The 10-year boom in Arkansas natural gas production poured billions of dollars into the state, but some Arkansans are not sad to see it end.
For years, environmentalists and some residents have feared the health effects of hydraulic fracturing, which forces highly pressurized water, sand and chemicals into wells to break up rock and free up natural gas reserves.
Emily Lane, a graduate student and researcher in environmental justice, is a native and resident of Greenbrier in northern Faulkner County, where a cluster of small earthquakes linked to the fracking process led the state Oil & Gas Commission to impose a ban on the drilling of waste disposal wells. That moratorium remains in place, according to Larry Bengal, the commission director, who said a map of the 1,150-square-mile area is available on the commission’s website.
Disposal wells have also been tied to earthquake swarms in Texas, Oklahoma and other areas not usually associated with seismic activity. Lane said the moratorium shut down only four waste wells, and is concerned that many others remain in operation outside the moratorium area.
Lane said she is often asked about health concerns associated with fracking, but that “concerns” is a severe understatement. She said the effects are “catastrophic.”
“During the boom, water was tainted with toxic chemicals, hazardous waste, runoff from well pads and other spillages,” Lane said.
Industry voices have long said that health and seismic effects tied to fracking are either unproven or overstated. Energy company scientists and supporters like U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., have said that groundwater contamination caused by fracking has never been documented despite the drilling of many thousands of fracking wells. Basic geology, these scientists say, suggests that contaminants don’t migrate upward to aquifers from fractured shale thousands of feet below.
However, methane can occur naturally between the Earth’s crust and the deep shale deposits, and that gas has leaked into groundwater near some fracking sites. Chesapeake Energy Corp. of Oklahoma City, a major driller whose assets in the Fayetteville Shale were acquired by BHP Billiton in 2011, was fined $1.09 million in 2011 for contaminating the water supplies of 16 families in Bradford County, Pennsylvania. In that case, methane crept up between the rock and steel casings of wells. In addition, well blowouts and spilled fracking fluid have contaminated some groundwater in the Marcellus Shale region, which stretches from New York through Pennsylvania and into West Virginia and Ohio.
After years of complaints from residents of Dimock, Pennsylvania, the Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry, a part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, recently found that the wells of 27 homes contained levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic and copper sufficient to pose health risks. The May 24 report also found that the water in 17 homes contained enough flammable gas for the agency to consider it a “physical hazard” for explosions.
In March, a jury awarded $4.24 million to two families in a lawsuit centering on water contamination in Dimock. The judgment went against Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. of Houston, a publicly traded company that had previously reached a settlement with about 40 other area residents, according to The Associated Press.
In Arkansas, a 2011 air study by the state Department of Environmental Quality concluded that emissions from shale operations were equivalent to that of 650,000 passenger vehicles. Lane, who also cited a 2012 ADEQ fine against a trucking company for illegally dumping fracking waste in four Arkansas counties, said that even though fracking has halted, she fears a toxic legacy. Van Buren County residents living downwind from compressor stations have complained of headaches, nausea and memory loss, she said, and cattle have died after drinking from contaminated ponds.
“States like Wyoming recently found air pollutants thousands of times higher than health-based standards in areas near old and abandoned gas wells,” she said. “As the natural gas infrastructure in Arkansas degrades over time, what will we be breathing? How will waste fluid in the subsurface migrate over time?”
Lane said only time will reveal the true environmental effects of the Arkansas fracking boom. “Boom-and-bust industries harm local environments and do not foster sustainable, healthy, thriving communities,” she said. “We can do better by our people by investing in industries that protect our communities instead of laying them to waste.”