Patrick T. Fallon / Bloomberg / Getty Images

Communities find little success in resisting fracking infrastructure

Locals say their health concerns over wells and waste pits are ignored by oil and gas companies and state authorities

Amy Nassif thought petitioning her Pennsylvania school board to vote against drilling near her two children’s school would be enough — but even without the board’s approval, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection approved the permits.

“I was completely shocked at the total disregard for the safety of the community,” she said. “They have active-shooter drills at the school, they have drug free zones, but we can’t protect our kids from this.”

In March the Pennsylvania-based company Rex Energy proposed drilling for natural gas under the Mars Area School District’s campus, where about 3,200 elementary, middle and high school students from four surrounding municipalities attend classes each weekday.

“We knew the benefit of the drilling would be money for the school district, and that’s a great thing, but at what cost?” Nassif said. “The chemicals, the VOCs [volatile organic compounds], the diesel exhaust … Distance is really the only thing you can provide as a buffer.”

She petitioned her school board to vote against the drilling, but before the school board voted on the proposal, Rex went ahead and began the permitting process to get six wells drilled less than a mile from the school. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection issued a permit for Rex Energy’s facilities last month. The natural gas formation under the schools won’t be accessed, but the gas from surrounding properties will.

“DEP conducted an extremely thorough review of the permit, considering all public comments, and is confident that the proposed well pad does not pose any threat to the health or safety of local residents,” Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Morgan Wagner said in an email. “There is no legal basis for dismissing the permit application.”

Rex Energy declined to comment for this report.

Stories like Nassif’s are increasingly common as hydraulic fracturing infrastructure expands across the U.S. into places once largely untouched by the oil and gas industry, where many proposed wells, waste sites and compressor stations are running into community opposition.

That opposition is strongest where oil and gas infrastructure abuts places children congregate — schools, family-friendly neighborhoods and playgrounds. From Pennsylvania to Texas, Colorado to Ohio, parents and other concerned citizens are banding together to voice concern about the potential health impacts of drilling and its associated processes.

Scientific data about the potential health effects of fracking is limited, but an growing body of studies points to decreased air quality and an increased presence of carcinogens near gas wells and infrastructure.

But there’s often little local citizens and their municipalities can do to ameliorate their concerns about this ever-growing web of wells, pits, pipelines and compressor stations as they grapple with outdated zoning laws and underfunded and understaffed environmental protection departments.

“Maybe what we need is more coordinated oversight of these types of operations,” said Patty Robertson, the chief prosecutor for statewide environmental crimes in Texas, where many communities are pushing back against drilling. “You’ve got one agency saying “We don’t regulate that” and one saying “Well, we do what we can,” and nobody is taking the bull by the horns and running with it. So we fall back on the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and rely on them, but they’re hampered also.”

That lack of coordination was on display this year in Nordheim, Texas, a town of about 300 people 75 miles southeast of San Antonio.

There a local waste company, Pyote Water Systems, is planning to build three solid-waste disposal pits that will store fracking waste less than a mile from Nordheim's school. The waste pits will take up as much space as nine city blocks — nearly the size of Nordheim itself — and can hold 720,000 cubic yards of waste, according to the investigative nonprofit the Center for Public Integrity, which originally reported on the controversy last month.

Pytoe Water Systems did not return calls for comment for this story.

In 1988 oil and gas companies successfully lobbied to protect most kinds of oil and gas waste from the federal government's hazardous waste regulations. That has enabled companies to dispose of fracking waste — mostly dirt and rock mixed with leftover chemicals and traces of gas — in open-air pits essentially wherever the companies can find enough land to build them. In 27 states (including Pennsylvania, Texas and Colorado) air monitoring isn’t required at the sites.

In an email EPA spokeswomen Rachel Deitz said the agency is reviewing a petition from the National Resources Defense Council to revoke the oil and gas waste exemption.

“There are no statewide rules regarding how far a well must be set back from a building or structure,” said Gaye McElwain, a spokeswoman for the Texas Railroad Commission, which regulates most fracking infrastructure. “Cities may have their own local ordinances regarding well setback distances. However, if the commission receives a report of a leak at an oil or gas well, a commission inspector will be sent to check to see if there has been a violation of commission rules.”

It isn’t clear how much waste the fracking boom is producing. There are over 1 million active oil and gas well in the U.S., and each produces several tons of waste while in operation. According to the Center for Public Integrity, about 18 billion barrels of waste were produced in 1995, before hydraulic fracturing began. The American Petroleum Institute, an industry trade group, hasn’t updated its numbers since then, and didn't respond to a request for current figures.

“We’re getting a lot of complaints about waste and contaminated water,” Robertson said. “But we’re hampered by that [EPA] exemption … And we only have a certain amount of investigators. We’re playing catch-up.”

Industry supporters say it would be prohibitively expensive to set more stringent environmental and zoning requirements for pits and other fracking infrastructure.

Processing and disposing of a barrel of hazardous waste can cost 10 times as much as nonhazardous waste, according to Bill Keffer, an environmental law professor at Texas Tech University and a former attorney for the oil and gas industry. “Multiply that by tens or hundreds of thousands or millions of barrels that have to be disposed of across the country, and you could see how the economics of that would change.”

Keffer said changing the regulations would likely stop the hydraulic fracturing industry in its tracks.

“Is that a good or a bad thing? That depends on what you’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “If you hate fossil fuels, then that’s probably on your list of things to do.”

With regulations unlikely to change anytime soon, scientists are trying to determine the possible health effects of living near hydraulic fracturing and its waste.

To hydraulically fracture a well, oil and gas operators combine sand with thousands of gallons of water and a small amount of chemicals that are used to make the water thicker and more slippery. That mixture is pumped at high pressure into wells to break up gas-rich shale. The gas and oil then flow up to the surface, along with anywhere from 30 to 70 percent of the water and sand mixture, known as flowback.

One study from the University of Pittsburgh in 2013 found fracking waste to contain barium, strontium, bromides and benzene — which can cause cancer. A study from the University of Missouri in 2013 found that groundwater near hydraulic fracturing sites in Colorado had elevated levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, which can cause birth defects. Another Colorado study, released this year from the Colorado School of Public Health, found an association between the density of fracking wells and congenital heart defects in infants.

In communities close to fracking sites in Pennsylvania, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection found in 2013 that levels of carbon dioxide as well as nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants in the air were several times higher than the state’s average. Higher levels of those compounds can cause respiratory issues. And in Utah a 2014 study from the University of Colorado at Boulder found high levels of benzene, toluene and other volatile organic compounds in the air in communities with active fracking.

Denton, Texas, a city of about 100,000 just north of Dallas, is surrounded by oil and gas operations. The city has the worst air quality in all of Texas, and the area’s childhood asthma rates are six to nine times higher than the state average, according to the nonprofit organization the Center for Children’s Health.

One playground in Denton is just 520 feet from a drilling site. There benzene, ethyl acetate, n-hexane and toluene — all of which can cause various health effects, from vision problems to muscle weakness — were found coating playground equipment in a recent lab test by the nonprofit organization ShaleTest.

Denton residents found there was little they could do at the state level to fix the problem. Realizing state zoning and environmental protection laws would be of little help, residents formed the Denton Drilling Awareness Group and gathered enough signatures to get a city fracking ban placed on this November’s ballot.

Rhonda Love, one of the members of the group, said that she’s not against oil and gas drilling but that they had no other option but to push for the ban.

Even if the ban passes, it probably won’t apply to wells already in Denton, and Love says it will likely be challenged. But after years of worry, even the prospect of the ban’s passing has given residents some hope.

“We would travel to Austin to pressure them, but they said there’s nothing they can do,” Love said. “So instead of driving up and down I-35 forever, we focused here.”

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