Maryland Fracking Study Cites Toxic Air Emissions as Top Concern

Drilling-wary Maryland is one of several East Coast states considering whether to open their lands to fracking as public health concerns mount.

Anti-fracking protest in Western Maryland in 2013/Credit: NO Fracking in Western Maryland

A state-commissioned report found that air emissions trump water pollution and drilling-induced earthquakes as a top public health threat posed by future fracking projects in Maryland.

For nearly a year, experts at the University of Maryland's School of Public Health examined past research into the link between oil and gas activity and health. The findings, released Monday, stand in stark contrast to public concern in heavy-drilling states such as Maryland's neighbor Pennsylvania. Those concerns have tended to focus on tainted water, not air.

And in some major fracking states, including Texas, residents have been vocal about air concerns, but their complaints have largely been ignored, as an eight-month joint investigation by InsideClimate News and the Center for Public Integrity revealed.

According to the Maryland study's principal investigator, Donald Milton, existing data show a clear trend: oil and gas activity can spew significant levels of toxic chemicals into the air—and that pollution consistently makes people sick.

"We think [the state] should pay a lot of attention to air pollution," said Milton, who is director of the Maryland Institute for Applied Environmental Health and a UMD professor of epidemiology, biostatistics, and medicine. Although water pollution is also a concern, Milton told InsideClimate News that there's not enough data on how likely dirty water is to sicken people, nor how strong those health effects would be.

The 173-page peer-reviewed report ranked the severity of more than a half dozen potential health impacts of fracking; air quality got a "high" threat ranking, whereas water pollution ranked "moderately high" threat and earthquakes "low." The report also recommended regulations such as setback rules and extensive monitoring that match some of the strictest in the industry.

Peer reviewer Clifford Mitchell, who is director of the Environmental Health Bureau at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, raised questions about the effectiveness of the ranking scheme in his public comments.

"A 10 percent increase in cancer is a higher public health impact than a 10 percent increase in eczema. But both of these are the same likelihood of a public health impact" and treated similarly in the study, Mitchell said.

The American Petroleum Institute (API) is still reviewing the report and was unable to comment, company spokesman Zach Cikanek wrote in an email to InsideClimate News.

Based on a preliminary review of the report, secretaries from Maryland's Department of Environment, Department of Natural Resources and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene said in a joint statement, "We believe it is important to note that it is largely based on information on natural gas development in areas where the pace of gas development was rapid and intense and without stringent regulations and government oversight."

Maryland is one of several East Coast states, including New York and North Carolina, considering whether to open their lands to fracking, a controversial practice that involves injecting a mix of chemicals, water and sand underground to blast open bedrock and extract oil and gas.

Maryland's western corner overlies the Marcellus Shale, the same bedrock formation that has yielded significant oil and gas finds in Pennsylvania. Geologists don't know exactly the extent of the reserves underneath Maryland's Allegany and Garrett counties, two of the state's poorest counties with relatively high unemployment rates, but drillers have been eyeing the area since 2006.

Supporters of fracking in Maryland—and across the U.S.—tout its economic benefits, such as job opportunities and tax revenue from the oil and gas industry. Opponents say fracking can be harmful to the environment and public health, as is echoed in this recent report.

In 2011, Democrat Gov. Martin O'Malley signed an executive order that outlined a state plan for fracking impacts and rules. This recent state-funded study is part of that mandate.

In the report, the researchers used publicly available data to rank the likelihood of negative health effects in western Maryland for eight categories of hazards associated with drilling: air quality, water issues, earthquakes, occupational health, healthcare infrastructure, community demographics, cumulative exposures to multiple hazards, and noise.

The four categories that ranked as "high" threats included air quality, occupational health, healthcare infrastructure, and community demographics.

Based on the rankings, the research team proposed dozens of related rules, including a 2,000-foot setback for drilling activities from populated areas. If Maryland approved that measure, it would have one of the nation's strictest setbacks.

The researchers strongly urged air monitoring ahead of any drilling activity to establish a baseline of air quality levels, and continued air monitoring after drilling and production begin. Moreover, the public health experts stressed the importance of companies making their data easily accessible to the public.

The public has until Oct. 3 to comment on the Maryland report.

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