extraction and combustion of fossil fuels.
Chuck Skypeck, technical brewing projects manager for the Brewers Association located in Boulder, Colorado, told E&E climate change's effects are impacting the brewing industry.
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France moved one step closer this weekend to banning short-haul flights in an attempt to fight the climate crisis.
A bill prohibiting regional flights that could be replaced with an existing train journey of less than two and a half hours passed the country's National Assembly late on Saturday, as Reuters reported.
"We know that aviation is a contributor of carbon dioxide and that because of climate change we must reduce emissions," Industry Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher told Europe 1 radio, according to Reuters.
The measure now has to pass the French Senate, then return to the lower house for a final vote. It would end regional flights between Paris's Orly airport and cities like Nantes and Bordeaux, The Guardian explained. It would not, however, impact connecting flights through Paris's Charles de Gaulle/Roissy airport.
The bill is part of a legislative package which aims to reduce France's emissions by 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, Reuters reported. It is a watered-down version of a proposal suggested by France's Citizens' Convention on Climate, BBC News explained. This group, which was formed by President Emmanuel Macron in 2019 and included 150 ordinary citizens, had put forward a ban on flights that could be replaced with an existing train journey of under four hours.
However, the journey length was lowered after protests from KLM-Air France, which had suffered heavy losses due to the coronavirus pandemic, and regions who were concerned about being left out of national transit networks, as The Guardian explained.
"We have chosen two and a half hours because four hours risks isolating landlocked territories including the greater Massif Central, which would be iniquitous," transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said, as The Guardian reported.
However, some environmental and consumer groups objected to the changes. The organization UFC-Que Choisir compared plane routes with equivalent train journeys of under four hours and found that the plane trips emitted an average of 77 times more carbon dioxide per passenger than the train journeys. At the same time, the train alternatives were cheaper and only as much as 40 minutes longer.
"[T]he government's choice actually aims to empty the measure of its substance," the group said, according to The Guardian.
The new measure also opens the French government to charges of hypocrisy. It bailed out Air France-KLM to the tune of a seven-billion euro loan last year, though it did require the airline to drop some domestic routes as a condition. Then, days before the measure passed, it more than doubled its stake in the airline, BBC News reported. However, Pannier-Runacher insisted to Europe 1 radio that it was possible to balance fighting climate change and supporting struggling businesses.
"Equally, we must support our companies and not let them fall by the wayside," she said, as Reuters reported.
This is not the first time that climate measures and aviation bailouts have coincided in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Austrian Airlines replaced its Vienna-Salzburg flight with additional train service after it received government money dependent on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, BBC News reported.
The number of flights worldwide declined almost 42 percent in 2020 when compared with 2019. It is expected that global aviation may not fully recover until 2024, according to Reuters.
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Four gray whales have washed up dead near San Francisco within nine days, and at least one cause of death has been attributed to a ship strike.
More whales than usual have been washing up dead since 2019, and the West Coast gray whale population continues to suffer from an unusual mortality event, defined by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) as "a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response."
"It's alarming to respond to four dead gray whales in just over a week because it really puts into perspective the current challenges faced by this species," Dr. Pádraig Duignan, director of pathology at the Marine Mammal Center, said in a press release.
As the world's largest marine mammal hospital, the Sausalito-based center has been investigating the recent spate of deaths. The first involved a 41-foot female who washed up dead at San Francisco's Crissy Field on March 31, SFGate reported. The cause of death remains a mystery, as the whale was in good condition with a full stomach. The second, another female, washed up on April 3 at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve on Moss Beach.
"That animal's cause of death, we suspect, was ship strike," the Marine Mammal Center's Giancarlo Rulli told SFGate. "Our plan is to eventually head back out to that whale and take more samples."
The third whale washed up April 7 near Berkeley Marina, The AP reported. The center determined it was a 37-foot male in average condition, with no evidence of illness or injury.
A 41-foot female turned up the next day on Marin County's Muir Beach. She suffered bruising and hemorrhaging around the jaw and neck vertebrae, indicating a vessel strike.
Vessel strikes are one of the leading causes of death for gray whales examined by the Marine Mammal Center, along with entanglements in fishing gear and malnutrition. While the species is not endangered, the population has declined by 25 percent since last assessed in 2016, CNN reported.
West Coast gray whales travel 10,000 miles every year between Mexico and the Arctic, according to The AP. They spend the winter breeding off of Baja California, and feed along the California coast in spring and summer on their way back north. The Marine Mammal Center began noticing a problem for the migrating whales in 2019.
"Our team hasn't responded to this number of dead gray whales in such a short span since 2019 when we performed a startling 13 necropsies in the San Francisco Bay Area," Dr. Duignan said in the press release.
The 2019 deaths led NOAA to declare an unusual mortality event for West Coast gray whales. It is similar to another event that happened from 1999 to 2000, after which the whales' numbers rebounded to even higher levels. This suggests population dips and rises may not be uncommon for the species. However, it is also possible that the climate crisis is playing a role. The 2019 deaths were linked to malnutrition, and warmer waters can reduce the amount of food whales have to eat in the Arctic, giving them less energy for their migration, CNN explained. Overfishing can also play a role in depriving whales of food, the Marine Mammal Center said.
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"This many dead whales in a week is shocking, especially because these animals are the tip of the iceberg," Kristen Monsell, legal director of the Center for Biological Diversity's Oceans program, told The AP.
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"You just thought, this is it. I would have thought that when we opened the door, that there would be nothing around us except that roof," Kalbarri resident Debbie Major told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "We are a small town. Half of it has been flattened." Seroja devastated regions of Indonesia and Timor-Leste last week, where it triggered deadly flash floods and landslides.
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By Rishika Pardikar
Search operations are still underway to find those declared missing following the Uttarakhand disaster on 7 February 2021.
"As of now [18 March], we have found 74 bodies and 130 people are still missing," said Swati S. Bhadauria, district magistrate in Chamoli, Uttarakhand, India. Chamoli is the district where a hanging, ice-capped rock broke off from a glacier and fell into a meltwater- and debris-formed lake below. The lake subsequently breached, leading to heavy flooding downstream.
The disaster is attributed to both development policies in the Himalayas and climate change. And as is common with climate-linked disasters, the most vulnerable sections of society suffered the most devastating consequences. Among the most vulnerable in Chamoli are its population of migrant construction workers from states across India.
Of the 204 people dead or missing, only 77 are from Uttarakhand, and "only 11 were not workers of the two dam companies," Bhadauria noted. The two dams referred to are the 13.2-megawatt Rishiganga Hydroelectric Project and the 520-megawatt Tapovan Vishnugad Hydropower Plant, which has been under construction since 2005. The flash floods in Chamoli first broke through the Rishiganga project and then, along with debris accumulated there, broke through the Tapovan Vishnugad project 5–6 kilometers downstream.
"Both local people and others from Bihar, Punjab, Haryana, Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh…from all over India work on these two [hydroelectric] projects," said Atul Sati, a Chamoli-based social activist with the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist) Liberation.
Sati noted that the local community suspects the number of casualties from the Uttarakhand disaster may be higher than reported because not all the projects' migrant workers—including those from bordering countries like Nepal—have been accounted for by the construction companies and their subcontractors.
The National Thermal Power Corporation is the state-owned utility that owns the Tapovan Vishnugad project. "NTPC has given building contracts to some companies," Sati explained. "These companies have given subcontracts to other companies. What locals are saying is that there are more [than 204] who are missing. They say there were [migrant] workers from Nepal."
NTPC and the Kundan Group (the corporate owner of the Rishiganga project) have not responded to repeated requests for comment.
No Early-Warning System
"NTPC did not have a proper early-warning system," said Mritunjay Kumar, an employee with the government of the east Indian state of Bihar. Kumar's bother, Manish Kumar, was a migrant worker employed with Om Infra Ltd., an NTPC subcontractor. On the day of the disaster, Manish was working in one of the silt flushing tunnels of the Tapovan project and lost his life in the flooding.
Mritunjay Kumar noted that it "would have taken time" for the floodwater and debris to flow from the meltwater lake to the Rishiganga project and then to the Tapovan project. "Even if workers knew 5 minutes in advance," he said, "lives could have been saved."
An advance notice "would have given [Tapovan] workers at least 5–6 critical minutes," agreed Hridayesh Joshi, an environmental journalist from Uttarakhand who reported from Chamoli after the disaster. "Many people made videos; they shouted and alerted people on site. If there was a robust early-warning system, many more lives could have been saved…even if not all, at least some would have escaped."
"It is true that this was an environmental, climate change driven disaster. But NTPC had not taken any measures to save their workers from such disasters," Kumar said. "They [NTPC] hadn't even installed emergency exits for tunnel workers. The only proper exit was a road which faces the river. If NTPC had installed a few temporary iron staircases, many people could have climbed out."
Kumar noted that the Tapovan project has been under construction since before the 2013 Kedarnath disaster, in which more than 5,000 people lost their lives as rainfall-driven floods ravaged northern India. "If they [NTPC] knew that such disasters will happen, why didn't they install early-warning systems?" Kumar asked. "Scientists have been warning about climate change and [dam and road] constructions in the Himalayas from a very long time. Obviously, NTPC was aware."
This story originally appeared in Eos and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.