A new survey of Wyoming residents living near natural gas wells has found that more than nine out of 10 are experiencing health effects consistent with exposure to chemicals used in a drilling practice employed there, known as hydraulic fracturing.
Hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," blasts millions of gallons of water and chemicals at high pressure into horizontal wells to fracture shale rock and release trapped natural gas.
The process has been implicated in a growing number of water pollution cases across Western gas country.
In the ranching town of Pavillion, Wyo., 16 participants participated in the voluntary health survey — about 10 percent of the town's population of roughly 160. Participants reported 128 medical symptoms and diseases, with an average of 20.6 health conditions each — most of which are linked to fracking.
Although the sample surveyed is still small, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is reviewing the results as it prepares to conduct its own in-depth study of the controversial drilling practice.
"Fifteen of 16 individuals, or 94 percent of those surveyed, reported health impacts associated with chemicals associated with oil and gas drilling, production and processing," the survey said.
The Powder River Council commissioned the survey with D.C.-based Earthworks Oil & Gas Accountability Project in March 2010. It was carried out by Subra Company, a Louisiana-based chemistry lab and consulting firm led by Wilma Subra, a chemist who previuosly worked for the EPA.
"All of the wells have been fracked in Pavillion," Deb Thomas, an organizer with the non-profit Powder River Basin Resource Council in Wyoming, told SolveClimate News.
The survey reports that the area reeks of gas, rotten eggs, nail polish and sulfur; that residents have headaches, eye burning and itching skin from the smells; and that they are experiencing high blood pressure, memory loss and fatigue. It provides statistical support for what local residents have already known.
"People here are sick," said John Fenton of Pavillion Area Concerned Citizens, an organization formed to combat oil and gas contamination.
But the survey reveals at least one unexpected, and for some, troubling result: Over 80 percent of respondents reported respiratory difficulties.
"That tells us that people are getting exposure from breathing [chemicals]," said Thomas, who lives in the Wyoming gas patch.
That finding, she said, compounds longtime fears of the community that bathing, doing dishes or simply running contaminated water are causing health damage.
More Testing Needed
The town of Pavillion, home of the Pavillion/Muddy Ridge gas field, has produced fossil fuels for decades. Residents say health problems grew more frequent and more intense after Alberta, Canada-based Encana purchased the project five years ago.
"Since they came in and drilled a lot more wells ... it has gotten way worse," Thomas said. "That's when people started to really notice the impacts."
Doug Hock, a spokesperson for Encana, told SolveClimate News that the survey is not a comprehensive analysis.
"This was a very narrow survey (16 participants) and involved answers to questions about various health issues," Hock said in an email. "It does not, in and of itself, provide any definitive conclusion that the symptoms participants describe are attributable to oil and gas activity."
Indeed, Subra suggested the results have conjured up as many questions as they have answers.
"It's critical that our agencies identify the source of the contamination," she said in a statement. "We can't adequately address health impacts without fully understanding [this]."
So far, EPA has seen the survey and has asked the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry to review it.
On August 31, the agency is slated to release extensive drinking water tests to the Pavillion public.
Last August, EPA announced the first round of data it had compiled on 39 drinking wells in the town. Eleven of them were found to be contaminated. Three had known toxins used in hydraulic fracturing — one of which is a compound called 2-Butoxyethanol Phosphate, a possible human carcinogen that has been known to cause severe eye damage and liver impairment.
The Wyoming survey is the latest attempt to gauge the human cost of oil shale drilling, which is experiencing an unprecedented boom in the United States.
A report released this year by IHS Cambridge Energy Associates, the Massachusetts research firm, predicted that shale drilling will reach 50 percent of U.S. natural gas production by 2035, up from 10 percent today. Already, at least 90 percent of the nation's gas wells use fracturing fluids, according to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, a multi-state government group.
The fluids, first developed by Halliburton in the 1940s, vary in chemical content but can contain a potent mix of potential carcinogens and other toxins.
Currently, there is no federal oversight of them. In a 2004 investigation into the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing, EPA ruled it safe. The 2005 Energy Policy Act kept it outside the regulatory authority of the Safe Drinking Water Act.
However, efforts are underway to change this.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Ca.), chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), chair of the Subcommittee on Energy and Environment, have demanded in recent months that 14 well operators disclose the list of chemicals used in their fracking liquids.
In March, EPA announced that it will launch two-year study starting in January 2011 into whether fracking impacts drinking water, human health and the environment, and is currently holding public hearings on the matter.
(Photo: Linda F. Baker, Upper Green River Alliance)