Organic Farmers Struggle to Protect Land from Encroaching Fracking Industry
Many farmers in Pennsylvania welcomed the natural gas industry with open arms, letting companies set up operations on their land to drill wells and fracture the shale rock thousands of feet under the surface. Pennsylvania would not have become one of the top gas producing states in the U.S. in such a short period without the acquiescence of the state's farming community.
Not every landowner, though, believed in the promise of riches or bought into the gas industry's image of family farms coexisting with large-scale industrial activities. Among the skeptics were organic farmers, who feared the entire process of shale gas drilling—from the building of the well pads through the hydraulic fracturing process to the disposal of fracking wastewater—threatened their ability to produce products that conformed to organic standards.
"I just want everyone to know that I won't sell anything that I think is contaminated. I will go out of business and go after the gas company before I would sell one thing that I thought was contaminated," said Maggie Henry, an organic farmer in Lawrence County, Pa., during a March 28 panel discussion in Pittsburgh, Pa., on farming and fracking moderated by Kirsi Jansa, a filmmaker and journalist.
Henry's 88-acre organic pork and poultry farm is less than 4,000 feet from a drilling site operated by Shell. Henry's battle with the shale gas industry is featured in the latest installment of Gas Rush Stories, Jansa's documentary film project on shale gas drilling.
Henry sells her organic products at a local farmers' market. She also supplies restaurants and grocery stores, including Pittsburgh's East End Food Co-op, which hosted the March 28 event.
Henry's farm is in an area where conventional oil and gas drilling occurred in previous decades. "The thing that makes the drilling around here unique is right now, we're in the middle of an historic oil field," she said in the Gas Rush Stories documentary. She obtained a U.S. Geological Survey map that shows the location of more than 1,500 old oil and gas wells within a six-mile radius around her farm.
"I just don't understand how [the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection] granted them [Shell] permits to drill in this area," Henry said in the film. According to Gas Rush Stories, old abandoned and unplugged oil and gas wells can provide a pathway for methane and other pollutants to seep to the surface and into aquifers. Pennsylvania currently does not have any laws preventing companies from drilling a shale gas well within a certain distance of an unplugged well.
When they were signing leases to allow activity on their land, many farmers trusted the shale gas industry representatives who promised strict adherence to the highest standards to ensure no harm would occur from the drilling operations. But there are still many unknowns about the impact of high-volume hydraulic fracturing being carried out on such a large scale. The industry admits in a number of documents that what they are doing is not a "steady state technology," Stephen Cleghorn, an organic dairy farmer in Jefferson County, Pa., said during the panel discussion.
"Every single wellbore, as Dr. Anthony Ingraffea puts it, is a new kind of experiment," Cleghorn said. Ingraffea is an engineering professor at Cornell University who has conducted several studies on the impacts of shale gas drilling, including the fracking process.
According to Cleghorn, the industry still does not completely understand the geology. "They're figuring it out. They have models. They think their models are right. But they don't really know," he said. "We're going forward with an industry like this that is not a steady state technology. It's still being invented as they go. They insist, as Dr. Terry Engelder at Penn State put it, that they have a right to come in and experiment on our farms and figure out how to do this."
Engelder is professor of geoscience at Penn State University who has studied the geology and has touted estimates showing potential reserves in the Marcellus Shale make it the "granddaddy" of shale gas plays.
If the shale gas industry were to spill chemicals or fracking wastewater on his land, Cleghorn said he would immediately call Pennsylvania Certified Organic, a U.S. Department of Agriculture-accredited organic certifying agency, and have their officials take soil samples at his farm. "If my soil has been contaminated," he explained, "I want you to decertify it because I'm not going to grow anything on it and call it organic anymore."
Both Cleghorn and Henry agreed that if there is the slightest evidence of contamination on their land, it is their responsibility, as organic farmers, to self-report it. "Not only do I have a legal responsibility to produce pure food, I consider it a moral and ethical one," Henry said.
Not every organic farmer shares the concerns of Cleghorn and Henry about shale gas companies operating on their property. According to Gas Rush Stories, as of early 2013, out of 500 farms certified by Pennsylvania Certified Organic in Pennsylvania and nine surrounding states, about 20 have signed a lease with a gas company.
Jill Kriesky, associate director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, said the issue of shale gas drilling on farmland raises many questions, all the way down the supply chain. "Should grocery stores come up with some sort of policy of testing the food that comes in?" Kriesky asked during the panel discussion.
Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project is a nonprofit environmental health organization created to assist and support residents in the region who believe their health has been, or could be, impacted by natural gas drilling activities.
Without more research into the impact on food production and without greater transparency by the industry and the government, it would be difficult to track the issues related to food consumption. Referring to Cleghorn and Henry, Kriesky said it is clear that there are responsible farmers who do not want to sell any product that is potentially contaminated. "But we really are not completely clear on what to look for" in terms of contamination when the food makes its way to farmers' markets, grocery stores and restaurants, she explained.
The issue will likely become murkier as shale gas drilling encroaches on even more farmland in Pennsylvania. "In the past, we've thought that we'll zone off industrial activities because we know they're dangerous," Cleghorn said. "But the business model of the fracking industry can't work that way. They must impose themselves on a living human, animal and vegetative ecosystem throughout the state in order to get the gas they want."
Pennsylvania legislators also have passed laws, including Act 13, making it harder to restrict where shale gas drilling takes place. "That's why they can go near any person's farm. They can go near schools and hospitals," Cleghorn said. "They have the audacity to think that they can bring an industry in here and overlay an industrial grid on top of living populations."
Kriesky recalled that David Brown, a toxicologist and her colleague at Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, recently told her that he has never studied anything as inescapable as shale gas drilling in his 50 years as a toxicologist.
"He's worked on Superfund sites for all sorts of really horrible environmental disasters. But they were contained," Kriesky said. "There's no fence line here. You can't put a fence around what's happening" in the communities affected by the shale gas rush, she said.
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
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By Eric Tate and Christopher Emrich
Disasters stemming from hazards like floods, wildfires, and disease often garner attention because of their extreme conditions and heavy societal impacts. Although the nature of the damage may vary, major disasters are alike in that socially vulnerable populations often experience the worst repercussions. For example, we saw this following Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, each of which generated widespread physical damage and outsized impacts to low-income and minority survivors.
Mapping Social Vulnerability<p>Figure 1a is a typical map of social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract level based on the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI) algorithm of <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1540-6237.8402002" target="_blank"><em>Cutter et al.</em></a> . Spatial representation of the index depicts high social vulnerability regionally in the Southwest, upper Great Plains, eastern Oklahoma, southern Texas, and southern Appalachia, among other places. With such a map, users can focus attention on select places and identify population characteristics associated with elevated vulnerabilities.</p>
Fig. 1. (a) Social vulnerability across the United States at the census tract scale is mapped here following the Social Vulnerability Index (SoVI). Red and pink hues indicate high social vulnerability. (b) This bivariate map depicts social vulnerability (blue hues) and annualized per capita hazard losses (pink hues) for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019.<p>Many current indexes in the United States and abroad are direct or conceptual offshoots of SoVI, which has been widely replicated [e.g., <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13753-016-0090-9" target="_blank"><em>de Loyola Hummell et al.</em></a>, 2016]. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) <a href="https://www.atsdr.cdc.gov/placeandhealth/svi/index.html" target="_blank">has also developed</a> a commonly used social vulnerability index intended to help local officials identify communities that may need support before, during, and after disasters.</p><p>The first modeling and mapping efforts, starting around the mid-2000s, largely focused on describing spatial distributions of social vulnerability at varying geographic scales. Over time, research in this area came to emphasize spatial comparisons between social vulnerability and physical hazards [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-009-9376-1" target="_blank"><em>Wood et al.</em></a>, 2010], modeling population dynamics following disasters [<a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11111-008-0072-y" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Myers et al.</em></a>, 2008], and quantifying the robustness of social vulnerability measures [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-012-0152-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate</em></a>, 2012].</p><p>More recent work is beginning to dissolve barriers between social vulnerability and environmental justice scholarship [<a href="https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2018.304846" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Chakraborty et al.</em></a>, 2019], which has traditionally focused on root causes of exposure to pollution hazards. Another prominent new research direction involves deeper interrogation of social vulnerability drivers in specific hazard contexts and disaster phases (e.g., before, during, after). Such work has revealed that interactions among drivers are important, but existing case studies are ill suited to guiding development of new indicators [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2015.09.013" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Rufat et al.</em></a>, 2015].</p><p>Advances in geostatistical analyses have enabled researchers to characterize interactions more accurately among social vulnerability and hazard outcomes. Figure 1b depicts social vulnerability and annualized per capita hazard losses for U.S. counties from 2010 to 2019, facilitating visualization of the spatial coincidence of pre‑event susceptibilities and hazard impacts. Places ranked high in both dimensions may be priority locations for management interventions. Further, such analysis provides invaluable comparisons between places as well as information summarizing state and regional conditions.</p><p>In Figure 2, we take the analysis of interactions a step further, dividing counties into two categories: those experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019. The differences among individual race, ethnicity, and poverty variables between the two county groups are small. But expressing race together with poverty (poverty attenuated by race) produces quite different results: Counties with high hazard losses have higher percentages of both impoverished Black populations and impoverished white populations than counties with low hazard losses. These county differences are most pronounced for impoverished Black populations.</p>
Fig. 2. Differences in population percentages between counties experiencing annual per capita losses above or below the national average from 2010 to 2019 for individual and compound social vulnerability indicators (race and poverty).<p>Our current work focuses on social vulnerability to floods using geostatistical modeling and mapping. The research directions are twofold. The first is to develop hazard-specific indicators of social vulnerability to aid in mitigation planning [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1007/s11069-020-04470-2" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Tate et al.</em></a>, 2021]. Because natural hazards differ in their innate characteristics (e.g., rate of onset, spatial extent), causal processes (e.g., urbanization, meteorology), and programmatic responses by government, manifestations of social vulnerability vary across hazards.</p><p>The second is to assess the degree to which socially vulnerable populations benefit from the leading disaster recovery programs [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1080/17477891.2019.1675578" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Emrich et al.</em></a>, 2020], such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's (FEMA) <a href="https://www.fema.gov/individual-disaster-assistance" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Individual Assistance</a> program and the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) <a href="https://www.hudexchange.info/programs/cdbg-dr/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Disaster Recovery</a> program. Both research directions posit social vulnerability indicators as potential measures of social equity.</p>
Social Vulnerability as a Measure of Equity<p>Given their focus on social marginalization and economic barriers, social vulnerability indicators are attracting growing scientific interest as measures of inequity resulting from disasters. Indeed, social vulnerability and inequity are related concepts. Social vulnerability research explores the differential susceptibilities and capacities of disaster-affected populations, whereas social equity analyses tend to focus on population disparities in the allocation of resources for hazard mitigation and disaster recovery. Interventions with an equity focus emphasize full and equal resource access for all people with unmet disaster needs.</p><p>Yet newer studies of inequity in disaster programs have documented troubling disparities in income, race, and home ownership among those who <a href="https://eos.org/articles/equity-concerns-raised-in-federal-flood-property-buyouts" target="_blank">participate in flood buyout programs</a>, are <a href="https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063477407" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">eligible for postdisaster loans</a>, receive short-term recovery assistance [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijdrr.2020.102010" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Drakes et al.</em></a>, 2021], and have <a href="https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/25/texas-natural-disasters--mental-health/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">access to mental health services</a>. For example, a recent analysis of federal flood buyouts found racial privilege to be infused at multiple program stages and geographic scales, resulting in resources that disproportionately benefit whiter and more urban counties and neighborhoods [<a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120905439" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Elliott et al.</em></a>, 2020].</p><p>Investments in disaster risk reduction are largely prioritized on the basis of hazard modeling, historical impacts, and economic risk. Social equity, meanwhile, has been far less integrated into the considerations of public agencies for hazard and disaster management. But this situation may be beginning to shift. Following the adage of "what gets measured gets managed," social equity metrics are increasingly being inserted into disaster management.</p><p>At the national level, FEMA has <a href="https://www.fema.gov/news-release/20200220/fema-releases-affordability-framework-national-flood-insurance-program" target="_blank">developed options</a> to increase the affordability of flood insurance [Federal Emergency Management Agency, 2018]. At the subnational scale, Puerto Rico has integrated social vulnerability into its CDBG Mitigation Action Plan, expanding its considerations of risk beyond only economic factors. At the local level, Harris County, Texas, has begun using social vulnerability indicators alongside traditional measures of flood risk to introduce equity into the prioritization of flood mitigation projects [<a href="https://www.hcfcd.org/Portals/62/Resilience/Bond-Program/Prioritization-Framework/final_prioritization-framework-report_20190827.pdf?ver=2019-09-19-092535-743" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer"><em>Harris County Flood Control District</em></a>, 2019].</p><p>Unfortunately, many existing measures of disaster equity fall short. They may be unidimensional, using single indicators such as income in places where underlying vulnerability processes suggest that a multidimensional measure like racialized poverty (Figure 2) would be more valid. And criteria presumed to be objective and neutral for determining resource allocation, such as economic loss and cost-benefit ratios, prioritize asset value over social equity. For example, following the <a href="http://www.cedar-rapids.org/discover_cedar_rapids/flood_of_2008/2008_flood_facts.php" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2008 flooding</a> in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, cost-benefit criteria supported new flood protections for the city's central business district on the east side of the Cedar River but not for vulnerable populations and workforce housing on the west side.</p><p>Furthermore, many equity measures are aspatial or ahistorical, even though the roots of marginalization may lie in systemic and spatially explicit processes that originated long ago like redlining and urban renewal. More research is thus needed to understand which measures are most suitable for which social equity analyses.</p>
Challenges for Disaster Equity Analysis<p>Across studies that quantify, map, and analyze social vulnerability to natural hazards, modelers have faced recurrent measurement challenges, many of which also apply in measuring disaster equity (Table 1). The first is clearly establishing the purpose of an equity analysis by defining characteristics such as the end user and intended use, the type of hazard, and the disaster stage (i.e., mitigation, response, or recovery). Analyses using generalized indicators like the CDC Social Vulnerability Index may be appropriate for identifying broad areas of concern, whereas more detailed analyses are ideal for high-stakes decisions about budget allocations and project prioritization.</p>
By Jessica Corbett
Sen. Bernie Sanders on Tuesday was the lone progressive to vote against Tom Vilsack reprising his role as secretary of agriculture, citing concerns that progressive advocacy groups have been raising since even before President Joe Biden officially nominated the former Obama administration appointee.