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Pennsylvanians Demand a Response to Rare Cancer Cases, Other Health Impacts

New research on fracking health impacts, combined with unusually high rates of pediatric cancer, sound alarm bells in Pennsylvania

FracTracker isn’t the only one digging deeper into the health impacts of fracking in the past few months. Last week, the Better Path Coalition organized a meeting at the Capitol Building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to share new research with government officials, the press, and the public. These groundbreaking reports highlight the increasing body of evidence showing fracking’s adverse health and climate impacts.

Following the presentations on emerging research, Ned Ketyer, M.D., F.A.A.P, discussed the highly concerning proliferation of rare pediatric cancer cases in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Dr. Ketyer drew data from a report released last month by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, which uncovered an unusually high number of childhood cancer diagnoses in southwestern Pennsylvania over the last decade. In just four counties (Washington, Greene, Fayette and Westmoreland), there were 27 people diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare bone cancer, between 2008 and 2018. Six of the 27 people diagnosed were from the Canon-McMillan School District in Washington County, where there are currently 10 students district-wide with other types of cancers.

The expected number of Ewing sarcoma diagnoses over this time period and for the population count of southwestern Pennsylvania would be 0.75 cases per year, or roughly eight cases over the course of a decade. The higher number of rare childhood cancers was the subject of a recent community meeting held by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP), where residents called on the state to further investigate the issue and take immediate action to eliminate any potential environmental causes. For more of EHP’s resources on this topic, click here.

Cancer in the Marcellus

The Pennsylvania Department of Health investigated three of these cases in Washington County and found that they did not meet the criteria definition of a cancer cluster. Still, the unusually high number of rare cancers over a small geography is cause for alarm and reason to suspect an environmental cause.

This four-county area has a legacy of environmental health hazards associated with coal mining activities and is home to a 40-year old uranium disposal site that sits in close proximity to the Canon-McMillan High School. But with the increase in cancer diagnoses over the past decade, many are looking towards fracking in the Marcellus Shale, the more recent environmental hazard to develop in the region, as a contributing cause.

Southwestern Pennsylvania is a hot spot for fracking activity. In these four counties, there are 3,169 active, producing unconventional gas wells. There are also the infrastructure and activity associated with unconventional development: compressor stations, processing stations (including Pennsylvania’s largest cryogenic plant), disposal sites for radioactive waste, and heavy truck traffic.

The environmental and health risks of these facilities were the focus of the presentations and discussions with Pennsylvania leaders last week.

A map of unconventional gas production in southwest Pennsylvania. Click on the image to open the map.

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Call for action

At the culmination of the Harrisburg meeting, participants delivered a letter to Governor Wolf’s office, calling for an investigation into the causes of these childhood cancer cases. Signed by over 900 environmental organizations and individuals, the letter also asks for a suspension of new shale gas permitting until the Department of Health can determine that there is no link between drilling and the cancer outcomes.

Governor Wolf’s response to Karen Feridun, the organizer of this campaign, was a disappointing dismissal of this public health crisis. Stating that the environmental regulations his office has implemented “protect Pennsylvanians from negative environmental and health impacts,” Governor Wolf went on to say that his office “will continue to monitor and study cancer incidents in this area, especially as more data becomes available,” but did not agree to suspend new permitting.

Wolf’s decision to continue with status quo permitting while waiting for more data to become available is unacceptable, and will lead to more Pennsylvanians suffering from the industry’s health impacts.

The Governor’s response is even more disheartening as it follows his recent support for a full ban on fracking activity in the Delaware River Basin (including eastern Pennsylvania). The Governor’s support for the ban is an acknowledgement of the industry’s risks, and leaves us frustrated that the southwestern part of the state is not receiving equal protection.

When is enough evidence enough?

The continued permitting of unconventional wells disregards the scientific evidence of drilling’s harms discussed in Harrisburg.

Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D, of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, discussed the results of the sixth edition of “The Compendium of Scientific, Medical, and Media Findings Demonstrating Risks and Harms of Fracking.” The Compendium outlines the health risks of fracking infrastructure from almost 1,500 peer-reviewed studies and governmental reports. Notably, the report outlines the inherent dangers of fracking and finds that regulations are incapable of protecting public health from the industry.

Erica Jackson discussed FracTracker Alliance’s recently published Categorical Review of Health Reports. This literature review analyzed 142 publications and reports on the health impacts of fracking, and found that 89% contained evidence of an adverse health outcome or health risk associated with proximity to unconventional oil and gas development.

Brian Schwartz, M.D., M.S., the Director of Geisinger Health Institute at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, presented epidemiological studies linking unconventional development to increased radon concentrations on homes and health impacts including adverse birth outcomes, mental health disorders, and asthma exacerbations.

Lorne Stockman, Senior Research Analyst with Oil Change International, discussed  “Burning the Gas ‘Bridge Fuel’ Myth,” a new report that further solidifies the irrationality of continued oil and gas development based on its climate impacts. The report shows that greenhouse gas emissions from fracking exceed climate goals, and how perpetuating the myth of natural gas as a “bridge” to renewables locks in emissions for decades.

A welcome ray of hope, this report also proves that renewables are an economically viable replacement to coal and gas, costing less than fossil fuels to build and operate in most markets. Furthermore, renewables combined with increasingly competitive battery storage ensures grid reliability.

“Burden of proof always belongs to the industry”

Among the inundation of data, statistics, and studies, Dr. Steingraber offered a sobering reminder of the purpose behind the meeting:

“Public health is about real people. When we collect data on public health problems, behind every data point, behind every black dot floating on a white mathematical space on a graph captured in a study, there are human lives behind those data points. And when those points each represent the life of a child or a teenager, what the dots represent is terror, unimaginable suffering, followed by death, or terror, unimaginable suffering, followed by a life of trauma, pathology reports, bone scans, medical bills, side effects, and uncertainty that all together are known as cancer survival.”

An adolescent cancer survivor herself, Dr. Steingraber clearly articulated the ethical responsibility our elected officials have to hold industry accountable for its impacts:

“Burden of proof always belongs to the industry, and benefit of the doubt always belongs to the child. It’s wrong to treat children like lab rats and experiment on them until the body count becomes so high that it reaches all the levels of statistical significance that tells you that we have a real problem here.”

The evidence is in – we know enough to justify an end to fracking based on its health and climate impacts. It’s time for Pennsylvania’s industry and leaders to stop experimenting with residents’ health and take immediate action to prevent more suffering.

By Erica Jackson, Community Outreach and Communications Specialist, FracTracker Alliance

Who Pays? Health and Economic Impacts of Fracking in Pennsylvania

Since the advent of unconventional shale gas drilling, some effects have been immediate, some have emerged over time, and some are just becoming apparent. Two reports recently published by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network advance our understanding of the breadth of the impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania. The first report, written by FracTracker, reviews research on the ways fracking impacts the health of Pennsylvanians. The second report by ECONorthwest calculates the economic costs of the industry.

“Fracking is heavily impacting Pennsylvania in multiple ways but the burden is not being fairly and openly calculated. These reports reveal the health effects and economic costs of fracking and the astounding burdens people and communities are carrying,” said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.

Learn what the latest science and analysis tells us about the costs of fracking, who is paying now, and what the future price is forecasted to be.

Access the full reports here:

 

Health Impact Report

“Categorical Review of Health Reports on Unconventional Oil and Gas Development; Impacts in Pennsylvania,”  FracTracker Alliance, 2019 Issue Paper

Economic Impact Report

“The Economic Costs of Fracking in Pennsylvania,” ECONorthwest, 2019 Issue Paper

 

From the Experts

“The FracTracker Alliance conducted a review of the literature studying the impact of unconventional oil and gas on health. Findings of this review show a dramatic increase in the breadth and volume of literature published since 2016, with 89% of the literature reporting that drilling proximity has human health effects. Pennsylvanian communities were the most studied sample populations with 49% of reviewed journal articles focused on Marcellus Shale development. These studies showed health impacts including cancer, infant mortality, depression, pneumonia, asthma, skin-related hospitalizations, and other general health symptoms were correlated with living near unconventional oil and gas development for Pennsylvania and other frontline communities.”

Kyle Ferrar, FracTracker Alliance Western Program Coordinator

 

Rig and house. Westwood Lake Park. Photo by J Williams, 2013.

“Fracking wells have an extensive presence across Pennsylvania’s landscape – 20 percent of residents live within 2 miles of a well. This is close enough to cause adverse health outcomes. Collectively we found annual costs of current fracking activity over $1 billion, with cumulative costs given continued fracking activity over the next 20 years of over $50 billion in net present value for the effects that we can monetize. The regional economic benefits also seem to be less than stated, as the long-term benefits for local economies are quite low, and can disrupt more sustainable and beneficial economic trajectories that might not be available after a community has embraced fracking.”

Mark Buckley, Senior Economist at the natural resource practice at
ECONorthwest

 

These reports on the health effects and economic impacts of unconventional oil and natural gas development yield disheartening results. There are risks of extremely serious health issues for families in impacted areas, and the long term economic returns for communities are negative.

Arming ourselves with knowledge is an important first step towards the renewable energy transformation that is so clearly needed. The stakes are too high to allow the oil and natural gas industries to dictate the physical, social, and economic health of Pennsylvanians.

The Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet

Plastic has been getting a lot of negative press lately.

It’s killing marine life, forming vortexes in the ocean, and being burned instead of recycled. But until recently, most of the attention has focused on plastic pollution – the waste that turns up after a product has served its purpose.

Now that’s changed- the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) has recently released “Hidden Costs of a Plastic Planet;” two reports that show us the consequences of plastic across its entire lifecycle. The first, Plastic & Health, explores human health impacts, while the second Plastic & Climate, tackles greenhouse gas emissions.

For the first time, we know the full scope of plastic’s impact – and it’s not looking good.

FracTracker is proud to partner with CIEL and several other organizations, including Earthworks, 5 Gyres, TEJAS, UPSTREAM, GAIA, Exeter University, and Environmental Integrity Project to release these reports.

Access the full reports and executives summaries here:

 

You know, now what?

These reports make it clear: the impacts of plastic are serious, and they’re everywhere. We have the evidence to justify an immediate global move away from our disposable, single-use lifestyle. Tackling this toxic crisis will require action across all levels of society- corporations must consider the full life cycle of their products, policy makers must enact plastic reduction measures, and of course, industry needs to rectify its toxic impacts. Eager to encourage these entities to take action, the FracTracker team is committed to doing our own part to solve this plastics problem, and we hope that it inspires individuals, companies, community leaders, and politicians to join in.

Here’s what we’re doing to help the world #BreakFreeFromPlastic:

1. Continue working towards a world free from oil and gas.

Since over 99% of plastic is made from oil and gas, keeping fossil fuels in the ground is the only way to eliminate all of plastic’s toxic impacts. Plastic & Climate found that extracting and transporting oil and gas for plastic production releases over 100 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. There are many opportunities for these releases to occur, including from methane leakage and flaring, the drilling process, deforestation of forests for pipelines and well pads, and emissions from truck traffic.

Pipeline construction causes deforestation, releasing carbon stored in trees and preventing further carbon sequestration

The FracTracker team will continue to study, map, and analyze the risks of this industry to encourage both a switch to renewable energy and a movement away from plastic production.

2. Expose the risks of the fracking-driven plastics boom in the Gulf Coast & Ohio River Valley

Unconventional technology has opened up access to large reserves of natural gas liquids, such as ethane, and plastic manufacturing is one way to increase demand for this glut. In fact, the oil and gas industry is hoping to increase demand for plastic worldwide by 40%! Two regions with access to natural gas liquids that are rapidly expanding plastics manufacturing capacity are the Gulf Coast and the Ohio River Valley.

Eager to justify this build-out, politicians and industries tout the ways plastic is part of a sustainable future. They say that without investing in plastic, we’re not taking full advantage of our resources, and that by using natural gas to make plastic instead of burning it, we’re keeping greenhouse gasses from entering the atmosphere. Speaking on manufacturing plastic from natural gas with public radio station WHYY, Pennsylvania’s Governor Wolf stated:

“I want to move to a point where what we’re using the gas for is for products that go into that sustainable energy future: lightweight products…so that we’re not burning this, we’re actually creating products that would make that energy future that we all want, that would address the issues of climate change in an effective way.”

The Shell Ethane Cracker in Pennsylvania is projected to produce 1.6 million tons of plastic per year, which Governor Wolf states is part of a “sustainable energy future.” Photo by Ted Auch, aerial assistance by LightHawk.

But the data say otherwise.

Plastic does not address the issues of climate change. In fact, using natural gas for plastic perpetuates climate change. Climate & Plastics found that this year, “the production and incineration of plastic will add more than 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere—equal to the emissions from 136 one-thousand-megawatt coal power plants.” If plastic production grows as currently predicted, by 2030, emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year, or 291 new coal plants.

The rate of plastic production is directly at odds with global carbon emissions targets.

While plastic can be used for lightweight parts of electric vehicles or reusable materials, the plastic being produced by the current build out is primarily polyethylene plastic, most commonly used for packaging and single use products- plastic bags, bottles, jugs, containers, and plastic films and linings; products that countries and cities are phasing out.

3. Encourage plastic alternatives

While renewable energy is becoming increasingly available, so too are plastic alternatives. Across the world, communities are rethinking the products we use everyday. Thanks to historic legislation, zero waste stores,  and towns, and plastic-free bloggers, it’s never been a better time to cut back on plastic – and the FracTracker team is doing our part.

Rebecca, our Administrative and Human Resources Specialist, has cut her plastic use by switching to toothpaste tablets and bars of soap. Karen, our Eastern Program Coordinator, makes her own reusable beeswax food wraps. And Erica Jackson and Isabelle Weber in the Pittsburgh office keep reusable utensils in their backpacks. The whole team is cutting back on single-use plastic products, and are always on the look-out for non oil and gas-based products.

We also realize that with companies like Coca Cola selling 3,000 plastic bottles every second, and Nestlé  producing 1.7 million tons of plastic packaging a year, corporations play a key role in this movement.

Through the Story of Stuff’s #Messageinabottle project and Greenpeace’s #Isthisyours campaign, we’re also encouraging corporations to reimagine how the package and transport products.

Now YOU know, what will you do to help your company, community, or yourself #BreakFreeFromPlastic?

Healthy Homes article in PA

Healthy Homes: Re-Framing Fracking Impacts

An Ohio family took joy in raising their kids and cattle at their farmhouse, built in 1853 with crooked walls and no indoor bathrooms. When they leased land to fracking activity, however, the “beep, beep, beep” of heavy truck traffic kept them up all night, and a cow died after drinking a strange fluid flowing on the land during the cold of winter. They dedicated their retirement savings to moving and building a new home, only to soon after receive a compressor station as their neighbor – close enough to hear the engines at all hours and loud enough to make them dread even walking out to their mailbox.

During the upswing of a boom-and-bust cycle of the gas industry in Greene County, the influx of outside workers and the high demand on rental housing resulted in one particular family being unable to secure an apartment. Without adequate housing, their children were temporarily taken from their custody.

In Huntingdon, a young woman resisted a pipeline being forced through her property by stationing herself in a tree, while workers with chainsaws felled those around her. Eminent domain enabled the gas company to claim this privately-owned land under a weak guise of “public good.”

These unsettling but true stories hint at the countless ways fracking plays out in individual households. A healthy home environment – with clean air, potable drinking water, and safety from outside elements – is essential to human life and functioning. Yet, the industrial processes involved in unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD), often summed up with the term “fracking,” may interfere with or even take away the ability to maintain a healthy home.

This article aims to put these household impacts, and the right to a healthy home, at the center of the fracking debate.

Framing the issue

definition-of-a-frame

The way we understand just about anything depends on our frame of reference. A frame, like the frame around a picture, brings its contents into focus. At the same time, it excludes the information outside its borders. A frame declares that what’s inside is what matters. When it comes to the human effects of fracking, various conflicting frames exist, each dictating their own picture of what fracking actually does and means.

health-frame

The frame we use to look at the fracking debate is so important, because it dictates how we talk about and think about the problem. Likewise, if we can identify the frame others are using when they talk about fracking, we can see more clearly what they have prioritized and what they are leaving out of the conversation.

Two researchers who conducted surveys, interviews, and focus groups in five Pennsylvania counties in 2014 and 2015 argue for the need for a new frame.1 Some of the common ways of talking about fracking not only favor shale gas development for reasons like those included in the frame on the left above, they also work against those trying to make a stand against the negative effects fracking. These researchers suggest that, rather than arguing within the existing, dominant frames, activists should consider proactively “reframing the debate around other core values.” The right to a healthy home is a widely-shared value. I propose we adopt a frame that puts that right at the center of the picture.

What is a “healthy home”?

The term healthy home isn’t new. The federal agencies Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) both use this phrase in defining the importance of a home environment free from hazards and contaminants, like lead and radon. Simply put, a healthy home is one that supports health.

Why Now?

We sit poised at a unique moment to take on the task of reframing fracking. While new drilling in some places appears to be on the decline, countless large-scale petrochemical projects, like a growing crop of plastic-producing ethane crackers in the northeast US, are ramping up. These facilities will demand massive supplies of natural gas and byproducts, perpetuating and likely increasing drilling.

The renewed demand on wells and their associated infrastructure increase the burden on those households in its wake, living amid stimulated wells, near odorous compressor stations, next to pipelines with pig launchers spewing emissions.

Continued demand on natural gas – for energy or cheap plastics – also requires less-discussed but equally-invasive infrastructure, such as the massive underground gas storage underlying communities in growing numbers in states like Ohio and Pennsylvania. Such infrastructure exposes residents to the possibility of leaks, like the one that forced the evacuation of thousands of families in Porter Ranch, California. It burdens other communities with the disposal of toxic waste fluids, including underground injection and the associated earthquakes, like the hundreds pockmarking Ohio and now encroaching on Pennsylvania. Keeping the fracking going means communities, like some dairy farming regions in Wisconsin, continue to see the environmental and quality-of-life impacts of frac sand mining.

Engagement is urgent and timely,2 and the entire country has a role to play. This moment in our energy history is a chance for all of us – those affected by, in favor of, concerned about, eager to welcome, or otherwise learning about UOGD – to get clear on our frame of understanding fracking.

pipeline-route-runs-behind-home-and-swingset

A pipeline right-of-way, about 200 yards behind this house and children’s swingset, shows how close fracking infrastructure comes to homes. Photo credit: Leann Leiter

Why a “Healthy Homes” Frame?

Proponents of frames that endorse fracking often live at a considerable distance from the processes involved,3 buffering them and their families from its impacts. According to researchers4 who listened to the testimonies of residents at a community hearing, the distance they lived from the industrial activities shows up in how they talk about fracking. Those in favor tend to use a depersonalized, “birds-eye view” in describing the impacts. People for whom the negative impacts are or will be a part of their lives rely on more descriptive, specific, and place-based language.

Similarly, a frame that focuses on household impacts emphasizes the on-the-ground, lived experience of living near fracking infrastructure. This frame approaches the debate on fracking by continually asking, what is this like for the people who live with the process? What are the impacts to their home environment? Such a frame does not ignore large-scale issues of jobs and energy supply, but grounds these bigger questions with the real and urgent consequences to the people who are suffering.

oval-healthy-homes-frame

Household impacts

Despite rulings that define UOGD as an industrial process, drilling companies locate all manner of infrastructure – wells, pipelines, compressor stations, among others – in areas formerly residential or agricultural. Rules dictating distances from UOGD facilities to structures like houses vary by municipality and state. Yet, these new and often imposing facilities repeatedly occupy the immediate view of homes, or are within close proximity that defy medical and safety warnings.


Video: Glaring light of burning flares and noises both droning and sudden, along with major truck traffic and other changes to the immediate landscape around the household, produce high levels of stress, leading to its own health problems, creating an environment where water may become unsafe to drink and breathing the air becomes a hazard.

The Oil & Gas Threat Map (by Earthworks and FracTracker) shows the populations within a half-mile “threat radius” of infrastructure that includes fracking – close enough for residents to be exposed to contaminated air emissions, and possibly smell disturbing odors, hear loud sounds and feel vibrations, and see bright lights and the fire of emergency flares. As confirmed by the EPA, in some cases, UOGD results in contamination of drinking water, as well.

Researchers at The Environmental Health Project (EHP) offer individual health assessments to residents living in the shadow of fracking operations. In a physician’s thorough review of over 61 assessments, they identified the following symptoms to be temporally related to gas activity:

Table 1. Symptoms temporally related to UOGD

SYMPTOM CATEGORY n Symptom %
UPPER RESPIRATORY SYMPTOMS 39 64% Nose or throat irritation 25 41%
 Sinus pain or infections 17 28%
Nose bleeds 8 13%
CONSTITUTIONAL SYMPTOMS 33 54% Sleep disruption 26 43%
Fatigue 13 21%
 Weak or Drowsy 9 15%
NEUROLOGICAL SYMPTOMS 32 52% Headache 25 41%
Dizziness 11 18%
Numbness 9 15%
Memory loss 8 13%
PSYCHOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS 32 52% Stress or anxiety 23 38%
Irritable or moody 12 20%
Worry 6 10%
LOWER RESPIRATORY SYMPTOMS 30 49% Cough 21 34%
Shortness of breath 19 31%
Weezing 14 23%
GASTRO-INTESTINAL SYMPTOMS 27 44% Nausea 13 21%
Abdominal pain 12 20%
EYE SYMPTOMS 23 38% Itchy eyes 11 18%
Painful or dry 10 16%
DERMATOLOGICAL SYMPTOMS 19 31% Rash 10 16%
Itching 7 11%
Lesions or blisters 6 10%
CARDIAC SYMPTOMS 17 28% Palpitations 9 15%
Chest pain 6 10%
Other cardiac symptoms 6 10%
HEARING CHANGES OR TINNITUS 10 16% Hearing loss 3 5%
Tinnitus (ringing in the ear) 10 16%
 MUSCULOSKELETAL 10 16% Painful joints 9 15%
Aches 7 11%
ENDOCRINE 7 11% Hair loss 7 11%
n =  Number of patients reporting symptom, out of 61 patients assessed
% = Percentage of patients reporting symptom, out of 61 patients assessed
Table adapted from EHP – Click to download Excel spreadsheet

Mental and emotional stress can exacerbate and create physical health symptoms. For households close to fracking, the fear of a disaster, like a well pad fire, or concern for the long term health effects of exposures through air and water can create serious stress. These developments change communities, sometimes in divisive, negative ways, potentially adding to the stress.

Fracking, a disruptive, landscape-altering process can also produce what’s called solastalgia, whereby negatively-perceived changes to the land alter a person’s sense of belonging. In the case of fracking in residential areas, people may lose not only their relationship to the land, but their homes as they once knew them.5 Solastalgia, considered by some researchers to be a new psycho-social condition, is “the lived experience of the physical desolation of home.”6

When Home is Unsafe, Where to Get Help

EHP Trifold Cover

Click to expand and explore the tri-fold. Click here to access and print this free resource, and many others by EHP.

EHP offers a new resource for protecting your health at a household level, called: “Protecting Your Health from Unconventional Oil and Gas Development.” We created this free informational resource in collaboration with residents and health care providers in four different shale gas counties.

The final product is the direct result of input and knowledge from 15 focus groups and project meetings in these affected communities with over 100 participants, including residents and healthcare providers. EHP has packed this resource with practical steps for households amid shale gas development to limit their exposure to air and water contamination that may be associated with fracking.

For follow-up questions, or for free personalized health services for those experiencing fracking-related exposures, you can contact EHP directly at 724-260-5504 or by email at info@environmentalhealthproject.org.

Re-Centering Home in the Fracking Debate

Putting affected households at the center of the fracking debate better reflects the experiences of people on the front lines. This powerful frame could help counter the power of those who speak positively about fracking, but lack direct experience of the process.

For those at the frontlines of fracking, the intent is that these resources and tools will help you protect your health and your homes.

For those not yet directly affected by fracking, you can lend a hand. Show support for health protective measures by signing up at EHP for updates on events, education, and opportunities to make your voice heard. And, whenever and wherever you can weigh in on the debate, put a frame around fracking that puts impacted households at the center.

References

  1. Cooley, R., & Casagrande, D. (2017). Marcellus Shale as Golden Goose. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures.
  2. Short, D., Elliot, J., Norder, K., Lloyd-Davies, E., & Morley, J. (2015). Extreme energy, ‘fracking’ and human rights: a new field for human rights impact assessments?, The International Journal of Human Rights, 19:6, 697-736, DOI:10.1080/13642987.2015.1019219
  3. Cooley, R., & Casagrande, D. (2017). Marcellus Shale as Golden Goose. ExtrACTION: Impacts, Engagements, and Alternative Futures.
  4. Mando, J. (2016). Constructing the vicarious experience of proximity in a Marcellus Shale public hearing. Environmental Communication, 10(3), 352-364.
  5. Resick, L. K. (2016). Gender, protest, and the health impacts of unconventional natural gas development. In Y. Beebeejaum (Ed.), The participatory city (pp. 167-175). Berlin: Jovis Verlag GmgH.
  6. Albrecht et al (2007). Solastalgia: the distress caused by environmental change, Australasian Psychiatry . Vol 15 Supplement.

By Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow for the SW-PA Environmental Health Project and FracTracker Alliance

Feature photograph: A compressor station sits above a beautiful farm in Washington County, Pennsylvania. Photo credit: Leann Leiter

Photo courtesy of Claycord.com

Tracking Refinery Emissions in California’s Bay Area Refinery Corridor

Air quality in the California Bay Area has been steadily improving over the last decade, and the trend can even be seen over just the course of the last few years. In this article we explore data from the ambient air quality monitoring networks in the Bay Area, including a look at refinery emissions.

From the data and air quality reports we find that that many criteria pollutants such as fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and oxides of nitrogen (NOX) have decreased dramatically, and areas that were degraded are now in compliance.

While air pollution from certain sectors such as transportation have been decreasing, the north coast of the East Bay region is home to a variety of petrochemical industry sites. This includes five petroleum refineries. The refineries not only contribute to these criteria pollutants, but also emit a unique cocktail of toxic and carcinogenic compounds that are not monitored and continue to impact cardiovascular health in the region. This region, aptly named the “refinery corridor” has a petroleum refining capacity of roughly 800,000 BPD (barrels per day) of crude oil.

Petroleum refineries in California’s East Bay have always been a contentious issue, and several of the refineries date back to almost the turn of the 20th century. The refineries have continuously increased their capacities and abilities to refine dirtier crude oil through “modernization projects.” As a result, air quality and health impacts became such a concern that in 2006 and again in 2012, Gayle McLaughlin, a Green Party candidate, was elected as Mayor of the City of Richmond. Richmond, CA became the largest city in the U.S. with a Green Party Mayor. While there have been many strides in the recent decade to clean up these major sources of air pollution, health impacts in the region including cardiovascular disease and asthma, as well as cancer rates, are still disproportionately high.

Regulations

To give additional background on this issue, let’s discuss some the regulations tasked with protecting people and the environment in California, as well as climate change targets.

New proposals for meeting California’s progressive carbon emissions standards were proposed in January of 2017. A vote to decide on the plan to meet the aggressive new climate target and reduce greenhouse gas emissions 40% across all sectors of the economy will happen this month, May 2017! Over the last ten years the refineries have invested in modernization projects costing more than $2 billion to reduce emissions.

However – a current proposal will actually allow the refineries to process more crude oil by setting a standard for emissions by volume of crude/petroleum refined, rather than an actual cap on emissions. The current regulatory approach focuses on “source-by-source” regulations of individual equipment, which ignores the overall picture of what’s spewing into nearby communities and the atmosphere. Even the state air resources board has supported a move to block the refineries from accepting more heavy crude from the Canadian tar sands.

New regulatory proposals incentivize refineries to continue expanding operations to refine more oil, resulting in a larger burden on the health of these already disproportionately impacted environmental justice communities. Chevron, in particular, is upgrading their Richmond refinery in a way as to allow it to process dirtier crude in larger volumes from the Monterey Shale and Canada’s Tar Sands. Since the production volumes of lighter crudes are shrinking, heavier dirtier crudes are becoming a larger part of the refinerys’ feedstocks. Heavier crudes require more energy to refine and result in larger amounts of hazardous emissions.

Upgrades are also being implemented to address greenhouse gas emissions. While the upgrades address the carbon emissions, regulatory standards without strict caps for other pollutants will allow emissions of criteria and toxic air pollutants such as VOC’s, nitrosamines, heavy metals, etc… to increase. In fact, newly proposed emissions standards for refineries will make it easier for the refineries to increase their crude oil volumes by regulating emissions on per-barrel standards. Current refining volumes can be seen below in Table 1, along with their maximum capacity.

Table 1. Bay Area refineries average oil processed and total capacity

Refinery Location Ave. oil processed
Barrels Per Day (2012 est.)
Max. capacity (BPD)
Chevron U.S.A. Inc. Richmond Refinery Richmond 245,271 >350,000
Tesoro Refining & Marketing, Golden Eagle Refinery Martinez 166,000 166,000
Shell Oil Products US, Martinez Refinery Martinez 156,400 158,000
Valero Benicia Refinery Benicia 132,000 150,000
Phillips 66, Rodeo San Francisco Refinery Rodeo 78,400 100,000

Source: California Energy Commission. One barrel of oil = 42 U.S. gallons.

Environmental Health Inequity

The Bay Area, and in particular the city of Richmond, have been noted in the literature as a place where environmental racism and environmental health disparity exist. The city’s residents of color disproportionately live near the refineries and chemical plants, which is noted in early works on environmental racism by pioneers of the idea, such as Robert Bullard (Bullard 1993a,b).

Since the issue has been brought to national attention by environmental justice groups like West County Toxics Coalition, progress has been made to try to bring justice, but it has been limited. People of color are still disproportionately exposed to toxic, industrial pollution in that area. A recent study showed 93% of respondents in Richmond were concerned about the link between pollution and health, and 81% were concerned about a specific polluter, mainly the Chevron Refinery (Brody et al. 2012). Recent health reports continue to show the trend that these refinery communities suffer disproportionately from cases of asthma and cardiovascular disease and higher mortality rates from a variety of cancers.

Health Impact Studies

Manufacturing and refining are known to produce particularly toxic pollution. Additionally, there has been research done on the specific makeup of pollution in the refinery corridor. The best study to do this is the Northern California Household Exposure Study (Brody et al. 2009). They examined indoor and outdoor air in Richmond, a refinery corridor community, and Bolinas, a nearby but far more rural community. They found 33% more compounds in Richmond, along with higher concentrations of each compound. The study also found very high concentrations of vanadium and nickel in Richmond, some of the highest levels in the state. Vanadium and nickel have been shown to be some of the most dangerous PM2.5 components as we previously stated, which gives reason to believe the air pollution in Richmond is more toxic than in surrounding areas.

Another very similar study compared the levels of endocrine disrupting compounds in Richmond and Bolinas homes, and found 40 in Richmond homes and only 10 in Bolinas (Rudel et al. 2010). This supports the idea that a large variety of pollutants with synergistic effects may be contributing to the increased mortality and hospital visits for communities in this region. This small body of research on pollution in Richmond suggests that the composition of air pollution may be more toxic and thus trigger more pollution-related adverse health outcomes than in surrounding communities.

Air Quality Monitoring

As discussed above and in FracTracker’s previous reports on the refinery corridor, the refinery emissions are a unique cocktail whose synergistic effects may be driving much of the cardiovascular disease, asthma, and cancer risk in the region. Therefore, the risk drivers in the Bay Area need to be prioritized, in particular the compounds of interest emitted by the petrochemical facilities.

The targets for emissions monitoring are compounds associated with the highest risk in the neighboring communities. An expert panel was convened in 2013 to develop plans for a monitoring network in the refinery corridor. Experts found that measurements should be collected at 5 minute intervals and displayed to the public real-time. The gradient of ambient air concentrations is determined by the distance from refinery, so a network of three near-fence-line monitors was recommended. Major drivers of risk are supposed to be identified by air quality monitoring conducted as a part of Air District Regulation 12m Rule 15: Petroleum Refining Emissions tracking. According to the rule, fence-line monitoring plans by refinery operators:

… must measure benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylenes (BTEX) and HS concentrations at refinery fence-lines with open path technology capable of measuring in the parts per billion range regardless of path length. Open path measurement of SO2, alkanes or other organic compound indicators, 1, 3-butadiene, and ammonia concentrations are to be considered in the Air Monitoring Plan.

The following analysis found that the majority of hazardous pollutants emitted from refineries are not monitored downwind of the facility fence-lines, much less the list explicitly named in the regulations above.

As shown below in Figure 1, the most impacted communities are in those directly downwind of the facility. According to the BAAQMD, each petroleum refinery is supposed to have fence-line monitoring. Despite this regulation developed by air quality and health experts, only two out of the five refineries have even one fence-line monitor. Real-time air monitoring data at the Chevron Richmond fence-line monitor and the Phillips 66 Rodeo fence-line monitor can be found on fenceline.org. Data from these monitors are also aggregated by the U.S. EPA, and along with the other local monitors, can be viewed on the EPA’s interactive mapping platform.

Figure 1. Map of Hydrogen Sulfide Emissions from the Richmond Chevron Refinery
Refinery emissions - H2S gradient

Hazardous Emissions and Ambient Pollution

Since the majority of hazardous chemicals emitted from the refineries are not measured at monitoring sites, or there are not any monitoring sites at the fence-line or downwind of the facility, our mapping exercises instead focus on the hazardous air pollution for which there is data.

As shown in the map of hydrogen sulfide (H2S) above, the communities immediately neighboring the refineries are subjected to the majority of hazardous emissions. The map shows the rapidly decreasing concentration gradient as you get away from the facility. H2S would have been a good signature of refinery emissions throughout the region if there were more than three monitors. Also, those monitors only existed until 2013, when they were replaced with a singular monitor in a much better location, as shown on the map. The 2016 max value is much higher because it is more directly downwind of Chevron Refinery.

The interpolated map layer was created using 2013 monitoring data from three monitors that have since been removed. The 2016 monitoring location is in a different location and has a maximum value more than twice what was recorded at the 2013 location.

Table 2. Inventory of criteria pollutant emissions for the largest sectors in the Bay Area

Annual average tons per day
PM10 PM2.5 ROG NOX SOX CO
Area wide 175.51 52.90 87.95 19.92 0.62 161.86
Mobile 20.33 16.27 183.12 380.52 14.93 1541.50
Total Emissions 16.30 12.14 106.58 50.59 45.95 44.31

Table adapted from the BAAQMD Refinery Report. PM10 = particulate matter less than 10 microns in diameter  (about the width of a human hair); PM2.5 = PM less than 2.5 microns in diameter; ROG = reactive organic gases; NOX = nitrogen oxides; SOX = sulfur oxides; CO = carbon monoxide.

Additionally, exposure assessment can also rely on using surrogate emissions to understand where the plumes from the refineries are interacting with the surrounding communities. It is particularly important to also discriminate between different sources of pollution. As we see in Table 2 above, the largest volume of particulate matter (PM), NOX, and CO emissions actually come from mobile sources, whereas the largest source of sulfur dioxide and other oxides (SOX) is from stationary sources. Since the relationship between PM2.5 and health outcomes is most established, the response to ambient levels of PM2.5 in the refinery corridor gives insight into the composition of PM as well as the presence of other species of hazardous air pollution. On the other hand, SO2 can be used as a surrogate for the footprint of un-monitored air toxics.

Pollutants’ Fingerprints

Particulate Matter

Figure 2. Map of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Figure 2 above displays ambient levels of PM2.5, and as the map shows, the highest levels of particulate matter surround the larger metro area of downtown Oakland and also track with the larger commuting corridors. The map shows evidence that the largest contributor to PM2.5 is truly the transportation (mobile) sector. PM2.5 is one hazardous air pollutant which negatively impacts health, causing heart attack, or myocardial infarction (MI), among other conditions. PM2.5 is particulate matter pollution, meaning small particles suspended in the air, specifically particles under 2.5 microns in diameter. Exposure to high levels of PM2.5 increases the risk of MI within hours and for the next 1-2 days (Brooks et al. 2004; Poloniecki et al. 1997).While refineries may not be the largest source of PM in the Bay Area, they are still large point sources that contribute to high local conditions of smog.

The chemical make-up of the particulate matter also needs to be considered. In addition, the toxicity of PM from the refineries is of particular concern. Since particulate matter acts like small carbon sponges, the source of PM affects its toxicity. The cocktail of hazardous air toxics emitted by refineries absorb and adsorb to the surfaces of PM. When inhaled with PM, these toxics including heavy metals and carcinogens are delivered deep into lung tissue.

Pooled results of many studies showed that for every 10 micrograms per meter cubed increase in PM2.5 levels, the risk of MI increases 0.4-1% (Brooks et al. 2010).  However, this relationship has not been studied in the context of EJ communities. EJ communities are generally low income communities of color (Bullard 1993), which have higher exposures to pollution, more sources of stress, and higher biological markers of stress (Szanton et al. 2010; Carlson and Chamberlein 2005). All of these factors may affect the relationship between PM2.5 and MI, and increase the health impact of pollution in EJ communities relative to what has been found in the literature.

Sulfur Dioxide

Figure 3 below shows the fingerprint of the refinery emissions on the refinery corridor, using SO2 emissions as a surrogate for the cocktail of toxic emissions. The relationship between SOand health endpoints of cardiovascular disease and asthma have also been established in the literature (Kaldor et al. 1984).

In addition to assessing SO2 as a direct health stressor, it is also the most effective tracer of industrial emissions and specifically petroleum refineries for a number of reasons. Petroleum refineries are the largest source of SO2 in the BAAQMD by far (Table 1), and there are more monitors for SO2 than any of the other emitted chemical species that can be used to fingerprint the refineries. The distribution of SO2 is therefore representative of the cocktail of a combination of the hazardous chemicals released in refinery emissions.

Figure 3. Map of Sulfur Dioxide for the Bay Area Air Quality Management District

View map fullscreen | How FracTracker maps work

Further Research

The next step for FracTracker Alliance is to further explore the relationship between health effects in the refinery communities and ambient levels of air pollution emitted by the refineries. Our staff is currently working with the California Department of Public Health to analyze the response of daily emergency room discharges for a variety of health impacts including cardiovascular disease and asthma.

References

Brody, J. G., R. Morello-Frosch, A. Zota, P. Brown, C. Pérez, and R. A. Rudel. 2009. Linking Exposure Assessment Science With Policy Objectives for Environmental Justice and Breast Cancer Advocacy: The Northern California Household Exposure Study. American Journal of Public Health 99:S600–S609.

Brook, R. D., B. Franklin, W. Cascio, Y. Hong, G. Howard, M. Lipsett, R. Luepker, M. Mittleman, J. Samet, S. C. Smith, and I. Tager. 2004. Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation 109:2655–2671.

Brooks, R. D., S. Rajagopalan, C. A. Pope, J. R. Brook, A. Bhatnagar, A. V. Diez-Roux, F. Holguin, Y. Hong, R. V. Luepker, M. A. Mittleman, A. Peters, D. Siscovick, S. C. Smith, L. Whitsel, and J. D. Kaufman. 2010. Particulate Matter Air Pollution and Cardiovascular Disease. Circulation 121:2331–2378.

Bullard, R. D. 1993a. Race and Environmental Justice in the United States Symposium: Earth Rights and Responsibilities: Human Rights and Environmental Protection. Yale Journal of International Law 18:319–336.

Bullard, R. D. 1993b. Confronting Environmental Racism: Voices from the Grassroots. South End Press.

Carlson, E.D. and Chamberlain, R.M. (2005), Allostatic load and health disparities: A theoretical orientation. Res. Nurs. Health, 28: 306–315. doi:10.1002/nur.20084

Kaldor, J., J. A. Harris, E. Glazer, S. Glaser, R. Neutra, R. Mayberry, V. Nelson, L. Robinson, and D. Reed. 1984. Statistical association between cancer incidence and major-cause mortality, and estimated residential exposure to air emissions from petroleum and chemical plants. Environmental Health Perspectives 54:319–332.

Poloniecki, J. D., R. W. Atkinson, A. P. de Leon, and H. R. Anderson. 1997. Daily Time Series for Cardiovascular Hospital Admissions and Previous Day’s Air Pollution in London, UK. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 54:535–540.

Rudel, R. A., R. E. Dodson, L. J. Perovich, R. Morello-Frosch, D. E. Camann, M. M. Zuniga, A. Y. Yau, A. C. Just, and J. G. Brody. 2010. Semivolatile Endocrine-Disrupting Compounds in Paired Indoor and Outdoor Air in Two Northern California Communities. Environmental Science & Technology 44:6583–6590.

Szanton SL, Thorpe RJ, Whitfield KE. Life-course Financial Strain and Health in African-Americans. Social science & medicine (1982). 2010;71(2):259-265. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2010.04.001.


By Daniel Menza, Data & GIS Intern, and Kyle Ferrar, Western Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance

Cover photo credit: Claycord.com

Photo by Garth Lenz, iLCP - for Ethane Cracker article about risk and disclosure

Understanding in Order to Prepare: Ethane Cracker Risk and Disclosure

By Leann Leiter and Lisa Graves Marcucci
Maps and data analysis by Kirk Jalbert

Highly industrialized operations like petrochemical plants inherently carry risks, including the possibility of large-scale disasters. In an effort to prepare, it is incumbent upon all stakeholders to fully understand the risk potential. Yet, the planned Shell ethane cracker and additional petrochemical operations being proposed for Western Pennsylvania are the first of their kind in our region. This means that residents and elected officials are without a frame of reference as they consider approving these operations. Officials find themselves tasked with reviewing and approving highly complicated permit applications, and the public remains uncertain of what questions to ask and scenarios to consider. Often overlooked in the decision-making process is valuable expertise from local first responders like police, fire and emergency crew members, HAZMAT teams, and those who protect vulnerable populations, like emergency room personnel, nursing home staff, and school officials.

Steam cracker at BASF's Ludwigshafen site. Photo credit: BASF - for risk and disclosure article

Example of cracker producing ethylene, located at BASF’s Ludwigshafen site. Photo credit: BASF

In the first article in this series , we tried to identify the known hazards associated with ethane crackers. In this article, we look more closely at how that risk could play out in Beaver County, PA and strive to initiate an important dialogue that invites valuable, local expertise.

In keeping with the first article in this series, we use the terms vulnerability and capacity. Vulnerability refers to the conditions and factors that increase the disaster impact that a community might experience, and capacity consists of the strengths that mitigate those impacts. Importantly, vulnerability and capacity frequently intertwine and overlap. We might, for example, consider a fire station to be a site of “capacity,” but if it lies within an Emergency Planning Zone (discussed more below), an explosion at the plant could render it a vulnerability. Likewise, “vulnerable” populations such as the elderly may have special skills and local knowledge, making them a source of capacity.

Emergency Planning: Learning from Louisiana

FracTracker got in touch with the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, to learn how a community already living with Shell-owned and other petrochemical facilities manages risk and disclosure. The Emergency Manager we spoke with explained that they designate a two- and a five-mile area around each new facility in their jurisdiction, like ethane crackers, during their emergency planning process. They call these areas “ emergency planning zones ” or EPZs, and they maintain records of the vulnerabilities and sites of capacity within each zone. In case of a fire, explosion, or other unplanned event at any facility, having the EPZs designated in advance allows them to mobilize first responders, and notify and evacuate everyone living, working, and attending school within the zone. Whether they activate a two- or a five-mile EPZ depends on the type of incident, and factors like wind speed and direction.

Based on those procedures, the map below shows similar likely zones for the proposed plant in Beaver County, along with sites of vulnerability and capacity.

Ethane Cracker Hazard Map

View Map Fullscreen | How FracTracker Maps Work

The map helps us visualize the vulnerability and capacity of this area, relative to the proposed ethane cracker. It includes three main elements: the Shell site and parcels likely to be targeted for buildout of related facilities, two Emergency Planning Zones (EPZs) around the Shell facility, and infrastructure and facilities of the area that represent vulnerability and capacity.

vacant-parcels

Vacant parcels near the site

It is important to note that the proposed ethane cracker in Beaver County is merely the first of an influx of petrochemical spin-off facilities promised for the area, potentially occupying the various empty parcels indicated on the map above as “vacant properties” and presented in light gray in the screenshot left.

Each new facility would add its own risks and cumulative impacts to the equation. It would be impossible to project these additional risks without knowing what facilities will be built here, so in this article, we stick to what we do know – the risks already articulated by Shell, lessons learned from other communities hosting petrochemical industry in other parts of the country, and past disasters at similar facilities.

Vulnerability and Capacity in Beaver County

Red, blue, and green points on the map above and in the screenshot below stand in for hospitals like Heritage Valley Beaver; fire and emergency medical services like Vanport Volunteer Fire Company; police stations like the Beaver County Sheriff’s office; and daycares and schools like Center Grange Primary School.

Transportation routes, if impacted, could challenge evacuation. Potter Township Fire Chief Vicki Carlton pointed out that evacuations due to an event at this facility could also be complicated by the need to stay upwind, when evacuations would likely move in a downwind direction. This map lacks drinking water intakes and other essential features upon which lives depend, but which nonetheless also sit within this zone of vulnerability.

points-within-epzs

Points within EPZS

Vulnerability/capacity within 2-mile zone:

  • 1 hospital
  • 5 police stations
  • 10 fire/EMS stations
  • 23 schools/daycare facilities
  • 47,717 residents*

When expanded to 5-mile zone:

  • 2 hospitals
  • 9 police stations
  • 23 fire/EMS stations
  • 40 schools/daycare facilities
  • 120,849 residents*

*Note: For census tracts that are partly within a zone, a ratio is determined based on the percentage of land area in the tract within the zone. This ratio is then used to estimate the fraction of the population likely within the zone.

Stakeholders’ Right to Know

No person or community should be subjected to risk without the opportunity to be fully informed and to give meaningful input. Likewise, no group of people should have to bear a disproportionate share of environmental risks, particularly stakeholders who are already frequently disenfranchised in environmental decision-making. “Environmental justice” (EJ) refers to those simple principles, and DEP designates environmental justice areas based on communities of color and poverty indicators.

Presented as blue fields on the map and shown in the screenshot below, several state-designated EJ areas fall partially or entirely within the 2- and 5-mile EPZs (a portion of two EJ areas home to 2,851 people, and when expanded to five miles, two entire EJ areas and a portion of seven more, home to 18,679 people, respectively).

EJ Areas and Emergency Planning Zones around the Site

EJ Areas and Emergency Planning Zones around the Site

The basic ideas behind environmental justice have major bearing in emergency scenarios. For example, those living below the poverty line tend to have less access to information and news sources, meaning they might not learn of dangerous unexpected emissions plumes coming their way. They also may not have access to a personal vehicle, rendering them dependent upon a functioning public transportation system to evacuate in an emergency. Living below poverty level may also mean fewer resources at home for sheltering-in-place during a disaster, and having less financial resources, like personal savings, may lead to more difficult post-disaster recovery.

Local expertise

FracTracker recently consulted with the Emergency Management Director for Beaver County, Eric Brewer, and with Potter Township Fire Chief Vicki Carlton. Both indicated that their staff have already begun training exercises with Shell -including a live drill on site that simulated a fire in a work trailer. But when asked, neither reported that they had been consulted in the permit approval process. Neither had been informed of the chemicals to be held on site, and both referred to emergency planning considerations as something to come in the future, after the plant was built.

Unfortunately, the lack of input from public safety professionals during the permit approval stage isn’t unique to Beaver County. Our emergency management contact in Louisiana pointed to the same disturbing reality: Those who best understand the disaster implications of these dangerous developments and who would be mobilized to respond in the case of a disaster are not given a say in their approval or denial. This valuable local expertise – in Louisiana and in Beaver County – is being overlooked.

All Beaver County first responders who spoke with FracTracker clearly showed their willingness to perform their duties in any way that Shell’s new facility might demand, hopefulness about its safety, and a generally positive relationship with the company so far. Chief Carlton believes that the ethane cracker will be an improvement over the previous facility on the same site, the Horsehead zinc smelter, though a regional air pollution report characterizes this as a trade off of one type of dangerous pollution for another. Director Brewer pointed to the existing emergency plans for the county’s nuclear facility as giving Beaver County an important leg-up on preparedness.

But the conversations also raised concern about what the future relationship between the community and the industry will look like. Will funds be allocated to these first responders for the additional burdens brought on by new, unprecedented facilities, in what amount, and for how long into the future? Chief Carlton pointed out that until Shell’s on-site fire brigade is in place two or three years from now, her all-volunteer department would be the first line of defense in case of a fire or other incident. In the meantime, her fire company has ordered a much-needed equipment upgrade to replace a 30-year old, outdated tanker at a cost of $400,000. They are formally requesting all corporate businesses in the township, including Shell, to share the cost. Hopefully, the fire company will see this cost covered by their corporate neighbors who use their services. But further down the road? Once all is said and done, and Shell has what they need to operate unfettered, Chief Carlton wonders, “where do we stand with them?”

Waiting for disclosure of the risks

Emergency preparedness and planning should be a process characterized by transparency and inclusion of all stakeholders. However, when it comes to the Shell ethane cracker, those who will share a fence line with such operations have not yet been granted access to the full picture. Currently, the DEP allows industrial operations like the proposed ethane cracker to wait until immediately before operations begin to disclose emergency planning information, in the form of Preparedness, Prevention, and Contingency (PPC) plans. In other words, when permits are up for approval or denial prior to construction, permit applicants are not currently required to provide PPC plans, and the public and emergency managers cannot weigh the risks or provide crucial input.

Shell’s Acknowledged Risks
According to public information provided by Shell

Sampling of Shell’s Disastrous
Petrochemical Precedents

Fire and Explosions

Shell’s Deer Park, Texas, 1997:
Blast at chemical plant

Leaks

Shell’s Deer Park, Texas refinery and chemical plant, 2013:
Harmful air pollution and benzene leak

Equipment Failures

Shell’s Martinez Refinery in California, 2016:
Equipment failure event; Shell’s refusal to reveal gases emitted

According to Shell, possible risks of the proposed Beaver County petrochemical facility include fire, explosion, leaks, and equipment failures. More than mere potentialities, examples of each are already on the books. The above table presents a sampling. Shell also points out the increased risk of traffic accidents, not explored in this chart. It is worth noting, however, that the proposed facility, and likely spin-off facilities, would greatly increase vehicular and rail traffic.

The ethane cracker in Beaver County plant has not yet been constructed. However, Shell operates similar operations with documented risks and their own histories of emergency events. Going forward, the various governmental agencies tasked with reviewing permit applications should require industrial operations like Shell, to make this information public as part of the review and planning process. Currently they can relegate safety information to a few vague references and get a free pass to mark it as “confidential” in permit applications. Strengthening risk disclosure requirements would be a logical and basic step toward ensuring that all stakeholders – including those with special emergency planning expertise – can have input on whether those risks are acceptable before permits are approved and site prep begins.

Until regulations are tightened, we invite Shell to fulfill its own stated objective of being a “good neighbor” by being forthcoming about what risks will be moving in next door. Shell can and should take the initiative to share information about its existing facilities, as well as lessons learned from past emergencies at those sites. Instead of waiting for the post-construction, or the “implementation” stage, all stakeholders deserve disclosure of Shell’s plans to prevent and respond to emergencies now.

In our next article, we will explore the infrastructure for the proposed Shell facility, which spans multiple states, and sort out the piecemeal approval processes of building an ethane cracker in Pennsylvania.


Sincere Appreciation

Emergency Managers and First Responders in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana and Potter Township and Center Township, PA.

Lisa Hallowell, Senior Attorney at the Environmental Integrity Project, for her review of this article series and contributions to our understanding of relevant regulations.

Kirk Jalbert, in addition to maps and analysis, for contributing key points of consideration for and expertise on environmental justice.

The International League of Conservation Photographers for sharing the feature image used in this article.

The image used on our homepage of the steam cracker at BASF’s Ludwigshafen site was taken by BASF.


By Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow for FracTracker Alliance and the Southwest PA Environmental Health Project and Lisa Graves Marcucci, PA Coordinator, Community Outreach of Environmental Integrity Project

With maps and analysis by Kirk Jalbert, Manager of Community-Based Research & Engagement, FracTracker Alliance

The Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry: A Collective Step to Track the Impacts of Fracking

“It’s all about facts. Documented facts…”

… asserted a county commissioner to a recent gathering of concerned residents in Hannibal, Ohio. His comment came at the end of over an hour of deeply moving narratives from residents, sharing disturbing changes in their health after a disastrous well pad fire in their community and other ongoing shale development in the area. One family, whose home was blanketed by the heavy black smoke from the fire, which burned for five days in 2014, told of respiratory problems, hair loss, newly-diagnosed thyroid issues, and a premature birth. Another family reported worsening of existing cardiac conditions, sleep disturbances, and considerable stress due to continued encroachment of pipelines and compression stations.

lisa-photo-1

Figure 1: Residents of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota live amid numerous oil rigs. Photo credit: Shalefield Stories, Vol. 2.

Throughout the country, personal stories like these offer a meaningful window into the experiences of people living at the frontlines of shale gas and oil development – often called ‘fracking.’ But aggregated into a formal health registry, these experiences can also form the kind of documentation needed to inform public health research and legislators who, like the county commissioner in Ohio, insist on documented evidence before issuing health-protective policies.

A health registry is “a dataset of uniform information about individuals collected in a systematic and comprehensive way, in order to serve a predetermined medical or public health purpose.”

The Southwest PA Environmental Health Project (EHP), in partnership with the Genetic Alliance, has just introduced the first such national system. In this online system, participants share – and control access to – their own data, making it unique among many other registries. This exciting new forum invites those living, working, or going to school near shale gas and oil development, like the families described above, to share their exposures and document their health symptoms. Perhaps most importantly, it ensures that personal stories are collected, respected, and treated as the important data that they are.

Figure 2: These quick and informative videos introduce EHP’s Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry and how it works. They feature the voices of those who helped create it, including public health professionals, the director of EHP, and a community member.

Why a registry?

Public health research affirms that there are significant health risks for those living, working, or attending school near shale gas and oil development. Research points to links between proximity to fracking and worsened asthma and other respiratory impacts and skin conditions; fracking’s noise pollution and stress-related conditions, like cardiovascular problems; and low birth weight babies among mothers living near numerous hydraulically fractured wells.

Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy (PSE) conducted a thorough examination of the extensive and growing body of shale gas and oil-related research and found that between 2009 and 2015, 84% of the studies focused on health have findings that “indicate public health hazards, elevated risks, or adverse health outcomes.”

US map of populations near active drilling activity

Figure 3: Populations in the U.S. near active drilling. The Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry has a national scope. Click on the image to learn more about how this map was made.

For years, some medical professionals attuned to environmental effects on health have noted correlations between fracking and health symptoms in their patients. But without a clear explanation of causation that links such symptoms to fracking, researchers need more data.

The Pennsylvania Medical Society recommended a registry as a necessary step toward getting a grasp on the public health problem. A health registry collects health data systematically, and may support further epidemiology and toxicology research by putting these patterns in higher contrast.

Laying the Groundwork

The Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry did not emerge in isolation, but rather is one of several ongoing efforts toward gathering the innumerable accounts of health symptoms from shale development regions around the country.

Important grassroots initiatives include the List of the Harmed, started by Jenny Lisak in 2011. The List catalogues over 20,000 stories of human, animal, and environmental impacts. The Natural Gas Exploration & Production Health and Community Impacts Survey, created by The Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS), is an effort to collect health impact information from individuals in shale gas communities and hopefully trigger further review from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). Additionally, there are numerous peer reviewed studies on the topic, but they are often too limited in scope and size to be generalized to communities outside of where the data was originally collected.

Families in Washington Co., Pa who are facing possible issues through the creation of cybergentic gas processing plant in western Pa. A Cibus Imperial compression station sits above a suburban community, people there are fearful of their air quality because of this plant, in Bulger, PA

Figure 4: In Washington County, PA, houses sit just below a compressor station, a type of natural gas facility that can produce air emissions, noise, and light pollution. In the health registry, participants can answer questions about the types of facilities they are exposed to. Photo credit: Karen Kasmauski, iLCP.

Two states have begun their own registry-related efforts. Colorado’s Oil & Gas Health Information and Response Program includes an online self-referral form, a hotline for those with health concerns potentially related to oil and gas, and a health information “clearinghouse.” Their program aims to illuminate “possible health effects related to oil and gas operations,” which the program intends to make available to the public, researchers, and policy-makers (source).

Pennsylvania, where EHP does much of its on-the-ground work, has a history of legislative calls for its own registry, beginning with recommendations issued by Governor Tom Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission in 2011. The Secretary of Health at the time called a registry “the most timely and important initiative” for the Department of Health (DOH). Current Governor Tom Wolf called for a shale gas health registry in his 2014 gubernatorial campaign. He proposed budgeting $100,000 to the PA Department of Health (DOH) for the cause, although health professionals argue that more is needed to implement an effective registry. According to recent conversations with EHP, DOH is in the process of developing a system similar to Colorado’s, in coordination with that state. For the time being, Pennsylvanians seeking assistance from DOH will find a webpage with limited information, directing calls to the state’s Bureau of Epidemiology.

Making the Registry a Reality

There is a clear need for a system to collect individuals’ exposures and health symptoms, with a national scope that matches the country-wide scale of shale development. Yet, the costs of initiating and maintaining a registry, political issues related to industry reporting on the chemicals they use and discharge, and scientific issues such as scant exposure data and limited funding for research, are some of the various obstacles that faced the implementation of a health registry.

From a health perspective, symptoms potentially related to drilling activity may be similar to symptoms from unrelated causes, or may be exacerbations of existing health conditions. Added to this is the complexity of exposure sources, since an individual or family may live, work, or go to school in proximity to multiple types of shale gas and oil facilities. Moreover, those at the frontlines of shale oil and gas development – whose health data is essential to the registry – may be reluctant to participate due to social or family pressures.

The Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry directly addresses each of these challenges. Using an existing registry infrastructure created by Genetic Alliance significantly reduced the costs of launching and maintaining the registry. Including systematic questions that let users record their proximity to – and frequency of – exposure captures the complexity of this important information. And through steps like collecting zip codes instead of home addresses, and offering the choice of privacy settings that only allow researchers to see data in anonymous form, the registry ensures confidentiality and user control of data.

Figure 6. A variety of sources can trigger health issues during shale gas and oil development. These include air emissions from processing facilities and well pad accidents, as well as the heavy truck traffic required to drill and frack a well; spills and other forms of water contamination; and psychological impacts like stress and sleep disruption. 

End Result: The Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry

hughes-bill-workers-launching-pigs

Figure 7: The health registry includes a set of questions for participants whose exposures come from working in the gas and oil industry. Photo credit: Bill Hughes.

The result of these efforts is a secure, online system where participants – people within five miles of shale gas and oil development, with or without health symptoms – can create an account for themselves and/or their family members. The online registry guides them through a series of screens inviting them to share the various exposures they encounter, such as heavy truck traffic, air emissions, and water impacts. Participants can catalogue and update health symptoms that have surfaced or worsened during their exposure, while controlling who can view and share their personal information.

Industry workers and children can even be registered in this system using a set of tailored questions. The registry also allows an assistor to create a profile and answer the questions for someone not comfortable with or able to use the online system.

One Registry to Meet Many Needs

EHP created the health registry to respond to the needs of several groups: affected communities, researchers, policymakers, and the public.

shirley-eakin

Figure 8: A resident of Washington County, PA sits in front of paperwork documenting health struggles that may be connected to shale gas development near her home. Photo credit: Shalefield Stories, Vol. 2.

In developing the health registry, EHP recognized that those affected by shale development must not be treated as “data points,” but as collaborators in – and beneficiaries of – the process. As a venue to share health concerns, the registry helps give voice to those who may be suffering in silence. Participants can connect with researchers, receive a biannual newsletter of updates on the growing size of the registry and new knowledge around health impacts and treatment. In the long view, the registry gives individuals an opportunity to take part in a large-scale effort that may ultimately inform positive change and promote protections from ever-expanding shale development.

 The data participants provide via the registry can also help researchers identify emergent patterns and generate testable hypotheses for new studies. Through this process, a registry can enable research that is responsive to community needs.

Policymakers stand to benefit, as well. The patterns that the registry highlights, and the additional research it makes possible, can help elected leaders to understand the scope of the health problem. In time, this knowledge can inform policies and regulations that benefit those living in shale country.

A chance to be a part of something larger

EHP encourages those who live near shale gas and oil development, with or without health symptoms, to register now and fill out the registry questionnaire. The three-step process takes only about 20 minutes.

  1. Share: Answer as many questions as you would like, and control how and with whom that information is shared
  2. Connect: Find out how you compare to others, and let support and helpful resources come to you
  3. Discover: If you wish, let researchers access your information to help them understand the health impacts of shale oil and gas development and transport

Researchers and healthcare providers who want to take part in the possibilities created by the registry, such as studying data patterns from participants who have elected to share certain information, can contact Jill Kriesky (jkriesky@environmentalhealthproject.org) or Beth Weinberger (bweinberger@environmentalhealthproject.org) for more information.

Button to join the Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry

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Click here to join the Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry!

Sincere Appreciation

Many thanks to those who contributed to this article about the Shale Gas & Oil Health Registry through interviews and by sharing the images used in this story.

The International League of Conservation Photographers and the Environmental Integrity Project for sharing photographs of families coping with fracking where they live, “The Human Cost of Energy Production.”

Dana Dolney, co-founder of Friends of the Harmed. Friends of the Harmed, publishers of Shalefield Stories, dedicate 100% of donations they receive to providing much-needed direct aid to families negatively affected by fracking.

Jenny Lisak, creator of List of the Harmed. List of the Harmed is an ever-growing list of the individuals and families that have been harmed by fracking (or fracked gas and oil production) in the U.S.

Barbara Arrindell, director of Damascus Citizens’ Group. Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS) is a collaborative endeavor to preserve and protect clean air, land and water as a civil and basic human right in the face of the threat posed by the shale gas extraction industry.

Jill Kriesky, Associate Director and Beth Weinberger, Research & Communications Specialist, both of The Southwest PA Environmental Health Project. The Environmental Health Project (EHP) is a nonprofit public health organization that assists and supports residents of Southwestern Pennsylvania and beyond who believe their health has been, or could be, impacted by unconventional oil and gas development (UOGD, or “fracking”).


By Leann Leiter, Environmental Health Fellow, FracTracker Alliance & EHP

Radium Watersheds a Risk

By Greg Pace – Columbus Community Bill of Rights, and Julie Weatherington-Rice – Environmental Consultant

columbus_classiimap

Figure 1. Map of Columbus, OH Watersheds and Class II Injection Wells

Most Ohio residents are unaware of the frack fluid deep underground injection occurring north of Columbus, underneath the region’s source water protection watersheds (Figure 1).

Materials injected are liquids that have as much as ten times the salt concentration of sea-water. Mixed with this “brine” solution is a combination from hundreds of chemicals that are used in different stages of horizontal hydraulic fracturing, the process used to extract natural gas, petroleum, and hydrocarbon liquids used to make industrial materials such as plastics. BTEX compounds including benzene are always present in the wastewater, along with formaldehyde, bromides, ethylene glycol (antifreeze), and arsenic, with many other carcinogenic and otherwise highly-toxic substances.

Radioactivity of Shale Gas Wastewater

One of the biggest questions in this mix of toxic disposal is how much radioactive content exists. Radium-226 is most worrisome, as it has a very long half-life (1,600 years). It is water-soluble and, once it enters the human body, seeks to find a home in our bones where it will emit its cell-formation-destabilizing effects for the remainder of our lifetime. This radionuclide is known to cause leukemia, bone cancers, blood disorders, and other diseases.

The state of Ohio does not monitor the content of materials that are injected into our Class II injection wells deep in the ground. This oil and gas waste can come from anywhere, including Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale, which is the most highly-radioactive geology of all the shale plays in the country. Radium-226 readings as high as 15,000 pico-curies per liter have been read in Marcellus shale brines. The EPA drinking water limit for radium-226 is 5 pico-curies per liter, which puts the Marcellus reading at 3,000 times higher than the drinking water limit.

Exposure through drinking water is a pathway to human disease from radium-226. Once oil and gas waste is disposed of underground in a sandstone or limestone layer, the fluids are subject to down-gradient movement, wicking through capillary action, and seepage over time. This means that the highly radioactive wastewater could eventually end up in our underground drinking water sources, creating radium watersheds. This practice is putting our watersheds at risk from radioactive contamination for hundreds of years, at least.

Can injected fluids migrate?

Depending on whether you confer with a geologist who works with the oil and gas industry, or from an independent geologist, you will get a different opinion on the likelihood of such a pollution event occurring. Industry geologists mostly claim that deep injection leaves very low risk of water contamination because it will not migrate from the planned area of injection. On the other hand, independent geologists will tell you that it is not a matter of if the liquids will migrate, but how and when. The ability to confirm the geology of the underground area layer of injection “storage” is not exact, therefore accuracy in determining the probability for migration over time is poor.

Figure 2. Ohio Utica Brine Production and Class II Injection Well Disposal


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We do know, however, that all underground systems in Ohio leak – Research by The Ohio State University and the US Geological Survey show that the age of the water in brine formations is far younger than the age of the rock deposits they are found in. See where wastewater is being created and disposed of in Ohio using the dynamic map above (Figure 2).

Spill Risks to Columbus, OH Water

According to area geologist, Dr. Julie Weatherington-Rice, the source for Columbus’s water to the north is mostly from surface water. This water comes from the Delaware and Morrow county watersheds that feed into sources such as the Hoover and Alum Creek reservoirs. The major threat from injection wells to our watershed is from spills, either from trucks or from storage at the injection well sites themselves.

Dead fish floating in Vienna area pond contaminated by injection well system spill Source: MetropolitanEnegineering Consulting & Forensics-Expert Engineers

Figure 3. Dead fish floating in Vienna area pond contaminated by injection well system spill. Source: MetropolitanEnegineering Consulting & Forensics-Expert Engineers

In April 2015, as much as 8,000 gallons of liquid leaked from a malfunctioning pipe in the storage apparatus of an oil/gas waste storage and injection well site in Vienna, OH. This caused a wildlife kill in two ponds (Figure 3), and the spill was not contained until 2/3 mile downstream in a tributary. The firm who owned the facility was found negligent in that they did not install a required containment liner for spills. The incident was discovered by neighboring residents, but apparently employees knew of the leak weeks before. Of note in this incident was that Ohio Department of Natural Resources, the regulatory agency that oversees all oil/gas production activity in Ohio including injection, stated that there was “minimal impact to wildlife.”

Brine tanker rollover near Barnesville, OH spilled 5,000 gal. of produced brine. Source: Barnesville, OH Fire Department

Figure 4. Brine tanker rollover near Barnesville, OH spilled 5,000 gal. of produced brine. Source: Barnesville, OH Fire Department

In March, 2016, a tanker truck carrying produced waste from a hydraulically fractured well pad overturned outside of the Village of Barnesville, Ohio (Figure 4). The truck spilled 5,000 gallons of liquid waste into a field that led into a tributary, leading the fluids to enter one of the city’s three drinking water supply reservoirs. The water source was shut down for more than two months while regulators determined if water levels were safe for consumption. There was a noted spike in radium-226 levels during water testing immediately after the spill.

Of greatest concern is that, although many millions of gallons of frack waste have been injected into the wells north of Columbus over the past few years, we expect that this activity will increase. For the first time, the United States began exporting its own natural gas in 2016, to regions such as Europe and South America. As the industry consolidates from the depression of oil prices over the past two years and begins to ramp up again, we expect the extraction activity in the Marcellus and especially Utica to increase to levels beyond what we have seen since 2011. The levels of injection will inevitably follow, so that injection wells in Ohio will receive much more than in the past. The probability of spills, underground migration, and human-induced earthquakes may increase steeply, as well.

An Aging Disposal Infrastructure

On our Columbus Community Bill of Rights website, we show pictures of some of the Class II injection wells in Morrow County, most of them converted from legacy production wells. These old wells are located in played out oil/gas fields that may still be producing or have abandoned but not plugged (closed) wells, allowing other routes for injected liquids to migrate into shallow ground water and to the surface. The dilapidated condition of these converted Class II wells makes it hard to believe that they are used to inject millions of gallons of wastewater under high pressure. While many of the wells in the state are as deep as 9,000 feet, all of the injection wells we have seen in Morrow County are only 3,000-4,000 feet deep. This situation puts surface water at greater risk over time, as it is probable that, over the generations, some of the fluids will migrate and wick into the higher subterranean strata.

Figure 5. Ohio Class II Injection Wells by Type


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One well (Power Fishburn unit, photo below) showed signs of poor spill control when we took our October 2015 injection well tour. While we were there, a brine tanker arrived and began pumping their load into the well. The driver took pictures of our license plates while we were there watching him. A year later, there is a whole new structure at the well, including a new storage tower, and an extensively beefed-up spill control berm. Maybe we need to visit all of the facilities when they come by to use them!

Another well (Mosher unit, photo below) which hadn’t been used since 2014 according to available records, showed signs of a spill around the well. The spill control berms look as if they probably had flooded at some point. This well sits on the edge of a large crop field.


Figures 6a and 6b. Photos of Class II injection wells. Click on the images to expand them.

North of Columbus, the city of Delaware’s underground source water is at risk of becoming contaminated from underground migration of disposed wastewater over time, through wicking and seepage effects (as explained earlier in this article). They are also vulnerable to their reservoir being contaminated from surface spill migration through their watershed.

Google maps rendition of Ohio Soil Recycling facility in south Columbus, Ohio, that accepts shale drill cuttings for remediation to cap the landfill. Source: Google Maps/author

Figure 7. Google maps rendition of Ohio Soil Recycling facility in south Columbus, Ohio, that accepts shale drill cuttings for remediation to cap the landfill. Source: Google Maps/author

South of Columbus is another threat – drill cuttings from the drilling process have been authorized for disposal at a “remediation” landfill adjacent to the Alum Creek (Figure 7). The bioremediation treatment used is not indicated to solve the problem of removing radionuclides from the materials. This landfill had been remediated under the Ohio EPA twice when it was a toxic drum dump, after toxins were found to have been leaching into the watershed creek. Columbus’s Alum Creek well, as well as Circleville, are at risk of contamination in their drinking water if radionuclides from the cuttings leach into Alum Creek. Again, this is a long-term legacy of risk to their water.

Radiation Regulatory and Monitoring Gaps

Since The Ohio legislature deemed the radioactive content of shale cuttings to be similar to background levels in the 2013 state budget bill, cuttings can be spread around to all licensed landfills in Ohio with absolutely no accountability for the radium and other heavy metal levels in them. Unfortunately, the measuring protocol used in the pilot study for the Columbus facility to demonstrate to Ohio EPA that radium-226 was below EPA drinking water limits has been shown in a University of Iowa study to be unreliable.  The inadequate protocol was shown to indicate as little as 1% of the radium levels in shale waste samples tested.

As such, there have been hundreds of incidents where truckloads of cuttings have been turned away at landfills with crude radiation monitors. In 2013 alone, 2 loads were turned away in Ohio landfills, and over 220 were turned away from Pennsylvania landfills.

Ohio has a long way to go before it can be considered a clean energy state. The coal industry polluted significant water sources in the past. The fracking industry seems to be following suit, where contaminations will surprise us long into the future and in broader areas.


Map Data for Download

Porterville incident map

Mysterious leak near Porterville Compressor Station, NY

Last month, FracTracker Alliance featured a blog entry and map exploring the controversy around National Fuel’s proposed Northern Access Pipeline (NAPL) project, shown in the map below. The proposed project, which has already received approval from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), is still awaiting another decision by April 7, 2017 — Section 401 Water Quality Certification. By that date, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) must give either final approval, or else deny the project.

Northern Access Pipeline Map

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The NAPL project includes the construction of 97-mile-long pipeline to bring fracked Marcellus gas through New York State, and into Canada. The project also involves construction of a variety of related major infrastructure projects, including a gas dehydration facility, and a ten-fold expansion of the capacity of the Porterville Compressor Station located at the northern terminus of the proposed pipeline, in Erie County, NY.

On three consecutive days in early February, 2017, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYS DEC) held hearings in Western New York to gather input about the NAPL project. On February 7th, the day of the first meeting at Saint Bonaventure University in Allegany County, NY, an alarming — and yet to be fully reported — incident widely considered to be a gas leak, occurred at, or near, the Porterville Compressor Station (also known locally as the “Elma Compressor Station”). The incident is thought to be connected to the planned upgrades to the facility, but was not even mentioned as a concern during the public meetings relating to the Northern Access Pipeline in the subsequent hours and days.

What follows is a story of poor communication between the utility company, first responders, and local residents, resulting in confusion and even panic, and has yet to be conclusively explained to the general public.

Incident Description

 Area of incident

Area of incident in NY State

We know that a little past 10 AM on February 7th, people in the villages of Elma and East Aurora, within about a mile of the Porterville Compressor Station, reported strong odors of gas. They filed complaints with the local gas utility (National Fuel), and the local 911 center, which referred the calls to the local Elma Fire Department. The fire department went to the Porterville Compressor station to investigate, remembering a similar incident from a few years earlier. At the compressor station, representatives from National Fuel, the operator of the compressor station, assured the fire company that they were conducting a routine flushing of an odorant line, and the situation was under control, so the fire company departed.

Residents in the area became more alarmed when they noticed that the odor was stronger outside their buildings than inside them. National Fuel then ordered many residents to evacuate their homes. The East Aurora police facilitated the evacuation and instructed residents to gather in the East Aurora Library not far from those homes. Nearby businesses, such as Fisher Price, headquartered in East Aurora, chose to send their employees home for the day, due to the offensive odor and perceived risks.

Around 11:30 in the morning, up to 200 clients at Suburban Adult Services, Inc. (SASi), were evacuated to the Jamison Road Fire Station, where they remained until around 3 PM that afternoon. Over 200 reports were received, some from as far away as Orchard Park, eight miles down-wind of the compressor station.

After East Aurora elementary and middle schools placed complaints, National Fuel told them to evacuate students and staff from their buildings. Realizing that the smell was stronger outside than inside the building, school leaders revised their plans, and started to get buses ready to transport student to the high school, where there had not been reports of the odor. Before the buses could load, however, the police department notified the school that the gas leak had been repaired, and that there was no need to evacuate. School officials then activated the school’s air circulation system to rid the building of the fumes.

Perplexingly, according to one report, National Fuel’s Communications Manager Karen Merkel said “that the company did not reach out into the community to tell people what was going on because the company cannot discourage anyone from making an emergency gas call.”

Merkel noted further, “You never know if the smell being reported is related to work we are doing or another gas leak,” she said. “This wouldn’t be determined until we investigate it.”

That smell…

Some background on gas leaks & odorant additives

Ethyl mercaptan molecule

Ethyl mercaptan molecule

An odorant, such as ethyl mercaptan, is often added to natural gas in order to serve as an “early warning system” in the event of a leak from the system. Odorants like mercaptan are especially effective because the humans can smell very low concentrations of it in the air. According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, “The level of distinct odor awareness (LOA) for ethyl mercaptan odorant is 1.4 x10-4 ppm,” or 0.00014 parts per million. That translates to 0.000000014 percent by volume.

Not all natural gas is odorized, however. According to Chevron Phillips, “mercaptans are required (by state and federal regulations) to be added to the gas stream near points of consumption as well as in pipelines that are near areas with certain population density requirements, per Department of Transportation regulations… Not all gas is odorized, though; large industrial users served by transmission lines away from everyday consumers might not be required to use odorized gas.” Also, because odorants tend to degrade or oxidize when gas is travelling a long distance through transmission lines, they are not always added to larger pipeline systems.

The explosion and flammability concentration limit for natural gas refers to the percentage range at which a gas will explode. At very low concentrations, the gas will not ignite. If the concentration is too high, not enough oxygen is present, and the gas is also stable. This is why gas in non-leaky pipelines does not explode, but when it mixes with air, and a spark is present, the result can be disastrous. Methane, the primary component of natural gas, has a lower explosive level (LEL) of 4.4% and an upper explosive limit (UEL) (above which it will not ignite) of 16.4%. Nonetheless, levels above 1% are still worrisome, and may still be good cause for evacuation.

Therefore, the margin of safety between when natural gas is detectable with an odorant present, and when it may explode, is very broad. This may help to explain why the smell of gas was detected over such a broad distance, but no explosion (very fortunately) took place.

Local memories of gas explosion in East Aurora

Many East Aurora residents have had first-hand experience with the dangers posed by gas lines in their community. Less than 25 years ago, in  September 1994, a high-pressure pipeline owned by National Fuel ruptured in an uninhabited area between East Aurora and South Wales along Olean Rd. The blast left a 10-foot-deep, 20-foot-wide crater, and tree limbs and vegetation were burned as far as 50 feet away.

Porterville first-hand accounts and inquiries

FracTracker spoke extensively with one resident of East Aurora, Jennifer Marmion, about her experiences, and efforts to understand what had actually happened the day of this incident.

When personnel from the Jamison Fire Company — who are assumed to be first responders to emergencies of this sort — arrived at the Porterville Compressor Station, they were told by National Fuel that there was no hazard and that their services were not needed. Consequently, these crews left the site. The East Aurora Police Department was given a different explanation by National Fuel; there was a valve malfunction somewhere along Two Rod Road in Marilla. Still later, National Fuel indicated that the pipeline changeover occurred closer to the compressor station itself. The closest distance between anywhere on Two Rod Road and the compressor station, itself, is a mile and a half. And Ms. Marmion was given a still different story by a National Fuel engineer: that the odor, indeed, resulted during the replacement of a 100-foot-long section of aging pipeline at the Porterville (“Elma”) Compressor Station.

Key locations in incident report

Key locations in incident report

Some reports indicated an alternate explanation: that the odor originated at the East Aurora Town Hall (J. Marmion, pers. comm., via Channel 7 News), or a leaky valve along a pipeline near Marilla (J. Marmion, pers. comm, via East Aurora Police Department dispatcher). A member of the East Aurora Fire Department surmised that the leak might have been closer to Olean Road, south of the village, where there was a history of other leaks. The day after the incident, National Fuel indicated that the odor originated from the compressor station, and was the result of a routine, scheduled “blowdown” by National Fuel — wherein gas lines at the compressor station are cleared as part of routine maintenance. However, when pressed for more details, they did not provide them.

In need of follow up

More than six weeks have passed since the incident, and there is still no definitive explanation available. Clearly, there was considerable confusion about what the correct, and safe, procedure needed to be, as well as how this information needed to flow to the public. Ultimately, a representative from National Fuel’s Government Affairs office agreed that he would alert the local towns and fire departments when maintenance activities would be occurring. It is surprising that this was not already standard practice.

Although Ms. Marmion is continuing to be a determined citizen activist, she has been met with a frustrating array of ambiguous and often conflicting descriptions, phone calls that go un-answered, voice mailboxes at offices that are either full or not set up to receive messages. Furthermore, although National Fuel has told Marmion that there is an Action Plan to be followed in the event of an emergency, they have been unable to provide her with a written or electronic version of this document, because “the action plan is just known.”

National Fuel points to the weather

National Fuel maintains that the only factor that was out of the ordinary was that during the event, a combination of unusual weather factors caused the released gas to travel in an unusual manner and also not dissipate as quickly as expected. National Fuel also indicated that the strong odor (created by the additive mercaptan) was a benefit to the local community, added to natural gas so that residents would be alerted to problems. It’s important to note that the largest gas transmissions pipelines, like the nearby 26” diameter Tennessee Gas Pipeline to the east of Elma and East Aurora, as well other pipelines that will run to the greatly expanded Porterville Compressor Station as part of the Northern Access Pipeline project, will be without the odorant.

Here’s what FracTracker could verify, based on National Weather Service, and Weather Underground historical data. In the morning and afternoon of February 7th, the wind was uncharacteristically blowing from the east/northeast — atypical for western New York, when winds normally come from the west. Wind speeds were recorded between 10-15 mph. Humidity was also uncharacteristically high for February — topping out at 93% that day. Warm air aloft, combined with freezing rain, created a temperature inversion. The moist air then trapped the odor, which lingered across the region.

weather_feb72017

feb72017_wind-data

Screen captures of weather statistics on February 7, 2017 (Source: wunderground.com). Note dominant wind direction from ENE, as well as high humidity, during morning and early afternoon, when incident took place.

Who monitors air quality in Western New York?

Calls by FracTracker for clarification from the New York State DEC’s Division of Air Resources have gone unanswered. The only station at which the DEC monitors methane is located more than 275 miles away to the southeast, in the Bronx. In Erie County, where the incident took place, there are only four permanent ambient air pollution monitoring stations. These include stations in:

  • Amherst: Continuous monitoring of ozone, NO2. Manual monitoring of PM5, acid deposition.
  • Buffalo: Continuous monitoring of SO2, NOx, NO, NO2, NOy, CO, CPM5. Manual monitoring of PM2.5, PM10, toxics
  • Brookside Terrace/Tonawanda: Continuous monitoring of SO2, CPM5. Manual monitoring of toxics and carbonyls
  • Grand Island (special purpose only): Continuous monitoring of CPM5. Manual monitoring of toxics and carbonyls

PM” refers to particulate matter diameter. PM5, for example, denotes particulate matter 5 microns in diameter, and smaller.

The East Aurora and Elma fire departments lack the appropriate air quality detection instruments to make their own judgements on the explosive nature of these gas plumes. Instead, small towns rely on the expertise of National Fuel to arrive on the scene after a call has been made, so that National Fuel can take measurements and then respond to the community. Some residents waited over three hours for an assessment, but by this time the plume had drifted away two hours ago.

National Fuel, however, has not disclosed any of the air quality data measurements they made on February 7th when they responded to this complicated incident. Ms. Marmion and others still want to know what levels of methane were measured in the communities involved in this incident, or the specific quantity of gas that entered the air that day.

What’s next?

While National Fuel did not notify the residents or the school district administration in advance of the scheduled “blowdown,” their Government Affairs Representative indicated that in the future, town governments, community leaders, and the local fire companies would be alerted to the upcoming releases and maintenance work. Nonetheless, weeks after the odor incident, National Fuel has neither contacted the local community leaders, nor local law enforcement, to provide complete and detailed answers as to what actually happened on February 7th.


By Karen Edelstein, Eastern Program Coordinator, FracTracker Alliance. Special thanks to East Aurora resident Jennifer Marmion, for her insights and comments. 

Screenshot from Vulnerable Populations Map

Sensitive Receptors near Fracked Oil & Gas Wells

EnvironmentAmerica_reportcover

Cover of Dangerous and Close report. Click to view report

FracTracker Alliance has been working with the Frontier Group and Environment America on a nationwide assessment of “fracked” oil and gas wells. The report is titled Dangerous and Close, Fracking Puts the Nation’s Most Vulnerable People at Risk. The assessment analyzed the locations of fracked wells and identified where the fracking has occurred near locations where sensitive populations are commonly located. These sensitive sites include schools and daycare facilities because they house children, hospitals because the sick are not able to fight off pollution as effectively, and nursing homes where the elderly need and deserve clean environments so that they can be healthy, as well. The analysis used data on fracked wells from regulatory agencies and FracFocus in nine states. Maps of these nine states, as well as a full national map are shown below.

No one deserves to suffer the environmental degradation that can accompany oil and gas development – particularly “fracking” – in their neighborhoods. Fracked oil and gas wells are shown to have contaminated drinking water, degrade air quality, and sicken both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems. Additionally, everybody responds differently to environmental pollutants, and some people are much more sensitive than others. In fact, certain sects of the population are known to be more sensitive in general, and exposure to pollution is much more dangerous for them. These communities and populations need to be protected from the burdens of industries, such as fracking for oil and gas, that have a negative effect on their environment. Commonly identified sensitive groups or “receptors” include children, the immuno-compromised and ill, and the elderly.  These groups are the focus of this new research.

 

National Map

National interactive map of sensitive receptors near fracked wells


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State-By-State Maps in Dangerous and Close Report

Click to view interactive maps associated with each state

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